Léim ar aghaidh chuig an bpríomhábhar

Dáil Éireann díospóireacht -
Thursday, 19 Jun 2014

Vol. 844 No. 3

Topical Issue Debate

Direct Provision System

The issue of direct provision centres has been troubling many people for quite a while. During the recent controversy about mother and baby homes, I came to the conclusion that there has always been a view in Ireland that some children are somehow lesser children. This cannot be dismissed as something that happened in the past. It is clear from the way Irish society views Roma children, Traveller children or poor children in general that it sees some children as lesser children than others. It is very difficult not to agree with this conclusion when one examines the way the State deals with children who are in direct provision centres. As the Minister knows, these centres were designed as a six-month solution for asylum seekers on their arrival in Ireland. We have 35 of these centres in the Republic. Given that three of them were purpose built, it is clear that most of the time we are talking about hostels or other such unsuitable accommodation.

The weekly allowance received by asylum seekers in direct provision centres is €19.10. The payment in the case of children is €9.60. This amount has not changed for 14 years. Some 59% of all residents have been in direct provision for more than three years. I remind the House that the initial intention was that this would be a six-month solution. Some 31% of residents have been in direct provision for more than five years and 9% for more than seven years. The number of people we are talking about - approximately 4,300, some 1,700 of whom are children - is higher than the State's prison population. The inspection regime in these centres is managed by the Reception and Integration Agency, which I understand outsources a substantial number of health and safety inspections to the private sector. I do not think this is good enough. Responsibility for overseeing the health and mental well-being of 1,700 children should be given to an agency like the Health Information and Quality Authority.

It is inevitable that 50 years from now, people will look damningly at this Republic and this Government for the way we have treated and accommodated these children. Do we have a policy on how to move from the current direct provision scandal? Will we commit to putting in place a system that will allow families to move on, for example, by guaranteeing them a definite decision on their status within six months? Why are we overseeing a system that can cause a child to spend seven or nine years in a direct provision centre? Do we view the children who live in these centres, many of whom are Irish born, as members of society and citizens of the Republic? Are they seen as lesser children with lesser rights under this Republic, just as the children in the mother and baby homes were seen back in the day?

Obviously, the Minister has an intimate understanding of this situation due to her previous role as Minister for Children and Youth Affairs. Now that she has been appointed as Minister for Justice and Equality, she is ideally placed to rid this Republic of this scandal. There will come a time when we will know about the long-term damage and mental trauma caused by requiring children to live their lives in this limbo. Articles will be written about this issue and the Dáil record will be investigated. When these arrangements come back to haunt us in years to come, people will ask what this Government did about them. Regardless of what previous Governments did and irrespective of who established these centres in the first place, deep and challenging questions will be asked about what we did at this time to resolve this situation. I will conclude by repeating my fundamental questions. Are we going to commit to reverting to the six-month understanding? Will we transfer the inspection regime to a more suitable agency, such as HIQA?

I thank Deputy Ó Ríordáin for raising this Topical Issue matter in the Dáil this afternoon. As he has said, there are 4,353 residents in 34 direct provision accommodation centres throughout the State under contract to the Reception and Integration Agency of the Department of Justice and Equality. I visited Mosney last Monday week and met the managers and residents there. I had visited other centres in Dublin previously. I assure the Deputy in the first instance of my interest in the issue he has raised today.

An interviewee on RTE's "Morning Ireland" yesterday said that these centres are not inspected and that people who reach the age of 18 are expelled from them with nothing other than a sleeping bag. I assure the House that neither statement is true. It is surprising that despite numerous responses by previous Ministers over the years to Oireachtas queries on the matter, there remains a belief that asylum accommodation centres are not subject to proper inspection. I could see when I visited Mosney that these centres are inspected. I knew it from visiting other centres as well. All centres are subject to a minimum of three unannounced inspections a year - one by an independent company, QTS, under contract to the Reception and Integration Agency, and two by officials of the agency. Moreover, since 1 October last year, details of all completed inspections are published on the agency's website, www.ria.gov.ie. This adds to the transparency of the system.

Anybody - researchers, Oireachtas Members, residents of centres, NGOs and so on - can examine these reports in detail.

Asylum accommodation centres do not exist in isolation. In fact, they are subject not only to inspections by the Reception and Integration Agency, but other State inspections. They are, for example, subject to inspection by fire officers and, in respect of food issues, to unannounced inspections by environmental health officers. RIA centres are occupied on a 24-7 basis and maintenance issues are an ongoing fact of life. Where problems are found as a result of these inspections, they are fixed. This is precisely the purpose of an inspection regime. Of course, some problems need time to fix. In regard to overcrowding, for instance, all RIA centres are subject to the requirements of the Housing Acts 1996 to 2002. Where a family increases in size such that these requirements are no longer met, alternative suitable accommodation is offered by the RIA. Some families decline such an offer, however, because they are settled, in so far as they can be, in the centres.

The RIA takes the issue of vulnerable persons in the system very seriously. All staff in direct provision centres are Garda vetted and there are robust policies in place relating to child protection, sexual harassment and violence. There is a specific unit within the RIA, the child and family services unit, which is headed up by an official seconded from the Child and Family Agency. I have spoken to this official about the importance of being very alert to the issues the Deputy raised. The individual in question has very good clinical expertise in the area of child welfare and protection. Details of the work of this unit can be found on the RIA website. As Minister for Children and Youth Affairs, I met with officials from the Department of Justice and Equality to discuss the child protection policies in place in these centres in order to ensure they were, for example, subject to Children First procedures. I was assured that this is the case. I also made recommendations that the visibility of children in direct provision should be more evident in all reports and statistics that are gathered. In addition, I wanted to make sure that children in direct provision have access to the early childhood care and education, ECCE, scheme, which they do.

I appreciate the point the Deputy is making regarding the care and welfare of children in direct provision as it is currently operated. The operation of the system is kept under review. I have acknowledged that the length of time residents have spent and are spending in direct provision is an issue that needs to be addressed. I have absolutely no desire for applicants to remain in the protection system any longer than the minimum period it takes to process their cases. Many of the issues the Deputy raised today are on our agenda. The direct provision system is not ideal, but it does facilitate the State in providing a roof over the heads of those seeking asylum, that is, those persons seeking to be allowed to remain in the State on humanitarian grounds. The system is inextricably linked to the surrounding international protection process.

A key priority for the Government in this area must be to bring forward the legislative reform aimed at establishing a single application procedure for the investigation of all grounds for protection and any other grounds presented by applicants seeking to remain in the State. The current system is too complex, with too many different elements to it and various opportunities for judicial review which invariably mean that rather than a decision being taken quickly, applicants are spending many years in the system. I met some applicants in Mosney who have been there for nine years. That is not acceptable. I would like to simplify and streamline the existing arrangements by removing the multi-layered and sequential processes and providing applicants with a final decision in a more straightforward and timely fashion. With that in mind, I am reviewing, in consultation with my officials, the work done to date on the Immigration, Residence and Protection Bill, following which I will decide on how best to progress the implementation of the Government's priorities. In particular, I wish to examine whether amendments to certain sections of that Bill would allow us to expedite the establishment of a single application procedure. Such a reform would transform what has been happening for more than a decade in respect of applicants who arrive in this country.

I thank the Minister for her reply, which shows she is well aware of the realities of the direct provision system and the challenges they present. The fact that she has visited a centre gives me great hope that she will be in a good position to address the problems in the system. Nevertheless, I hold fast to the view that the subcontracting out of the inspection regime to the private sector does not offer sufficient protections and that it should be brought under the auspices of the Health Information and Quality Authority. It is clear that the Minister recognises what needs to be done to tackle this issue, including the necessary legislative changes. Moreover, she seems keenly aware of the damage caused when children spend years in these types of settings. There is no requirement to for that point to be reinforced.

Will the Minister indicate the type of timeline she envisages for the legislative measures to which she referred? Can she give a commitment that we will revisit this issue in a structured and timetabled fashion rather than discussing it on the basis of media reports or by way of a Topical Issue debate or parliamentary question? Will she give a further undertaking to the House that in the time left to this Government, be it two years or less, reform of the direct provision system will be a priority? We should be able, at the end of our term in government, to say we have made solid progress for the sake of the children and families involved. We should be in a position to point to the steps we have taken and the results achieved.

We should at least be able to say we did that much for these vulnerable children. These children are not lesser. They are living in this Republic, and that means something. After all that has happened in this country, we have a deep understanding of the trauma and long-term damage that can be done to children if there is not a proper focus on their social, emotional and educational needs at this vulnerable time in their lives. To summarise, I am asking the Minister to elaborate on the potential for HIQA to step in as inspector and, second, to give a timetable for nailing down the improvements in this area which the Minister is clearly committed to driving forward.

In regard to the inspection regime, HIQA is being asked to do a great deal of things at this time. For instance, as Minister for Children and Youth Affairs, I asked it to examine child protection teams, what the benchmarks should be and the progress that needs to be made. That progress is under way. I am not sure HIQA is necessarily the right body for what the Deputy is proposing, but I understand where he is coming from. I will ask my officials to examine the issue to see whether any additional safeguards can be built into the direct provision inspection regime, with particular regard to children in the system.

In regard to the timetable for progress, I will be reviewing the Immigration, Residence and Protection Bill in the coming weeks and will make a decision quite soon as to whether we can move on the protection procedure as a first step. There will be different views on whether we should do that or whether it should continue to be integrated into the larger immigration Bill. I wish to make sold progress on this matter within the timeframe the Deputy outlined. Moving away from the current multi-layered structure could, on its own, be an important initiative from a legislative point of view in order to deal with the issues we are discussing here today.

Agriculture Scheme Eligibility

I thank the Minister of State at the Department of Agriculture, Food and the Marine, Deputy Tom Hayes, for taking this matter.

As the Minister of State knows, there was a protest outside his Department today by farmers from many counties, especially those along the west coast and the south west, about GLAS and, in particular, the restrictions the Minister of State and the Minister are placing on that scheme by requiring a minimum of 50% of all farmers involved in a commonage to participate in the scheme in order for any one farmer to be involved in it. I know from the response to a parliamentary question I tabled that it has been reduced from a previous threshold of 80% of all farmers participating. However, I would like to highlight some very pertinent figures in respect of the nonsensical behaviour of the Department and the Minister of State and the Minister in trying to put in this threshold and the impact it will have which is that the vast majority of farmers with commonage will be excluded from participating in GLAS.

Nationally, there are 14,929 farms with commonage, which is approximately 11% of all farms. Of that 14,929, 3,500 farmers participated in REPS, which was a 24% take-up by farmers with commonage. Farmers could join REPS individually and it was not dependent on other farmers joining. It also had a maximum payment rate of €12,000. This new GLAS scheme has a maximum payment rate of €5,000. Unlike the previous schemes, farmers cannot join it on their own but can only join if 50% of all other farmers who have use of a commonage join. The experience is that only 24% availed of previous schemes. Unless the Minister of State and Minister reverse this decision, they will block farmers who have commonage from participating in GLAS.

Many of these farm households have lower incomes compared to average incomes. For example, the average beef farm income last year was €15,000 while the average sheep farm income was €11,000, which was significantly down. Although this new GLAS scheme has a lower income threshold of €5,000, it would represent a big proportion of the income for the average beef or sheep farmer and yet the Minister of State and the Minister, through these proposals, are excluding many of the most vulnerable family farms from participating in this scheme.

Will the Minister of State address those points in his reply? Will he clarify when farmers will be able to get their first payment under GLAS? Is it correct that it will not be until the end of the first year in which case farmers will not be able to get a payment under GLAS until 2016 at the earliest? It is unacceptable, in particular for low income family farmers, to be deprived of an essential payment and part of their income for such a long period of time.

I thank Deputy McConalogue for raising this very important issue for many farmers. It gives me the opportunity to clarify many of the issues around the new scheme, GLAS. GLAS is designed around core requirements which all applicants must satisfy. These are that an approved agricultural planner must prepare the GLAS application; a nutrient management plan for the whole farm must be in place before payment issues; the applicant must participate in training courses for specific actions; and proper record keeping will be essential. These are all very basic and essential items.

A tiered approach is being applied to entry into the scheme and these tiers are based on a consideration of priority environmental assets and actions. The tiered approach will give priority access to farmers with important environmental assets, such as Natura sites, farmland habitats, high status water areas or commonage land.

The tiers will operate as follows and it is important for me to outline them. Tier 1 will be farms with priority environmental assets, such as important habitats - privately owned Natura areas, SPA and SACs - important bird species, high status water courses, commonage land or rare breeds; a whole farm stocking rate exceeding 140 kg organic manure per hectare which must be produced on the holding provided they agree to certain related mandatory actions; more than 30 ha of arable crops, again provided they agree to certain related mandatory actions; or what I presume everybody welcomes, registered organic farm status. In the case of commonage owners, priority access under tier 1 is guaranteed if they can achieve an 80% participation level in a collective.

Tier 2 is farms with other key environmental assets; commonage owners who secure a minimum of 50% collective participation; a whole farm stocking rate less than 140 kg livestock manure per hectare; or less than 30 ha of arable crops undertaking key environmental actions.

Tier 3, farms which do not fulfil any of the criteria for tiers 1 or 2 but which commit to a series of general environmental actions, will qualify. As 25,000 to 30,000 farmers are being accommodated under the scheme, in all likelihood, the vast majority of tier 1 and tier 2 applicants will qualify.

The proposed maximum payment is €5,000 per annum with the scheme building up to the inclusion of more than 50,000 farmers with a total envisaged expenditure of €1,450 million over the programming period. It is also proposed that, within budget limits, a GLAS+ payment would be put in place for a limited number of farmers who take on particularly challenging actions which deliver an exceptional level of environmental benefit. It is proposed that this payment will be up to €2,000 per annum, in addition to the €5,000 already paid under GLAS.

I would like to set out some of the background to our proposals on commonages, which Deputy McConalogue-----

Could the Minister of State keep the rest of his speech for the last two minutes?

The rest of it deals with the commonages which the issue is about.

The Minister of State has used his four minutes. Deputy McConalogue has two minutes and the Minister of State can respond in the two minutes he has left.

It is important for the Deputy to know what is in the commonage-----

I have to abide by the rules.

It is unfortunate that the Minister of State has not really dealt with the particular questions I asked.

If the Deputy gives way, I can.

I thank the Deputy because it is important. I will set out the background to our proposals on commonage. The proposed GLAS scheme must respect the provisions set out in Council Regulation 1305 of 2013 and address key priorities identified at European Union level. Payments under the scheme can only be made in respect of actions going beyond the baseline requirements under the basic payment scheme under pillar 1 of the CAP. In simple terms, this means that a farmer cannot be paid twice for the same commitment under both schemes which is only fair.

Since the introduction of agri-environment schemes in the 1990s the pillar 1 baseline has been progressively raised for each programming period and this challenges us all in putting together schemes that will gain approval at European Commission level. Farmers are required under the basic payment scheme to maintain land in good agricultural and environmental condition and commonage land is no exception to this requirement. We must also remember that the European Commission contributes significantly to the GLAS scheme.

A key element of the new strategy for managing commonages under GLAS is the development of a collective approach, where the majority of shareholders come together to manage the land in the best interests of the broader environment.

GLAS is an environmental scheme and all measures proposed under the scheme must make a clear contribution towards better environmental management of agricultural land. As I have already explained, a two-tier system is being put in place to guarantee commonage owners prioritised access to GLAS: Top priority will be given to those who can achieve 80% or more participation in the collective, but if a minimum of just 50% participation can be secured, that will guarantee second-tier access to the scheme. I hope that clarifies the position for Deputy McConalogue. I believe this concession, which was introduced last month, will significantly ease the burden of securing agreements, while at the same time providing a critical mass for management of the commonage, which can be expanded upon in future years.

Unfortunately, the reply does not address a couple of the key concerns I put to the Minister, which farmers raised this morning. They felt they had to come to Dublin to protest. I outlined that the average beef farm income is €15,000 and the average sheep farm income is €11,000. By and large, farmers with commonage attached have small incomes. The key point I made to the Minister is that under REPS and previous schemes, which were much more financially viable for farmers, only 24% of farms with commonage signed up to them. What is required for farms with commonage is that at least half of the farmers involved in the commonage must sign up to GLAS at the same time in order for anyone to be able to participate. Given the history of such schemes that simply will not be possible. The Minister is blocking one tenth of farms across the country from participating in GLAS. A higher proportion of farms in Donegal, Mayo, Galway, Connemara and Kerry in particular will be affected. The farmers will be blocked from participation in a valuable scheme. Unless the Department changes its approach it will defeat the entire purpose behind the scheme. Under previous environmental schemes an individual farmer could apply and did not need 50% of farmers using commonage land to sign up at the same time. Individual farmers could introduce environmentally friendly measures on their farms and on the commonage areas. What will be achieved is blocking any farm with commonage attached from participation in the scheme. Even farms that no longer use the commonage will not be able to apply because they cannot meet the terms of the scheme. The Minister must rethink the scheme and listen to what was said by the farmers who came to Dublin to make their views heard and to get the attention of the Ministers in the Department. Unless the Department completely changes its approach it will cut out one tenth of the lowest income farm families in the country from a very important scheme, which would be instrumental in allowing them to continue in farming.

I wish to be helpful on the matter. I assure Deputy McConalogue that we are open to hearing suggestions on the scheme. Last night at 8 p.m. we met the farmers who were protesting. In the next two weeks we will meet the IFA to discuss the matter. We have agreed on a course of action. The programme has not yet gone to Brussels but when it does it must be acceptable in order to qualify for grant aid. Most of the money for the scheme will come from Europe. We should not send out the message that the scheme is an income-based one. The scheme is an environmental one and it will not be accepted unless we can prove the measures it contains will help the environment.

One cannot compare it with the previous REP scheme to which anyone could sign up. It involved a more simplified approach but we are living in tighter economic times and we must justify the money that is being spent. Deputy McConalogue did not mention the 80% and 50% options. The planner who is required for scheme applications can bring together those who own the commonage. There is a way around the problem from an environmental point of view. We are open for consultation. We will meet the IFA. I will facilitate anyone who wishes to discuss the matter but one must remember that the bottom line is that it is an environmental scheme and it is wrong to send out the message that it is an income-related scheme. It might be treated in that way by some when they are lobbying, which is fair enough, but the reality is that when the plan goes to Brussels it must stand up from an environmental perspective. The measures it contains must be viable for the scheme to be successful. If the scheme is rejected money will not be sanctioned. I hope that clarifies the position. We are open to talk to people in general and to the farming organisations.

School Accommodation

I thank the Ceann Comhairle for selecting this urgent matter as a Topical Issue debate. I understand the Minister for Education and Skills, Deputy Quinn, is abroad on Government business. Accordingly, I thank the Minister of State, Deputy Kehoe, for responding to the issue.

It relates to Gort Sceiche national school, Annefield, Hollymount, County Mayo, which has applied for additional accommodation because of a big increase in numbers from 26 at present to 44 in September this year, to 53 in September 2015 and it is expected that numbers will grow to 57 in 2017. The junior room pupils will increase from 19 to 26 in September this year and up to 34 in September 2017.

The reason for the sudden increase in numbers is twofold. First, it is an excellent school with the highest standards achieved by staff and pupils both in educational areas and extra-curricular activities. As well as the increasing numbers in recent years it has now emerged that another small school in the locality is closing at the end of June and nine pupils from the school have enrolled in Gort Sceiche national school for September 2014. In addition to the existing increased demographic trend, the situation has been accelerated further because of the closure of the adjoining school which means there is a critical need for additional accommodation.

In its letter outlining the reason for the rejection of the original application, the Department stated, "I wish to advise you that the main focus of the Department is to provide essential classrooms in areas of demographic growth". That is exactly the situation in this case because the school is an excellent one and another factor is the closure of an adjoining school.

The problem comes more into focus when one takes the rapid increase from 19 to 34 in numbers of junior pupils. That would entail 34 students fitting into a 49 sq. m classroom when 80 sq. m is the Department's current accepted standard size for a classroom. I urge the Minister to consider the application again in light of the facts I have outlined.

I thank Deputy O'Mahony for raising this very important issue. I am responding on behalf of the Minister for Education and Science, Deputy Quinn, who is on official business in Brussels. It gives me the opportunity to remind the House of the significant challenges facing us in terms of meeting increasing demand for pupil places throughout the country in the coming years and the opportunity to clarify the position in relation to the application for additional accommodation in respect of Gort Sceiche national school, Hollymount, County Mayo.

The Deputy will be aware of the demographic challenge facing the education system in the coming years. Primary enrolments, which have already risen substantially in recent years, are projected to rise by approximately 70,000 pupils by 2019 and post-primary pupils are expected to rise by more than 35,000 pupils over the same period.

It is vital that there is sufficient school accommodation in place to cope with these increasing pupil enrolments.

To meet the needs of our growing population of school-going children, the Department must establish new schools as well as extending or replacing a number of existing schools in areas where demographic growth has been identified. The delivery of these new schools, together with extension projects to meet future demand, will be the main focus of the Department's budget for the coming years. The Deputy will appreciate that the primary aim at the core of the five-year construction plan is to ensure every child will have access to a physical school place.

With regard to Gort Sceiche, I understand that it is a two-classroom school with a staffing complement of a teaching principal plus one mainstream teacher. The current enrolment at the school is 26 pupils. The school in question advised, as part of its application for additional accommodation, that due to the closure of a neighbouring school at the end of this academic year, it expects a significant increase in pupil numbers. In that regard, the Department of Education and Skills acknowledges that this may result in an increase in enrolments to approximately 35 pupils next September.

In April 2014 the school submitted an application for capital funding for the upgrading of existing classrooms and for the provision of a resource room, a learning support room, a parents' room, a general purpose room and an administrative room. With regard to the request for a learning support and resource room, the Department has sought additional information from the school, and when this is received it will be in a position to consider the matter further.

Gort Sceiche also requested funding for the upgrade of two existing 49 sq. m classrooms to two 80 sq. m en suite mainstream classrooms. I wish to advise the Deputy that the difference in size between the classrooms concerned is due to the fact that toilet and wet area facilities are provided separately to the existing 49 sq. m whereas they are provided en suite within the 80 sq. m classroom. In that context, the existing classrooms are not considered to be undersized and the existing classroom accommodation available to the school is adequate to cater for its pupil numbers.

As I have already outlined, the Department's overriding objective is to ensure every child has access to a physical school place and that our school system is in a position to cope with increasing pupil numbers. Priority is currently being given to applications for essential mainstream classroom accommodation in areas of significant demographic growth and where additional teaching staff have been allocated. This will continue to be the main focus for investment by the Department in the foreseeable future. As a result of this, the Department is not currently in a position to consider the application from the school on its other ancillary school accommodation.

I thank the Minister of State for his reply. I want to be helpful and I take the point he makes regarding the application for a resource room and the requirement for further information. I understand the Department contacted the school today.

The Department is planning on a year-to-year basis but there is no point building a small room in the short term if it must be rebuilt the following year. The figures given by the school apply until 2017 and major increases are expected in pupil numbers. The school principal can give dates of birth and personal public service, PPS, numbers. Everything is above board.

I ask the Minister of State to convey my points to the Minister for Education and Skills, Deputy Quinn. This matter would represent better value for money if it could be considered in terms of the next two or three years. The situation will be serious at the school this September but it will be critical in September 2015.

In 2011 new pupil-teacher ratios were introduced for small schools and the Minister stated at the time that schools that amalgamated due to closures would be given special consideration to rationalise school numbers. This school fits in to such a plan and deserves such consideration.

Gort Sceiche is an exceptional school that has won numerous awards over the years. It had the best primary school website in the country and won an award at the film festival for primary schools at the Helix Theatre. The school performed with the Cross-Border Orchestra of Ireland at the Royal Theatre, Castlebar. I have a list of this school's achievements that runs to pages. It is an exceptional school and I am trying to be helpful as I believe what I am suggesting offers value for money. If examined in this context, I believe we can reach a solution. I ask the Minister of State to convey my points to the Minister for Education and Skills, Deputy Quinn.

I understand the point made by the Deputy in simple terms relating to the need for additional accommodation. He referred to the closure of a neighbouring school that will increase pupil numbers at Gort Sceiche in September 2014. It is important that the Department and the Minister look beyond September 2014. We must prepare for September 2015 and September 2016.

I will ask the Minister to look at this application in the context of increasing numbers at the school in 2015 and 2016. I will ask him to progress the application. The school and the parents of the children went out of their way to make this application and I recognise the commitment of parents and teachers. The school has 26 pupils but this will increase. I will outline the Deputy's concerns and ask the Minister and those employed at the Department of Education and Skills planning and building unit in Tullamore to examine this application in preparation for 2015 and 2016 rather than 2014. I acknowledge the Deputy's recognition of this as an exceptional school. I do not doubt that the school's exceptional work will continue when combined with another school. I will convey the Deputy's thoughts to the Minister as soon as possible and I will ensure he receives a copy of the Deputy's speech.

Army Barracks Closures

This is my first speech in Dáil Éireann and I ask the House to indulge me for a moment to allow me to thank the people of the Longford-Westmeath constituency for placing their trust in me. I am truly grateful to them. I also thank my supporters and my family for their help and encouragement. I am also extremely grateful for the support of my colleagues in Leinster House during my first few weeks here. I am very proud to be here and I wish to continue the very good work of my sister, Nicky, on behalf of the people of Longford-Westmeath. I am grateful for this opportunity.

When the Taoiseach visited Athlone during my election campaign, he gave assurances at the Army barracks about the retention of the number of Army personnel in the town and about the future of the Army barracks there. These assurances were very welcome and I would be grateful if the Minister of State could today reiterate these commitments to the House.

Deputies from parts of the country which do not have an Army barracks may not be fully aware of the depth of pride communities such as Athlone, Mullingar and Longford have in them. I understand this pride personally because my grandfather, Jim McFadden, served in Athlone as a sergeant major for many years. Unfortunately, in 2012, Athlone saw the 4th Western Brigade lose its brigade status. Soldiers of the 4th Western Brigade have served overseas with great courage and dignity in the Congo, the Lebanon, Kosovo, East Timor, Liberia and Chad. Men and women have been proud to wear the brigade badge, the sword in hand, wherever they represented our country. This is not to mention the work Army personnel do on duty in Portlaoise, or the work they do in times of crisis in our communities, as they did in Athlone in 2009 during the flooding.

We still have not been officially told why the barracks was downgraded. If it was for economic reasons, which I believe it probably was, will the Minister of State please inform the House where and how these savings are being made, because the people of Athlone cannot see it? If the downgrading is part of a wider strategic plan, can we be informed of it? Will the Minister of State tell us where the barracks in Athlone fits into this thinking? Uncertainty is now part of the problem. We hear many rumours on a daily basis about the closure of Athlone barracks, including this week, when a local opposition councillor got a headline in a local newspaper in Roscommon regarding new fears for the future of the barracks in Athlone.

We need clarity about the future of Custume Barracks. The withdrawal of barracks status means more than economics to the people of the midlands; it has wounded the pride of an entire community. I would be grateful for answers from the Minister of State.

I thank Deputy McFadden for raising this very important issue. This was also a very important issue for her late sister, Nicky, who also raised issues with regard to the Defence Forces and personnel in Athlone. I wish Deputy McFadden well as a recently elected Member of the House. I am pleased to reaffirm the Government's commitment to Custume Barracks in Athlone.

The background to recent developments at the barracks and for the Defence Forces arise in the context of the need to achieve a more effective and efficient organisational arrangement. Arising from the comprehensive review of expenditure in 2011, the Government decided to stabilise the strength ceiling of the Permanent Defence Force, PDF, at 9,500 personnel. The three brigade structure then in place had originally been designed in the 1990s, when the strength ceiling of the PDF was 11,500 personnel. At a strength ceiling of 9,500 personnel, stretched over three brigades, those organisational structures were clearly no longer efficient.

In this context, the Minister for Defence initiated a major re-organisation of the Defence Forces, encompassing the consolidation of three under-strength Army brigades into two full-strength brigades. This was to optimise the operational effectiveness of the Permanent Defence Force within the revised strength ceiling and ensure that the Defence Forces could continue to fulfil all roles assigned by the Government.

Key aspects of the reorganisation included the consolidation of under-strength units into a smaller number of full strength units, a reduction in the number of headquarters and the associated redeployment of personnel from administrative and support functions to operational units. Within the three brigade structure, brigade headquarters were located in Cork, Dublin and Athlone. Following the consolidation of three Army brigades into two larger brigades, it was decided that the two new brigades would have headquarters in Cork and Dublin. This decision was in accordance with recommendations brought forward by the Chief of Staff and the Secretary General of the Department of Defence.

At the time of the reorganisation there was speculation in Athlone that the number of PDF personnel serving in Custume Barracks would be reduced by approximately 400. This was based on an incorrect assumption that 1,400 personnel were based in Custume Barracks at that time. This figure is based on the number of personnel that would have been in Custume Barracks if the PDF strength was at 11,500 personnel. This strength level had not been seen since the 1990s and, in this context, the figure of 1,400 personnel bears no relationship to the number of PDF personnel based in Custume Barracks in recent years. The Minister for Defence previously stated that following the implementation of the reorganisation, approximately 1,000 PDF personnel would be stationed at Custume Barracks within an overall PDF strength of 9,500 personnel. I have been advised by the military authorities that at 30 April 2014, the latest date for which figures are available, the number of personnel whose home station was Custume Barracks was 920. This was within an actual overall PDF strength figure of 9,110 at that date. However, it should be noted that recruitment to the Defence Forces is ongoing.

The Department is engaged in an ongoing capital building programme designed to modernise and enhance the training, operational and accommodation facilities available to members of the Defence Forces. Under this programme, there has been considerable capital investment at Custume Barracks in recent years. Recent major projects undertaken include the construction of armoured vehicle garaging facilities, a gymnasium and an upgrading of gas and water main facilities, including the provision of new underground services and associated works. In addition to the major capital projects, there are ongoing works to ensure the upkeep and repair of buildings at the barracks.

The reorganisation has maintained the operational capacity of the Defence Forces to the greatest extent possible, within the available resource envelope. It has allowed the Permanent Defence Force to continue to fulfil all roles assigned. This remains a key focus of the Chief of Staff and the Secretary General of the Department of Defence. Custume Barracks continues to be an important operational military barracks following the reorganisation of the Defence Forces and I stress there are no plans to change this. There are no plans to reduce the numbers at Custume Barracks and the commitment figure given will be maintained.

I thank the Minister of State. It pleases me greatly to hear Custume Barracks will not close and that the rumours and the headlines in the local newspapers are incorrect. I acknowledge the considerable capital investment in Custume Barracks and the fact the air ambulance is there, which is a great service for the midlands and the entire country. The air ambulance based in Athlone is a pilot scheme and I hope the Minister of State will confirm today what is its future. I am very pleased to have it put on record that Custume Barracks will remain open.

The Taoiseach, in his role as Minister for Defence, and I, in my role as Minister of State at the Department of Defence, visited Athlone barracks a number of weeks ago. We saw at first hand the importance of the air ambulance service. We are awaiting a report on the service. It is an excellent service not alone for Athlone, but also for the midlands in general.

Deputy McFadden stated there were rumours in the local newspapers, including last week, about the future of Custume Barracks. Let me state to the local newspapers in Athlone and Roscommon that I hope they will give the same headlines to the statement I made today as they did to the rumours last week. I very much appreciate Deputy McFadden raising the important issue of Custume Barracks in Athlone.

I understand and am aware of its importance to the local economy in Athlone. I assure the Deputy that she has my full commitment, as well as that of the Government, that there are no fears or plans to close Custume Barracks, Athlone or to reduce numbers there. Custume Barracks, Athlone plays an integral part within the wider Defence Forces organisation nationwide and the Government has committed to the numbers there. I note Deputy McFadden also mentioned the service personnel from Custume Barracks have given on peacekeeping missions abroad. I greatly appreciate this service and have been on ministerial reviews with troops going abroad from Athlone. Moreover, I have met many troops from the greater Athlone area and from Custume Barracks who were based in the Golan Heights, in Lebanon and further afield. I am aware of the excellent job they have done and the commitment they have given, and in return for the commitment they have given to the Defence Forces, the Government has given a commitment back that there are no fears of Custume Barracks, Athlone closing or of a reduction in numbers there.

The Dáil adjourned at 5.30 p.m. until 10 a.m. on Friday, 20 June 2014.