Priority Questions

Poverty Data

Deputy Brady would like to raise a point of order.

Are Questions Nos. 26 and 29 being grouped together?

You are quite right. There will be only one introduction.

Willie O'Dea

Ceist:

26. Deputy Willie O'Dea asked the Minister for Social Protection his views on the recently published survey on income and living conditions, SILC, data; and if he will make a statement on the matter. [8532/17]

John Brady

Ceist:

29. Deputy John Brady asked the Minister for Social Protection the action he is taking in response to recently released figures on poverty rates in the survey on income and living conditions, SILC; and if he will make a statement on the matter. [8704/17]

The introduction will be very short. I raised the question to ascertain the Government's response to the survey on income and living conditions, SILC, figures, which give details of poverty levels across various strands of society for the year 2015.

I propose to take Questions Nos. 26 and 29 together.

I welcome the latest Central Statistics Office, CSO, survey on income and living conditions results for 2015 which show improvements in living conditions and reductions in poverty overall. In 2015, incomes rose by 6.2%, mainly due to rising employment, the deprivation rate fell for the second year running, and 13,000 children were lifted out of consistent poverty. Ireland was more equal in 2015 in terms of the income distribution than at any time this decade.

Social transfers continued to perform strongly in reducing the at risk of poverty rate from 35% to 17%, representing a poverty reduction effect of 52%. Ireland remains the best performing EU member state in this regard.

However, the results also show that we have a long way to go to achieve the national social target for poverty reduction. While consistent poverty fell in 2014 and stabilised at 8.7% in 2015, a reduction of almost five percentage points would be required to meet the 2016 interim poverty target.

Given the continuing economic recovery throughout 2016 and measures introduced in budgets 2016 and 2017, I expect the figures for those years, when they become available, to show further progress. I will continue my work with my Government colleagues to ensure the economic recovery is experienced in all regions and by all families, households and individuals in the years to come.

The Government’s strategy for tackling poverty and social exclusion is set out in the National Action Plan for Social Inclusion. The plan identifies a wide range of targeted actions and interventions to achieve the overall objective of reducing consistent poverty. My Department will review the plan this year in consultation with relevant stakeholders.

I thank the Minister for his response. The problem is that when we have raised the issue of poverty, the Minister has said on a number of occasions that our figures were outdated. These figures are for the year before last, from a time when employment had increased quite significantly.

Despite that significant increase in employment, is the Minister disappointed that consistent poverty seems to have hardly moved between 2014 and 2015 from 8.85% down to 8.7%? The at-risk-of-poverty figure went from just over 17% to just under 17%. There was a marginal improvement in consistent child poverty from 12.7% to 11.5%. However, the at-risk-of-poverty figure for children showed very small movement from 20.3% to 19.5%.

The figures for consistent poverty for lone parents rose and the consistent poverty figure for people who were out of work due to disability or illness increased quite dramatically. Would the Minister agree with me that the increases in employment that we have seen have not given rise to a concomitant reduction in poverty figures, which says something about the quality of many of the jobs created?

I suppose I am disappointed to one extent that things are not improving faster than they are, but I am encouraged that there can be no doubt now that in 2015, living standards improved, poverty fell and the country became more equal. We have heard from other parties - parties of the left and the parties opposite - that that was not the truth. We have been fed the story that the recovery is not real, that poverty is not falling and that the country is becoming more unequal. Of course, we know from these independent CSO statistics that this narrative is false and not supported by the numbers, which show that in 2015, using the Gini coefficient, Ireland was more equal than at any time this decade. They show that consistent poverty is falling and incomes are rising. Even though the reduction in child poverty might only have lifted 13,000 children out of child poverty, if we continue on this course over the next five years we will have reduced child poverty be more than half - by 65,000 children.

It is good to see that we are making real progress and the Deputy will see even better results in the SILC report for 2016 and particularly for 2017 because of the budget that I was involved in helping to frame, which, as the Deputy will be aware, benefitted people in the lowest quintile the most. They are not just or particularly pensioners but people of working age who will receive an increase - albeit a modest one - in their incomes in a few weeks' time.

Just to put it into context, as well as the 13,000 children who were lifted out of poverty in 2015, the combined rate, that is, the number of people in consistent poverty and people at risk of poverty, who were lifted out of that category in 2015 was 162,000 people. Taking 162,000 people out of the broadest measure of poverty that is used is a step in the right direction. We might have taken 200,000 out last year - we do not have the numbers yet. It is definitely going in the right direction and it is good to see that the Government's economic policies are working, that we are creating jobs, making Ireland more equal in terms of income distribution and reducing poverty.

I note the Minister welcomes the findings of the SILC report. He referred to the overall increase in living conditions. However, he completely brushed over and failed to acknowledge that there is a serious problem with consistent poverty for lone parents, which has increased from 25% in 2014 to 26.2% in 2015. This has to be down to the disastrous changes that were introduced under the previous Fine Gael-Labour Government's watch, under the stewardship of the then Tánaiste and Minister for Social Protection, Deputy Burton.

We have had poverty statistics after poverty statistics and no action. In the Minister's contribution he said a number of times that we should wait for next year's statistics. We have the current statistics which show that poverty levels among lone-parent families are on the rise. I put a straight question to the Minister and expect a straight answer. Does he agree with me that the increase in poverty levels facing lone-parent families is a direct result of the changes introduced by the previous Fine Gael-Labour Party Government? Does he believe it is acceptable that children in lone-parent families should be 3.5 times more likely to live in consistent poverty than a child in a two-parent family?

The straight question I would like to ask the Deputy is whether he would like to take back and stand corrected when it comes to the Sinn Féin narrative for the past two or three years that incomes are not improving, that living conditions are not improving and that poverty is not going down. If he wants to use these statistics against me, he cannot be selective about them. He cannot just use them when it suits him; he has to be consistent.

The statistics show consistent poverty down and deprivation down significantly from 29% to 25.5%. The at-risk-of-poverty rate is down. The number of children in poverty is down. Income inequality as measured by the Gini coefficient at 30.8% is the lowest since 2009. The whole argument Sinn Féin has made for the past few years is not supported by the facts.

The Deputy particularly zeroed in on the issue of lone parents as opposed to child poverty because, of course, that is down. When it comes to the statistics for lone parents, there is an increase in consistent poverty but there is a fall in the deprivation rate and a fall in the at-risk-of-poverty rate for this category. Of most interest is that the consistent poverty rate for lone parents who are in work falls by three quarters to 6.7%. The clear message there is that the best way to ensure that lone parents escape from poverty is not by reversing the reforms made by Deputy Burton when she was Minister, but rather by ensuring people are in work because when they are in work, the chances of them being in poverty goes down by three quarters. It disappoints me that Sinn Féin opposes encouraging lone parents to get into work when it is so obvious that that is what makes the most difference.

I call Deputy O'Dea for a short supplementary question.

Leaving the politics aside, is it not disappointing that the poverty figures are reducing so marginally? I obviously welcome any improvement, but is it not a major disappointment that they are reducing at such a slow rate?

The Minister mentioned that deprivation and at-risk-of-poverty rates for lone parents had fallen. Those figures have only fallen marginally - by 0.1% or 0.2%, that is, by one or two decimal points of 1%. Consistent poverty has increased, which is a cause for concern. Would the Minister not agree that there must be a connection between that and the changes introduced by the former Minister, Deputy Burton? The net effect of the changes introduced by her was to make it less attractive for lone parents to go to work, in other words, they would be less well off at work.

The rate of consistent poverty among people out of work due to illness or disability increased dramatically from 14.4% to 22.49%. The at-risk-of-poverty rates within that cohort increased from 25.2% to 34.81%. What are the reasons for that and what steps will the Minister take to alleviate it?

I ask Deputy Brady to be brief.

The Minister talked about statistics. I will select statistics that jump out at me and that raise serious concerns. Obviously, the Minister wants to talk about smashing the unemployment figures and the type of language he is good at. However, I will stick to the real statistics here - the statistics for which we are constantly told we must wait until the subsequent year. While the Minister talks about smashing the long-term unemployment rates, the statistics speak volumes. A total of 105,051 people in employment are living in poverty. More than 750,000 people are living on less than €230 a week. The Minister talks about Ireland being more equal now than at any point previously.

The only thing that says to me is that people are equal in poverty.

The Minister uses the term "smashing". I cringe when I hear that type of language coming from him because the statistics in the SILC report are clear evidence that the type of jobs the Government is creating are of the low-paid variety. Many employees in these jobs have to rely on family income supplement to allow them to go out to work. They are in precarious, part-time employment with zero-hour contracts. They are the figures and statistics over which the Minister is proud to stand.

I will ask one more question. What is the Minister doing, in tangible terms, for lone parents or for the 105,051 individuals who are employed but who are living on less than €230 a week? What is the Minister actually doing for those people?

I do not recall ever using the term "smashing" about any target. Perhaps it is in a Government press release or something but it is not a term I have used. Sooner or later, Sinn Féin will have to face up to the fact that the story it has been telling Irish people for the past couple of years is just not true and does not stand up to the statistical facts. What also came out today was the quarterly national household survey. What does the survey say about employment? It says that the rate of long-term unemployment is down to 3.6%. That is an extraordinarily positive result for the country. The Deputy's claim is that they are all part-time jobs. Here are the facts: full-time employment is up by 71,000 and part-time employment is down by 6,800. The Deputy says there is casualisation and that all these people are self-employed. However, the number of employees is up by 67,000. The number of self-employed people is barely up at all - it is only up by 200. The Deputy says they are all low-paid jobs but the Central Statistics Office says today that employment increased across all 14 sectors so the jobs are being created at all levels. There is a 9% increase in work in construction, which is reasonably well paid and there is a 5.7% increase in professional, scientific and technical activities, which is generally very well paid. Sooner or later, Sinn Féin will have to face up to the fact that the spin and nonsense it has been telling Irish people for the past couple of years are just not true.

School Meals Programme

John Brady

Ceist:

27. Deputy John Brady asked the Minister for Social Protection the amount his Department spends annually on the school meals programme; and if he will make a statement on the matter. [8703/17]

How much will the Minister's Department spend this year on the school meals programme in light of the cuts he has made to the programme for this school term?

The school meals programme provides funding towards the provision of food to schools and organisations benefiting over 200,000 children at a total cost of some €47.7 million during 2017. For the current academic year, 2016-2017, a total of €44 million has been allocated to schools under the scheme.

Funding for the scheme was increased this year, as part of budget 2017, by an additional €5.7 million, which is a 14% increase on the previous year’s allocation. It will benefit approximately 50,000 children. The allocation for the scheme has significantly increased over a series of budgets from €35 million in 2012 to the current allocation of €47.7 million, which is an increase of 35% since 2012.

During this period, priority for new applications for funding has been given to schools that are part of the DEIS programme. From September 2016 additional funding is being provided to DEIS schools already participating in the scheme to provide breakfast and lunch to a majority of pupils. In addition, a further 21 DEIS schools have joined the scheme this academic year.

Budget 2017 also provides for the inclusion in the scheme, from September 2017, of another 80 schools that are not currently part of DEIS but have recently been deemed as requiring support in the recently launched DEIS plan, which was launched by the Minister for Education and Skills, Deputy Bruton, in recent days. There is also some provision towards the extension of the scheme to breakfast clubs in non-DEIS schools. That will kick in from September 2017, which will be the first time in many years that increased payments are provided to schools outside of DEIS. I have particular interest in doing that because the majority of children who suffer disadvantage do not actually attend DEIS schools but attend other schools. Priority will be provided to those schools where there is most need.

I have been contacted by a primary school principal at a DEIS school who accidentally discovered that the school meals programme has been cut and that by May there will not be enough funding to carry the school through to the end of the year. That principal only found out that the funding had been cut on contacting the Department when a number of additional pupils were taken into the school. The principal contacted the Department to see if additional funding could be obtained and was told there will be no such funding and that the school will only get 90% of the funding it received the previous year. It is alarming that the Department did not notify the school that the school meals programme was going to be cut. On foot of that, I contacted a number of other principals in DEIS schools who subsequently contacted the Department to be told they also will only get 90% of the funding they got last year. What are principals in those schools supposed to do when the funding dries up in May? Will the Minister go into the schools and select the 10% of kids in the schools who will not get fed? What will the Minister do?

I do not know why that is the case. If the Deputy wants to give me the names of the schools now, that is fine. If not, he can give them to me afterwards. Overall, the funding provided for the scheme was increased substantially by the former Minister, Deputy Burton, and was increased again for this year so I do not understand why that is the case. I am not saying it is not the case but if the Deputy wants to give me the details of the schools, I will have the matter examined.

I appreciate that and I will pass on the details but it is not an isolated incident. Principals are only now being informed of this. They are not being notified, they only find out when they contact the Department and are informed that they will only get 90% of the funding they received in previous years. Schools are facing into serious difficulties. I refer to the DEIS schools in this regard. Funding for schoolchildren in some of the most deprived areas in the State will run out at the end of May. There will be at least a month when there will be no funding whatsoever in place. I welcome the fact that the Minister has taken 21 additional DEIS schools into the programme. Is there sufficient funding in place to ensure that each of those schools will get 100% funding as they did in the previous year? The crux of the problem is that the Minister or the Department has extended this but has not ensured that all schools are getting 100% funding. If this is clarified and a problem is identified, will the Minister ensure that every school will get 100% funding so that no schoolchild will go hungry when the funding runs out at the end of May?

We do not anticipate an underspend or an overspend in this area so the funding is there. When it comes to the additional funding being provided to the DEIS schools participating in the scheme, the provision is for breakfast and lunch for up to 90% of children. That has been the case for quite some time. It is not a change or cutback in any way. That has been the case, as far as I can see, regarding to the additional funding but also prior to that.

Will the Minister ensure that there is 100% funding? That is the question I asked.

Labour Activation Projects

Willie O'Dea

Ceist:

28. Deputy Willie O'Dea asked the Minister for Social Protection if he will clarify recent media reports which suggested that a number of activation programmes will close; and if he will make a statement on the matter. [8533/17]

I tabled this question because of recent media reports that certain labour market activation programmes were due to close down. First, I want to ascertain if this is true. Second, what are the programmes in question? Third, has there been an evaluation carried out in advance of this decision?

As Deputies in the House will be aware, my colleague, the Minister for Public Expenditure and Reform, Deputy Paschal Donohoe, recently announced a new approach that will be taken to reviewing current departmental expenditure in advance of budget 2018. The purpose of this review is to ensure the best value for money for the taxpayer. It is quite distinct from the savings reviews in departmental funding levels that took place over the economic crisis. They were about cutting spending and this review is not about that.

Almost €1 billion was spent on employment supports provided by my Department in 2016. Funding has increased significantly over the past six years. Given the improved economic and labour market conditions, it is entirely appropriate that we examine this area of expenditure to ensure policy objectives are being delivered in an efficient manner that will deliver best value for the taxpayer and ensure best use is being made of funding in each area.

It is recognised by Government that activation schemes are positive initiatives that enable the long-term unemployed to make a contribution to their communities while upskilling themselves for prospective future employment. I have seen this first-hand when visiting schemes throughout the country in recent months. It is also recognised that long-term unemployment and joblessness remain critical issues. The removal of barriers to employment for those furthest from the labour market continues to be a challenge, even in periods of economic growth.

With the ongoing welcome reductions in the live register, it is necessary to ensure the number and nature of activation schemes such as community employment schemes, Tús, Gateway and others and the conditions governing participation on these schemes continues to be appropriate. I will be bringing a memorandum to Government on the operation of these programmes in the coming weeks. If there are changes to be made, consultations with stakeholders will be facilitated at that point.

I understand the Minister is saying that this is not the same as when similar types of programmes were terminated in the past for the purpose of reducing expenditure and that this is a matter of getting the best result possible for the money being expended. I basically agree with that approach. If some of the programmes are to be discontinued, I suggest that the money saved should be reinvested in the programmes as they are currently operating. For example, such money could be used to increase the capacity and the ability of the Intreo staff to interact better with their clients. It could also be used to provide more appropriate matching of people to the skills available. It could also be used for the development of employability skills. Many employers say that employability skills, namely, soft skills, having the right attitude and a willingness to learn, are much more important than hard knowledge and qualifications. The Minister will be aware that there is a need to place an emphasis on people in the older age groups who are unemployed, some of whom have been unemployed for a long time. Many developments can take place in those areas. If having studied the matter the Minister decides to terminate some programmes, I suggest the money should be reinvested in this way.

The Deputy makes a very valid suggestion. As we get down to very low levels of unemployment, with long-term unemployment now under 4%, people will need a different type of support because the profile of these people is different from what it was when unemployment was very high.

To answer the Deputy's previous question, one of the programmes is already closed. JobBridge is closed for new applications and the Gateway scheme is very much in the process of being phased out. There used to be thousands of people participating in it and the number is now down to hundreds. We should be back to a position where local authorities are taking people on in the normal way, which perhaps they could have not afforded to do during the financial crisis.

The number of people participating in schemes, including community employment schemes, Tús, Gateway and the rural social scheme, RSS, grew from 25,000 in 2010 to 37,000 in 2016. If we add JobPath to that, we are talking about 97,000 people on schemes and with services. We have seen an almost fourfold increase in schemes and services at a time when unemployment has halved. It is time to examine all that.

Is it still the Minister's intention to replace the JobBridge scheme with a different type of JobBridge scheme, as he has announced? Will he agree that from here on the element of compulsion will have to be examined regarding labour market schemes in that a labour market scheme should be viewed as a stepping stone to decent and sustainable employment rather than an extension of the social welfare sanction system?

The answer to the Deputy's first question is "Yes". It is still intended that we will have a new scheme in the latter half of the year, which will provide people who do not have work experience with the work experience they need, but it is intended that there would be an employer contribution and they would be paid, at the very least, the minimum wage rate. It will be quite different from JobBridge in that sense.

I do not have any proposals to change the "genuinely seeking work" condition. People receive jobseeker's allowance and jobseeker's benefit on the basis they are genuinely seeking work. If they are not genuinely seeking work, they should either be on a different benefit that is perhaps more appropriate to their circumstances such as disability benefit or they should be signing off. We will continue to have sanctions in those spaces. When it comes to community employment schemes in particular and other schemes, they are and always have been about much more than being an extension of the social welfare system. They provide people with useful training and useful work experience and for many people, particularly in a period of low unemployment, they will be increasingly about social inclusion and less about activating people into the labour market.

Question No. 29 answered with Question No. 26.

Legislative Programme

Willie Penrose

Ceist:

30. Deputy Willie Penrose asked the Minister for Social Protection when the heads of the proposed social welfare and pensions Bill will be published; and if it will include measures to protect defined benefit pension schemes, the pension rights of workers and those already retired. [8531/17]

Deputy Brady, Deputy O'Dea and I met representatives of the Irish Congress of Trade Unions, ICTU, and it is concerned that the Government is guided by financial experts who made the rules as to how defined benefit schemes were to operate. Costly legislative changes were introduced to revalue deferred pensions, the cost of which has added to the burden of active members, and the regulator enforced these to the letter. The workers paid their contributions and paid for the regulation system but their pensions were not protected. The workers were not given any say in what was happening to their pension assets, neither were they given any choices as to what might be done when things went wrong. This has all contributed to the effective demise of defined benefit, DB, schemes. We must now tackle this and the lacuna in the law with comprehensive and appropriate legislation.

As the Deputy will be aware, the usual practice is that a social welfare Bill is brought before the Oireachtas each year, in spring or early summer, to provide a legal basis within the social welfare code for policy, administrative and operational changes that may be required.

My Department is developing the heads of a Bill which will address legislative needs in a number of operational areas within the Department. When this work is completed, I will seek the approval of Government to publish the general scheme of the Bill and to proceed to drafting the legislation with the Office of the Parliamentary Counsel. At this stage, I envisage that the general scheme of the Bill will be published and sent for pre-legislative scrutiny to the Joint Committee on Social Protection some time in April.

While I cannot comment at this stage if the Bill will contain measures to change the law governing defined benefit schemes, I will in the near future bring forward some of my own proposals, carefully thought out and fully analysed, to help alleviate some of the difficulties currently being experienced by defined benefit schemes and their members.

This year, I have confirmed an intention to develop, publish and commence the implementation of an action plan for the reform of pensions. Over the coming months, I intend to set out a roadmap which will include the rationalisation and reform of the pension landscape, the transposition of the EU directive IORP 2, institutions for occupational retirement provision, and the design of a universal retirement savings platform for all working people.

I hope this clarifies the matter for the Deputy.

I have no doubt the Minister is trying to reform the system and he is committed to that but time is of the essence. The current minimum standard overstates schemes' liabilities and acts as an incentive for employers to welsh on their responsibilities. That is basically it. It is clear that fund liabilities are calculated on the basis of annuity prices, as we stated in the House on the previous occasion. Is the Minister aware that the UK pensions regulator has stated that calculating DB pension deficits on a buy-out basis is misleading, reflecting exceptionally low bond yields and the cost of capital buffers and a profit margin for insurance companies? The same is happening in New Brunswick in Canada, which we read in an ICTU document. It is clear that it is not in the interests of members of DB schemes to force them into a dysfunctional annuity market which will not provide a stable pension. Does the Minister agree that as long as his Department clings to the bond and annuity-based liability calculations, most DB schemes will be subject to damage and volatility and will continue to be driven towards unnecessary wind-up? That is what is happening.

How integrated pension schemes interact with the State pension age is another major issue. Integrated schemes are where pensioners receive benefits from both the scheme and the State at age 65 and, as it goes on for a number of years, pensioners can lose out on anything up to three years, depending on whether the State pension age is increased up to the age of 67 or 68. That is a major issue and I ask the Minister to take account of it.

ICTU has sought a stakeholder forum involving all the relevant bodies, including the Minister, to whom I understand it has made that point. That might be a way to make an adequate and appropriate contribution in this respect and he may well find that it will be very useful in what he is trying to achieve. I applaud the Minister for what he is doing.

I am very much open to the idea of a stakeholder forum involving employers, unions and perhaps people who represent pensioners. I would propose to start it off with the new Labour Employer Economic Forum, LEEF, which was recently established.

I will bring proposals to LEEF in the spring. However, I would not be averse to a different form of stakeholder forum, perhaps similar to that which the Deputy proposes. The bridging issue is a real problem. I know some of the better-funded pension funds are making up the difference themselves for the year or two during which the person is aged between 65 and 66 but this is not happening in all cases. We therefore need to find a solution in that space. I accept that this is an issue and will get worse.

Regarding the minimum funding standard, the difficulty I have - this is just the reality I face - is that while many people express the opinion that in Ireland it is too onerous, nobody has been able to prove this. The advice I get from the Pensions Authority and the OECD is that, if anything, our minimum funding standard is too lax compared with those of other countries and I cannot just ignore this advice. It would just not be the right thing to do for people in the medium to long term to relax a standard that the independent experts and advisers say is, if anything, too lax.

This does not make sense. I know what the Minister is saying. I think he is being wrongly advised by his own Department. Let us cut to the chase. I know the Minister is aware of this matter because he is very bright. I do not say that in a patronising way. His Department is stuck in a time warp. There is a pensions regulator who just collects levies. What did he do to protect the schemes? He should be dragged in here and made accountable for his actions. I am not on the social welfare committee but I know my colleagues will shortly drag him in and see what is going on. What did he do to protect the pension rights of these people? We had a very positive meeting with the Irish Congress of Trade Unions. I might as well be honest with the Minister: we might not be able to wait for the Bill to come through but what worries me is that employers are beginning to welsh all over the place or are contemplating welshing without any need to do so. It is time we got to the bottom of this. I know the Minister is going about it, I accept his bona fides and I thank him for his offer of a stakeholder forum. It would be very important for ICTU, the pensions actuaries, the pensions representatives and everyone else to engage with the Department of Social Protection but I think that Department is stuck in a time warp. I think it gave the same advice to the Minister's predecessor and probably her predecessor, and it is time the Minister went outside this whole thing. Why is England, New Brunswick in Canada and everywhere else different from Ireland? What the heck is wrong with us?

The difficulty I have is that it is not just my own Department.

I appreciate that.

I am not afraid as a Minister to take a decision that my officials do not recommend. I have done so on many occasions in the past few years. The OECD, the European Insurance and Occupational Pensions Authority and our own Pensions Authority all say much the same thing, that is, that our minimum funding standard is not too onerous and I cannot ignore that advice. It is the advice I am being given by all the independent authorities that consider these issues. I appreciate that unions may take a different view. Some employers take a different view and the pensions industry may take a different view. However, they all represent particular interests. The regulatory bodies and independent bodies do not take the view that our minimum funding standard is too onerous. They take the view that, if anything, our minimum funding standard is not onerous enough. If I change the standard now, it might be of benefit to people who are due to retire in the next few years, but I would be causing harm to people in their 30s, 40s and 50s who are paying into schemes and who may find that all the money is gone by the time they get to retire.

We move on to Question No. 31. Tá Deputy Donnchadh Ó Laoghaire as láthair.

Deputy Ó Laoghaire asked me to take the question. Is that possible?

A Deputy can ask another Deputy to take his or her question but he or she must first get approval from the Ceann Comhairle. I have no note of approval from the Ceann Comhairle in respect of Question No. 31. I am sorry about that.

That is no problem.