Léim ar aghaidh chuig an bpríomhábhar

Dáil Éireann díospóireacht -
Thursday, 25 May 2017

Vol. 952 No. 2

Topical Issue Debate

Homeless Accommodation Provision

I am disappointed the Minister for Minister for Housing, Planning, Community and Local Government, Deputy Simon Coveney, is not here. Is the Minister of State, Deputy Damien English, not utterly ashamed of his Government? On the day it was revealed that we have reached a new low with 12 homeless families being told to go to Garda stations, some of whom ended up sleeping in parks, the Government claimed it was doing its very best to deal with this issue and simultaneously chose to vote against a Bill which would stem the flow of people into homelessness by reducing rents to affordable levels and preventing economic evictions. That position exposes the utter hypocrisy of the Government. It says it cares about the families who are in this unprecedented and diabolical situation with children and their mothers in parks. It says it wants to do something about it but when it is given an opportunity to do so, it votes against a Bill that would enact emergency measures to prevent people sliding into this dire position. It does so because it wants to protect the so-called market, in other words the landlords and vulture funds who are evicting people.

I received a telephone call as I was coming into the Chamber from Sinéad Murphy, a woman whose case I have raised twice with the Taoiseach. For the second time, she has been placed in a hostel in Dublin city centre that is located 12 km from her four year old daughter's school. The council will not allow her to take an available place in a hotel near her daughter's school in which there are people who want a place in town but are not allowed to take it. This is unbelievable.

This morning during Leaders' Questions, the Tánaiste stated that everyone wants to see the homelessness problem solved and every possible initiative is being taken. This statement is not supported by reality. According to Focus Ireland, in March last, 77 families in Dublin experienced homelessness for the first time, while in March 2013 five families became homeless. The 4% cap on rent increases introduced by the Minister for Housing, Planning, Community and Local Government, Deputy Simon Coveney, in December 2015 is not working. Rents are going through the roof and have increased by 13.9% in Dublin in the past year. There are no meaningful measures in place to stop rising rents, curb evictions, help those in mortgage arrears or prevent land banking to meet the needs of the homeless in a manner that grants them dignity and respect.

More than 700 families are living in hotels and bed and breakfast accommodation in Dublin city. Many of them are forced to self-accommodate, sometimes spending whole days ringing around to secure a temporary place to stay in a hotel, unsure where the place will be or for how long it will be available. This practice, which cost the State €39 million last year, creates a massive transfer of public wealth to private hands and is also a violation of the human rights of thousands of women, men and children. The Minister of State indicated he hopes to end this practice by July but at this stage we suspect that is unlikely. When will it stop and what then?

According to figures in Rebuilding Ireland, work started on 549 social homes and 204 social homes were completed in the first quarter of 2017. Dr. Rory Hearne, in a recent analysis of Government housing policy, showed that Dublin City Council will build only 560 new social housing units in the next two or three years based on current plans. At this rate, it will take at least 30 years to house those on the Dublin city housing waiting list. Is there any change of plan?

It is unbelievable - can my microphone be switched on please - that, having just discussed a release free of charge of in the biggest robbery in history, and in a country with almost 200,000 empty properties and rents having soared by 66% since 2011, the Dáil voted against a measure that would put a stop to this. Last Saturday, I stood on the Ballyfermot Road to prevent a woman and her two children being illegally evicted. Last night, 30 homeless children were left in Garda stations and parks. What sort of society are we living in? The focus of the Government and media is on the beauty contest between two failed Ministers, one of whom failed us on health in the past and is now failing us in social welfare and the other who is utterly failing us on housing. The Government is disgraceful. I bet the Minister of State that people will be sleeping in parks again tonight.

I refer to the question I asked earlier on the housing assistance payment. I bet the Minister of State that if he were to examine the cases of the families who were left homeless last night, he would find that some of them have been failed by the HAP scheme. The scheme is not working because landlords will not take it. The Minister of State should tell Selina Hogan and families who are consistently being refused accommodation that the scheme works. While the Department will give them the money, landlords will not take HAP payments. The Minister of State cannot gloss over the reality and he should stop giving us pretend statistics. We know what is happening in the real world. The Minister of State probably knows what is happening but chooses to turn a blind eye because he gets well paid for doing so. He should wake up, smell the coffee and do something to support these families and give them a real possibility of securing housing.

I will not turn a blind eye to what is happening. All the statistics and figures the Department provides are fully transparent and available on our website. As I indicated in our earlier discussion, I have no doubt the housing assistance payment does not work for everybody but it works for many people.

The Minister of State should check with the people who were homeless last night.

We will have one speaker at a time.

I did not interrupt the Deputy. There is a story behind every family, which is fair enough, and I will not place anyone's story on record. However, the HAP scheme works for many people. Approximately 800 people who were homeless last year are now in accommodation as a result of the housing assistance payment. These people are content but the Deputy wishes to focus only on the negative. While I accept that the scheme does not work for some people and this merits discussion, it is wrong to claim it does not work, full stop. It works for thousands of people.

The Minister of State should stop exaggerating.

Since Christmas alone, more than 600 people who presented as homeless have secured HAP tenancies and are in a much better position than they were previously.

I thank the Deputies for raising this important issue and welcome the opportunity to clarify the position regarding what was a very distressing situation for all concerned. The Government is absolutely committed to addressing the issue of homelessness. There is now a focused and co-ordinated approach to tackling it across multiple Departments and agencies.

As Deputies are aware, Rebuilding Ireland: Action Plan on Housing and Homelessness launched in July last year provides a multi-stranded, action orientated approach to achieving the Government's key housing objectives and tackling homelessness in a comprehensive manner once and for all.

It is important to make clear that statutory responsibility for the provision emergency accommodation to homeless services rests with individual housing authorities. The Department's role involves the provision of a national framework of policy, legislation and funding to underpin the role of housing authorities in addressing homelessness at local level. Consequently, it does not play a role in operational issues.

When a family presents as homeless out of hours in Dublin, the dedicated family homeless action team will work with the family to secure hotel accommodation for the night, with a more detailed assessment of the family's requirements taking place the next day. The family homeless action team is provided through Focus Ireland, which is funded by the four Dublin local authorities to provide this valuable service.

Regarding the events that occurred in Dublin city on Tuesday night, 24 May, I understand that the demand for emergency accommodation was at unprecedented levels and there was a scarcity of available hotel or bed and breakfast accommodation. As a consequence, Focus Ireland was unable to source hotel accommodation for all of the families that had been referred to it that night. Dublin City Council's central placement service maintains a number of contingency spaces for families that are intended for use only in absolute emergencies when families present out of hours and no commercial accommodation can be secured. I understand that, when the homeless action team was unable to source hotel accommodation on Tuesday, these contingency spaces were brought into play. Given the unprecedented demand that night, however, these spaces were soon fully utilised, with a number of families remaining unaccommodated. Accordingly, and in line with agreed working arrangements, Focus Ireland referred the remaining families to Garda stations as a last resort and with a view to their safety.

I understand that the issue of contingency capacity for families was on Dublin City Council's agenda prior to Tuesday night and that the council had been working to increase the volume of its contingency spaces to 14 family units. Unfortunately, this additional capacity only came on stream on Wednesday night. While that was a day too late for the families in question, it is of some reassurance that this additional capacity now exists within the system.

I have made it clear that I do not consider hotel accommodation to be appropriate for families for anything other than a short period. The Minister has been clear on this as well and has committed to end the use of hotels. The events of Tuesday night highlight that a reliance on hotel accommodation is not only inappropriate, but precarious. It was with this understanding that Rebuilding Ireland included an explicit commitment to ensure that, by mid-2017, hotels would only be relied on for emergency accommodation in limited circumstances. To meet this objective, there has been a focus on meeting families' long-term housing needs through housing supports such as the enhanced HAP scheme and general social housing allocations. Significant outputs are being achieved in this regard and housing authorities achieved more than 3,000 sustainable exits from homeless accommodation into independent tenancies during 2016, which was a record level of exits in a calendar year.

This morning, Mr. Mike Allen of Focus Ireland stated that emergency accommodation would not solve the crisis and, specifically, that we needed legislation to stem the flow of families into homelessness. A few hours later, we had a Bill in the Dáil that would have done precisely that - stop economic evictions and reduce rents to affordable levels - but the Government and Fianna Fáil voted it down to protect the landlords and vulture funds. How can the Minister of State live with himself when families are degraded to the level of sleeping in parks, when young children are put in danger and when people are neglected in this way and the Government still votes down measures that could do something about the situation? How could the Taoiseach write to me to say that the Government is making progress when the numbers in emergency accommodation have increased by 462% since Fine Gael entered government in 2011? It should be ashamed of itself. This is unbelievable.

There are still no effective rent controls or taxes on landbanking. Airbnb is making the housing crisis worse and operates in a strange place legally. Last year, An Bord Pleanála upheld a Dublin City Council ruling that an apartment owner in Temple Bar needed to apply for planning permission if the owner wanted to continue renting the property out via Airbnb. The Minister, Deputy Coveney, promised to address the issue. In August, there were 4,931 Airbnb listings in the city area, the bulk of all Dublin region listings. By February, that number had increased to 6,729, or 36%. It seems that having long-term tenants is a mug's game these days. One man recently told RTE that he was subletting 40 rooms on Airbnb after renting them from landlords around Dublin and that it was a lucrative business. The apartment at the centre of the An Bord Pleanála case reportedly made €79,000 in one year.

This is a criminal development in the middle of the housing crisis. Starting this month, home owners in central Barcelona are only permitted to rent out one place on Airbnb. How is the Department getting on with its plans in this regard?

Deputy Wallace stated that having tenants is a mug's game, but it is sometimes the same in the context of HAP. Someone joins HAP and, after a year, the landlord issues him or her a notice to quit in order to sell the property, mar dhea. Our Bill would have stopped such properties being sold except in exceptional circumstances. This is happening on a large scale because landlords can make profit as the price of houses increases.

The Minister of State should not pretend that the homelessness crisis will be sorted by the type of diatribe that is written on both sides of this page. It means nothing. The Government gives us this answer every day and every day there are more families facing homelessness. The Government's solution is to stick them into the Bargaintown premises in Coolock, which is like something in which refugees in Athens would be housed. Stick them in Bargaintown and tell them it is temporary when it is actually permanent because the Government does not have a permanent solution to the housing crisis.

Permanent solutions can only be provided by increasing the supply of housing. It is as simple as that, regardless of how one looks at it. We must increase supply. I will not go through all of the interventions that the Government and Department are making to achieve that, but much more housing is coming on stream this year, including through the use of vacant properties. Housing authorities are also pursuing the delivery of additional and enhanced supported temporary accommodation that is more suitable for the short-term accommodation needs of such households than commercial hotel arrangements, which have existed for years, while move-on options to long-term independent living are identified and secured. This includes the procurement of properties that are suitable to serve as new family-focused supported temporary accommodation and the reconfiguration of existing private emergency accommodation to provide improved family facilities and supports.

Capital investment in the region of €25 million is being made in a range of projects to provide custom developed facilities that will offer appropriate temporary accommodation for homeless families. These will come on stream in May, June and July. I have visited some of those facilities. I accept that they are not a permanent solution, but what they offer is a hell of a lot better in terms of services and accommodation needs-----

Than Fairview Park.

-----than commercial hotels. They are a worthy investment for people who declare themselves homeless.

In April, we saw for the first time in many months a reduction in the number of families in commercial hotels. While the overall number in emergency accommodation showed an increase last month, the number of families in hotels and bed and breakfasts in Dublin reduced from 870 to 695. We are continuing to work closely with the Dublin local authorities to ensure that this downward momentum continues as we work towards achieving our mid-year target.

Since Christmas, more than 600 people have presented as homeless and have been found solutions in HAP housing. Many people are finding other accommodation as well, but we are dealing with the day-to-day presentations, the number of which is still quite high, while also trying to deal with people who have been in hotels for 12 months, 18 months or longer than they should have been. We are making progress. The Minister, Deputy Coveney, has set a target and we will achieve it. People will not be in hotels by mid-2017. That is what we are trying to do. The Deputies mentioned a number of the places in question, but I urge them to visit some of the new family housing units and see what they provide. They are not full-time-----

Some 12 km or 15 km away from a school is no good.

I did not interrupt anyone. The units are not meant to be permanent, but they are much better than the temporary solution that existed previously.

Post Office Network

I will give one minute to my colleague, Deputy Eugene Murphy, if that is okay.

I welcome the opportunity to raise this issue on the floor of the Dáil and I thank the Ceann Comhairle for selecting it.

The future of the An Post network - both the post office network and the mail distribution network - has never been more uncertain. I will discuss the Athlone mail distribution centre in particular. It is regrettable that the responsible Minister is not present to answer questions, given the fear among staff in Athlone. I have met some of them and spoken with many more. The Athlone mail centre is ideally located in the heart of the midlands. It has excellent transport links to all parts of the country and is located in the same business park as DPD Ireland, which recently doubled its premises in size to form its national hub. That shows how ideally located the area is. The mail centre's 183 staff are extremely efficient, having won many awards for their work. Not only that, but they have been flexible. In the face of decreasing volumes of mail in recent years, they have collaborated to achieve significant staff savings.

I understand that consultants have been employed to examine the future of the mail distribution network.

The only centre those consultants have not visited is the mail centre in Athlone. I do not think that is fair or right. At the very minimum, I want to receive a guarantee today that those consultants will engage with the management and the unions representing the workers in Athlone's mail distribution unit.

Second, in regard to the An Post network, who is the responsible Minister? It was the Minister of State, Deputy Ring, but, seemingly, he now does not want it and it is going back to the Minister, Deputy Denis Naughten. Is that true and, if so, when will the Minister take responsibility? Does the Government agree with the sentiments expressed by the CEO of An Post in regard to the number of closures needed? Does the Government feel the An Post network is an asset and, if so, is it going to invest in it? The Irish Postmasters' Union signed up to the Bobby Kerr report under the last Government. Its members are wondering when the recommendations of that report will be implemented, because we should be implementing them now, not analysing and discussing a new report.

I support Deputy Troy in bringing forward this matter and in regard to the strong case he has made. People are worried and concerned about the Athlone mail centre. When we lose our mail sorting centres in the counties, they go to the regions. That is fine and the regional centres are doing a good job, but if we lose that, it is a big concern.

I find it bizarre and unbelievable that, yet again, not one of the Ministers is present. The Minister of State, Deputy Finian McGrath, is a good replacement and he is well able to fight his corner. However, we have been told from the start that the Ministers, Deputies Humphreys and Naughten, and the Minister of State, Deputy Ring, had responsibility for different areas of An Post, yet not one of them is present. I understand people get caught up and have to go places, and that is acceptable, but we have three Ministers and not one of them would come in here to face the music this evening.

I have said before and repeat now that this is part of a collapse that has been deliberately allowed by the Government - it wants to get rid of 40% or 50% of An Post and it will then come in with a deal. It is unacceptable. It is not the way to govern. The Minister of State should tell us what is happening and whether we are going to have any postal service in a couple of months.

I welcome the opportunity, on behalf of the Minister, Deputy Denis Naughten, to outline the position in regard to the post office network and I would like to thank Deputies Robert Troy and Eugene Murphy for raising this issue. The Minister sends his apologies. I accept the Deputies' point that many people are concerned and I will try to deal with the questions the Deputies have raised.

As Minister for Communications, Climate Action and Environment, Deputy Naughten, has responsibility for the postal sector, including the governance of An Post, to ensure the company is fully compliant with the code of practice for the governance of State bodies and the governance functions included in the statutory framework underpinning An Post. Day-to-day operational matters, including decisions in regard to the restructuring of An Post and the operation of the post office network, are matters for the board and the management of the company and not ones in which the Minister has any role or statutory function.

It is Government policy that An Post remains a strong, viable company, in a position to provide a high quality, nationwide postal service, and that it maintains a nationwide customer-focused network of post offices in the community. The post office network consists of just over 1,100 post offices nationwide. The post office network is a unique social, cultural and financial institution that makes a vital contribution to the Irish economy. That is the Government position. The post office is regarded as a dependable, trustworthy provider of choice to a vast number of our citizens for State services and other commercial transactions.

The Post Office Network Business Development Group was established at the end of 2014 by the then Minister for Communications, Energy and Natural Resources to explore the potential for commercial and additional Government services which could be transacted through the post office network. Following publication of the final report of this group in January 2016, two working groups were established to progress the recommendations of the report. These were the network renewal implementation group, chaired by Bobby Kerr, and the post office hub working group, chaired by the Minister of State, Deputy Ring. On foot of the reconfiguration of Departments in July last, responsibility for the post office network transferred to the Minister for Arts, Heritage, Regional, Rural and Gaeltacht Affairs. Arrangements are now in hand to transfer responsibility for the post office network back to the Minister, Deputy Naughten's Department, under whose remit the corporate governance of An Post rests. Mr. Kerr submitted his report in December last. The final report of the post office hub working group was published in March and its recommendations will continue to be finalised between both Departments.

Colleagues in the House will be aware that An Post is operating in a very challenging environment and is facing a very difficult financial situation. The An Post AGM was held today and the company published its annual report and financial statements for 2016. The Minister has noted the fact An Post recorded an operating loss of €13.7 million for 2016. Clearly, this is a very significant loss and losses of this scale cannot be sustained.

An Post is carrying out a fundamental review of the company with a view to identifying the strategic changes and restructuring necessary to maintain the company on a sound financial footing, and that review is nearing completion. McKinsey is assisting An Post in this review but, as I stated, any decision in regard to the restructuring of An Post is a matter for the board and management of the company. The Minister is, of course, closely monitoring the situation and the Government will be briefed once a definitive strategy has been agreed. It would not be appropriate to comment further on this process at this time.

It is unbelievable. The Minister of State said, "Arrangements are now in hand to transfer responsibility for the post office network back to the Minister, Deputy Naughten's Department". It is over 12 months since the Government was formed and this is being played like a football between the Minister, Deputy Naughten, the Minister, Deputy Humphreys, and the Minister of State, Deputy Ring. No one wants to take responsibility for the network which, as we have just heard from the Minister of State, is lionised as a fabulous network in which the Government has great pride. Yes, it is facing serious financial challenges but those challenges will not be addressed by the Government shirking its responsibilities.

The Irish Postmasters' Union signed up to the Kerr report so why is not being implemented? The question is very simple. Does the Government believe this is an asset? If so, is the Government going to invest in this asset - yes or no? Does the Government agree with the position of the CEO of An Post that we are facing the closure of up to 300 post offices across this country - yes or no?

With regard to the mail distribution centre in Athlone, to which the Minister of State did not refer in his reply, does he think it right and proper that this centre, which is ideally located in the centre of Ireland, is treated in this way? It is located in the same business park which DPD, an international courier company, saw as the right location in which to double the size of its operation and offer enhanced employment opportunities. Does the Minister of State think it right and proper that McKinsey consultants, which were looking at the future of the mail distribution system, did not even engage with the management of one of the most efficient units or with the unions representing the workers? Will he give a guarantee on behalf of the Government that, at the very minimum, those consultants will engage with the management and the unions there? I understand the Minister, Deputy Naughten, visited the centre yesterday, which is welcome, but the consultants need to visit too.

I have listened with interest to the important points raised by both Deputies. I also welcome the fact the Minister, Deputy Naughten, visited yesterday. The post office network plays an important role in serving the needs of business and domestic customers alike. This is at the forefront of An Post's mandate. The post office network has evolved a social role in the widest meaning of the term and this is highly valued by local communities.

The Minister, Deputy Naughten, envisages a strong future for the post office network by using its existing strengths to remain a significant player in the provision of Government financial and other services. That is a commitment.

It has also been a long-standing policy that An Post should remain in a position to compete in a liberalised market and continue to provide wide-ranging services to urban and rural communities. I accept many of the points the Deputies made that there are opportunities available to An Post to develop new or enhanced product lines for the business. The fundamental review of the company being undertaken will form the basis of the significant restructuring required, but this will take time to deliver. I will also raise the issue relating to the consultants and the mail centre in Athlone. I will bring that strong message back to the Minister.

The Minister is cognisant of the challenges ahead, but is working with the company to ensure that An Post can maintain its sustainability and relevance to customers.

Decentralisation Programme

I take this opportunity to raise the issue of the potential for the north west be developed as a key growth centre; to highlight again the country's two-tier recovery and unbalanced regional jobs growth; and to call on the Government to create a balanced jobs policy by investing in infrastructure and public service jobs in the north west.

I support a national review to examine further redeployment of public jobs and of all State agencies to regional and rural areas. Previous redeployment of Government staff outside Dublin created real economic value and brought long-lasting sustainable employment. Thousands of civil servants from Departments are located in counties outside Dublin. Many of these positions have contributed to sustaining employment levels during the crisis period in smaller towns.

There is huge potential for Sligo and Leitrim to be developed as the key growth centre for the north west. We need to see viability and economies of scale in the north west. Sligo-Leitrim is a large rural region and Sligo is the best located large urban centre to support development throughout much of the north west region. With redeployment and recruitment of public sector jobs, along with effective links to other urban centres throughout the region and improved connectivity, Sligo can become a more effective regional driver, supporting a greater share of population, economic and employment growth in Sligo itself and the wider north-west region. Furthermore, the most recent CSO figures show that Donegal, Sligo and Leitrim are among the counties in Ireland with the highest percentages of vacant dwellings. Many properties could be brought back into use in these regions and this would boost local development and ease pressure on prices and rents in Dublin and other areas experiencing vigorous growth.

There is clear evidence of a two-tier recovery with new job creation heavily concentrated in the greater Dublin area. The reality in the north west is that any improvement is happening at an extremely slow pace. There are serious barriers to job creation in this region that must be urgently addressed. The greater Dublin area accounted for about 40% of total employment gains in 2016. Disproportionate concentration in non-rural areas confirms that Government policy is skewed towards an unbalanced regional recovery. The Small Firms Association, representing over 200,000 businesses, has stated that the recovery has not been consistent regionally or sectorally. Many small businesses are still waiting to feel the upturn. Unequal recovery has been backed up by a Department of Finance paper, which stated that economic recovery in Ireland has been uneven across the country, with the recovery thus far primarily concentrated in Dublin and other urban areas.

There has been a clear failure by Government to create a balanced jobs policy towards the regions, with job creation concentrated nearly exclusively in the capital and commuter belt region. The Government has still a long way to go to reach its 2020 target of ensuring every region's unemployment rate is within 1 percentage point of the national figure. I wish to outline a few statics relating to IDA Ireland jobs. Some 45% of all IDA Ireland site visits in 2016 were in Dublin and 50% of all IDA Ireland jobs were in the capital and commuter belt area. In 2016, 48% of all IDA Ireland jobs were in the capital and commuter belt area. The midlands, north east and north west have been almost ignored, with the number of IDA Ireland jobs there accounting for 2.1%, 2.6% and 2.9%, respectively.

There is a very disproportionate concentration of our economy in one region which is not sustainable. To put this into perspective, London accounts for 20% of the UK's total GDP. The Irish concentration in our capital is over 40%. I appreciate that IDA Ireland does not decide where an industry locates. An industry locates in areas where it can get the things it needs to grow, with factors such as skill base and education being important. The Government, however, can decide where to locate public jobs and there is no shortage of highly skilled, qualified and capable people in the north west who are actively seeking work but the jobs just are not there.

I thank the Deputy for raising this matter. As a Deputy from the west of Ireland, I understand his concerns about balanced regional development.

As the Deputy will be aware, the decentralisation programme announced in December 2003 involved the relocation of over 10,000 civil and public service jobs to 53 locations in 25 counties. Up to the date of the cancellation of the programme, approximately one third of the target numbers, over 3,400 staff, were decentralised. While the decentralised offices account for less than 10% of serving Civil Service staff, taken together with the pre-existing regional and district offices of Departments the proportion of civil servants working outside Dublin is now just over 50%.

Non-property costs of the order of €30 million were incurred in respect of the decentralisation programme. These included costs incurred by decentralising offices and the OPW's spend on dedicated staffing for the programme. The staff relocation was accomplished on a voluntary basis without payment of removal expenses or incentives. It was also accomplished with minimal disruption to the ongoing business of the Departments concerned due to the graduated approach and risk management strategies adopted.

In November 2011, the Government agreed that the decentralisation programme should be cancelled in the light of the budgetary and staffing outlook. It was also agreed that a review of 22 projects should be carried out. Following completion of that review in January 2012, a total of 43 projects had been cancelled, while 50 were maintained, to be managed in the same way as other regionally based offices and Departments. It was agreed that one project, the Defence Forces in the Curragh, should proceed, on a cost-effective basis, as soon as budgetary resources permit.

There is a need to focus Government expenditure on programmes and projects that will best support economic recovery as well as the ongoing necessity to control public expenditure and pay, and the need to achieve efficiencies. The Deputy will be aware that the general government debt forecast is 76% of gross domestic product. Ireland is subject to the preventive arm of the Stability and Growth Pact, which links public expenditure growth with the medium-term growth rate of the economy. This means we have very limited resources or fiscal space for increased expenditure in the next four-year period. For these reasons, there are no plans at present to introduce a further programme of decentralisation.

The Government is firmly committed to the successful implementation of the PEACE and INTERREG programmes. It is particularly proud of its role in securing EU funding for a fourth PEACE programme. Along with its sister INTERREG programme, it will see investment of more than €500 million in the region over the period between 2014 and 2020. The programmes are important drivers of regional development in a cross-Border context. Through EU-funded co-operation, a range of Departments and agencies, North and South, have engaged in and benefited from a variety of cross-Border and cross-community projects. Support for the two programmes from the European Regional Development Fund is not only an important source of funding but also a key element of the European Union's continuing commitment to the process of peace building and reconciliation in the region over the last quarter of a century. Since 1991, successive INTERREG programmes have collectively contributed €1.13 billion to the economies of Northern Ireland, the Border region of Ireland and, since 2007, western Scotland.

In February of this year, the Government launched Ireland 2040. The plan is a discussion about how to secure sustained, long-term and regionally balanced progress on social, economic and environmental fronts. It is now time to think about the longer-term future of all parts of Ireland and to plan for that future. This is important and it is why it was included in our programme for Government.

With the return of stability there are a number of projections and challenges that are likely to be realised and we need to start planning for them now. This paper is the start of a major consultation process so that we can avoid the planning mistakes of the past. All communities and regions need to have their say. Decentralisation is not a panacea for the problems facing parts of Ireland, including the north west.

I am disappointed to hear the Government is not even considering redeploying jobs into rural areas. I agree with the Minister of State that decentralisation, which was first mentioned in 2003 to 2004, became a dirty word ultimately. It was a very good idea and the only thing that was wrong with it is that the three-year timeframe was too ambitious. It could not be done in three years. What happened is that when the Departments went to buy property and sites, the gun was put to their head and they were asked for ten times the price. If the plan was to be phased over a ten-year period, it would have given people a chance and senior civil servants could have had an opportunity for their children to finish school, for example. If that had been done, decentralisation would and could have worked.

There are motorways everywhere in the south of the country but there is nothing when one reaches Mullingar when travelling from Dublin. Galway is fortunate to have a motorway all the way to the city, but the same is not true when one travels to Sligo. When I spoke to the IDA, I was told that when it brings people to the north west, those who make decisions are not interested once they reach Mullingar and find there is only a single carriageway road. They are not interested in travelling to Sligo or the north west because of the lack of a proper road structure. Unfortunately, that is the reality. It is not the fault of the IDA either. The people who make decisions on location are company executives. Whatever chance one has with proper infrastructure, one has no chance without it. That is why the Government should reconsider its approach.

I spoke to a friend of mine yesterday whose son is buying a house in Dublin - two up and two down with a ground floor bathroom. The cost is €415,000. One could buy three houses for that amount of money where I live. The quality of life would be totally different. If people had an opportunity and time to make a decision and sort out their affairs, they would move because there is a good quality of life in the north west.

I thank Deputy Scanlon for his remarks. We are two west of Ireland people talking about the west and the north west. My philosophy is that we need to put in infrastructure which leads to development. We talk about infrastructure in terms of roads, railways and broadband. That is what the programme for Government is about. We need to make sure we end up with a balanced economy. We must develop the Atlantic economic corridor, for instance, which is in the programme for Government, in order that we create a counterbalance to the east coast along the west coast from Cork to Derry. We want to have equality in everything. People living in Dublin who have to pay €415,000 for a house are suffering and people in the west are suffering because we do not have economic opportunities for them. The programme for Government is all about creating balanced development for this country and creating a counterbalance to Dublin.

A total of 600 jobs were decentralised to Donegal, Mayo, Leitrim, Mayo, Roscommon and Galway in the previous decentralisation programme. Jobs in the Department of Social Protection were decentralised to Sligo. I agree with Deputy Scanlon that it is necessary to have infrastructure and to extend the roads and motorways. That is our intention. The vision for the Atlantic economic corridor is to create such infrastructure in order that we end up with a situation where our children can grow up in the west and north west, be educated, get jobs and raise our grandchildren there and that the future is safe for them all. It is about creating a balance in society. It is not a huge country but it will take a bit of effort to achieve and the programme for Government has set that out clearly. I look forward to working with Deputy Scanlon in achieving those goals.

Patient Safety

It is no offence to the Minister of State, Deputy Finian McGrath, but I wish to express my disappointment that the Minister, Deputy Harris is not here. This is the second time I have raised a matter concerning University Hospital Limerick in the Topical Issue debate.

He is on the hustings.

Gabh mo leithscéal.

He is on the hustings.

Never mind. Deputy Quinlivan should proceed with the debate.

Yes, I am sure he is on the hustings. This is the second time-----

He is at the Mad Cow.

I am sorry but Members are using my time. This is the second time I have had a matter selected for the Topical Issue debate concerning University Hospital Limerick for which the Minister has not turned up. On the previous occasion the Minister of State, Deputy Catherine Byrne, substituted for him and she said she would come back to me with the answer but she did not do that. I ask the Minister of State, Deputy Finian McGrath, if he commits to it that he will ensure I will get a response from the Minister.

The issue I raise concerns the imminent opening of the new emergency department in University Hospital Limerick, which is very welcome. It is hoped to open the department this month. I am delighted to see €24 million is being invested in a critical piece of infrastructure for our city. The amalgamation of Ennis, Nenagh and St John's hospitals was rushed and the promised centre of excellence was not delivered at the time. To date, the amalgamation has been nothing but a disaster which has led to the present emergency department being described by the Health Information and Quality Authority, HIQA, in recent years as unfit for purpose. The situation remains the same today.

While it is great that the new emergency department is opening, I wish to address some concerns surrounding the move to the new facility that the Minister will, I hope, address. People in Limerick and the entire mid-west have waited a long time for the new emergency department which will benefit patient care and staff working conditions significantly. Having waited for years for it, it is essential we get it right.

The Irish Nurses and Midwives Organisation has raised serious concerns about the move to the new emergency department. According to HSE management, a minimum of 24 patients will be placed on trolleys and recliner chairs in the new emergency department. That has come as a severe shock. The use of trolleys in emergency departments is unacceptable. We need to move away from that means of operation and not embed them into new plans. It is unacceptable that HSE management in the hospital intends to transfer the existing trolley problem to the new emergency department rather than use it as an opportunity finally to solve the problem.

In addition, the INMO has suggested to management that space freed up in the old emergency department could be used to accommodate patients. That would lead to less overcrowding and increased patient safety, but the suggestion has been rejected by management. Other concerns raised by nurses working in the hospital include insufficient staff being assigned to the new emergency department and a lack of staff with an emergency department specialist qualification. I have long campaigned for adequate staffing and funding for University Hospital Limerick. I know how important the hospital is to Limerick and the wider mid-west, and I want to ensure the new emergency department is staffed and resourced adequately.

I know the staff will do their best, as they always have done for many years, to ensure patients are properly looked after when they move into the new emergency department, but they need assistance from management and the Government to address issues they can foresee as they are on the ground. Will the Minister of State ensure the Minister commits to addressing the concerns highlighted and that he will come back to me on them?

I thank Deputy Maurice Quinlivan for raising this very important issue. I know he cares passionately about the hospital in Limerick. I will convey all his concerns to the Minister, Deputy Simon Harris, who sends his apologies for not being present today.

I welcome this opportunity to address the House on this issue. Delivering the new emergency department at University Hospital Limerick is a key project for both the Department of Health and the HSE and is identified as a priority in the HSE National Service Plan 2017. The building is now complete and should be ready to open shortly. There is a bit of good news. The emergency department in University Hospital Limerick is one of the busiest in the country, with approximately 65,000 attendances annually. I am mindful too that demand for emergency department services at the hospital continues to rise. In 2016, University Hospital Limerick experienced a 4.6% increase in new emergency department presentations and we have seen a further increase, of 1%, so far this year.

The House will be aware that overcrowding at the emergency department in University Hospital Limerick has been a concern for some time. I am well aware of the situation there as I have been in the hospital with family members in the past. It is clear that the accommodation and resources in the existing emergency department are not sufficient to support a modern emergency department. The emergency department in University Hospital Limerick frequently works above capacity and that contributes to inefficient ways of working and poor patient experience. However, the end is in sight and there is no doubt the opening of the new emergency department will represent a significant boost for patients in Limerick, Clare, north Tipperary and surrounding areas. Staff too will benefit from the very much improved working environment. I am delighted, therefore, to confirm that the new emergency department will be three times the size of the current department and will provide modern, safe and fit for purpose facilities that meet the expectations of patients and families.

At the same time the new facility will provide high quality, comfortable accommodation that protects patients’ privacy and dignity. This is a very important issue for patients and their families. I understand that the new accident and emergency department has been designed on a pod-based system. The design will improve efficiency and once patients have been triaged they will be assigned to different areas of the emergency department, depending on the seriousness of their condition. Each of these units or pods will have its own waiting area which will accommodate patients waiting to be seen by a clinician following triage. This is very important and is good news.

Clinical teams will be assigned to these units and will be responsible for the treatment, discharge or admittance of patients, within their particular unit. Because of these separate units, it is expected that the time from triage to treatment will be much improved, resulting in fewer patients waiting extended periods of time in the emergency department, and an improvement in the patient experience time. It is also planned to open an interim short-stay unit for admitted patients in the area of the current emergency department, which was occupied by paediatric patients and the clinical decision unit. This unit will have capacity for 17 patients and will dramatically reduce the number of patients waiting on trolleys in the emergency department. The CEO of the UL hospitals group has confirmed that there is no basis for any suggestion that 24 patients will be accommodated on trolleys in the new emergency department.

I thank the Minister of State for his response. I must take him up on his comment on the 24 patients on trolleys because the INMO is insistent that this is what they have been told by management.

I welcome the positive development for Limerick. This emergency department will be a great benefit to many people. I will be visiting the hospital tomorrow at the invitation of the CEO. Limerick has waited long enough for this investment. Everybody has agreed that the old emergency department was not fit for purpose but the concerns of the nurses working on the ground are worrying. A new building and facilities will be of little use if there are no trained specialists there to staff them. These nurses from the INMO are on the ground and know the issues better than anyone. They know what works and what is needed. I suggest the Minister of State listens carefully to their concerns and addresses the problems they raise.

The nurses have also highlighted the need for more preparation for the move to the new facility. Only one dry run of the new facility has been undertaken to date and problems were highlighted in this. It is my understanding that normally two or three dry runs are done before a move like this. Nurses want more preparation and more run-throughs before patients start coming through the doors. Management is clearly not listening to the INMO and that is why I must raise it here. I look forward to the Minister of State taking action on these issues. I welcome what is happening and I hope the Minister of State does not turn what is such a good news story for Limerick into a bad news story by not addressing the issues raised by the nurses.

Of course I will bring Deputy Quinlivan's points to the Minister for Health, Deputy Harris. I take the Deputy's point that it is very important for us to listen to the voices of the nurses on the ground. INMO has always been very positive and constructive in the negotiations, especially in the last 12 months, because both sides have the patient at heart. Their voices should be heard when we are involved in the development of the health service.

We have a problem in relation to filling nursing positions. It is a difficulty and the Government is working hard to tackle this. We have the money for it in the budget, but it is difficult to recruit some of the nurses. We are trying very hard, and the Minister, Deputy Harris, is working very hard on that matter.

The new emergency department in University Hospital Limerick is absolutely state of the art. It will be open soon and I wish everyone in it well. It shows that when we do things we can do them well. Let us hope we can always improve patient safety and best practice.