Topical Issue Debate

Child Protection

I am bringing this matter to the attention of the Minister of State, Deputy Stanton, because a number of people in the film and theatre sector have raised with me the ongoing issue of the Garda vetting system's interaction with short-term arts projects. When efforts are being made to protect children who are involved in film and television productions, which often involve four-day or five-day projects, it is almost impossible to secure a vetting record at short notice. The managers and producers of shows in which children are involved as participants and as audience members have an obligation to ensure those children are protected. As the Minister of State will be aware, the nature of the culture, arts and entertainment business means that participants can drop out of a show and be substituted at short notice.

I would like to put a question that has been raised with me to the Minister of State. How do directors and producers discharge their duties under the Children First Act 2015? I know he has said that the Garda National Vetting Bureau has a turnaround of approximately five days. I think we are all aware of the discussion that has taken place about this industry in the context of the revelations that have emerged in the Weinstein case and in other cases. Issues can arise when children are part of these productions. In some cases, this activity is extremely well organised and regulated. In other cases, particularly smaller productions featuring people at the start of their careers, there is no real structure that makes information and support available to those who are seeking to comply with child safety and protection requirements.

I would like to hear from the Minister of State about the supports that are available to people in the arts, film and culture sector generally so that their organisations can know in advance what they need to do to ensure children working with them on various artistic projects - in film and theatre, for example - are safe. I have been informed that in a number of instances, producers have discovered after a short show, performance or project lasting less than a week that a performer or participant may have been known to the Garda. It is obvious that such a person would not be suitable to work with children. This is a very serious problem, although I am not aware of any serious incidents to date.

I know there has been a tradition of guardians or chaperones working with children, particularly on bigger productions. Very often, one or both parents or a close relative is on site while a child participates in a particular performance, film or project. That is very good. People doing smaller productions or short projects do not seem to have an easy pathway to the Garda National Vetting Bureau. That is why I am asking the Minister of State to take this significant issue on board. Many people who work in this sector are very anxious to ensure children who are involved in it are properly protected.

I am responding on behalf of my colleague, the Minister for Justice and Equality, Deputy Flanagan. I thank Deputy Burton for raising this important and interesting issue. As we all know, vetting in respect of certain employment is carried out by An Garda Síochána, primarily in accordance with the provisions of the National Vetting Bureau (Children and Vulnerable Persons) Act 2012. As the Deputy will appreciate, the primary purpose of these vetting arrangements is to seek to enhance the safety of children and vulnerable adults. In the previous Dáil, I was the Chairman of the committee that did pre-legislative scrutiny of this legislation. It was very interesting to see how it was supposed to operate.

Vetting is vital work that must be carried out rigorously. In accordance with the 2012 Act, registered organisations must obtain vetting for people seeking employment and volunteers, where the relevant work or activities of the position sought involves regular access to children or vulnerable adults. It is important to highlight that the meaning of "relevant work" in the context of the Act covers "any work or activity which is carried out by a person, a necessary and regular part of which consists mainly of the person having access to, or contact with, children". The protection of children and vulnerable people is of the utmost importance. The Deputy has mentioned recent issues that have been highlighted in the press and elsewhere. Strict and sector-specific vetting requirements are set out in the 2012 Act, which details the various facilities, establishments and situations in which an individual carrying out relevant work, as defined in the Act, would require Garda vetting.

The Deputy has asked specifically about the need to screen all staff who may come into contact with children in the arts and culture sector. The 2012 Act provides for a general obligation in the case of staff members for whom a necessary and regular part of their work consists mainly of their having access to children. I ask the Deputy to note that the Act includes as "relevant work" the provision of cultural activities to children, unless that "is merely incidental to the provision of" those activities to adults. For example, a person organising a one-off family arts event would not require Garda vetting, but a person employed to run a series of art workshops for children would need to be vetted.

A question frequently arises about the duplication of vetting. This is of interest in the arts and culture sector, in which an individual may provide a service to several organisations. The Act provides for a degree of flexibility, which helps to decrease the administrative burden for relevant organisations. The 2012 Act provides for certain limited circumstances in which organisations can share a single vetting disclosure if this is agreed to by the vetting applicant. It also makes specific provision in respect of people who may be employed on a recurring but non-continuous basis. Having said that, we must always be careful to ensure vetting disclosures are up to date to take account of the most recently available information. The Garda authorities continue to engage with registered organisations to maintain standards and promote best practice in vetting.

I thank the Minister of State for his reply.

Is the Minister of State satisfied? In a certain sense, responsibility for this area really lies with the Department of Culture, Heritage and the Gaeltacht and my original question was, in fact, to that Department although the Minister of State, Deputy Stanton, is answering it. I do not have a problem with that.

Say a young person has just recently started his or her professional work having graduated from college and is now a film maker, is putting on shows or whatever. Inevitably, as an arts worker, that person is highly likely to be self-employed over a lengthy period. I am not aware that there is any general strong system of information that would seek to make him or her aware of responsibilities under the vetting legislation, for example in any curriculum of any third level college. People might start out, for instance, doing small productions, small films and so on. I think it really is necessary to have a system of strong communication.

I know the Arts Council seeks to have general information for arts organisations in respect of their obligations over a range of things including, for instance, bullying and harassment. We have unfortunately heard of those kinds of cases in recent times in the Irish theatre.

Would the Minister consider putting a broader campaign in place to advise parents whose children may become involved in this area? It is a very exciting thing for a child or maybe for the parent to do, to be involved in film and the arts. Particularly in the context of the Government spending a lot of money on strategic communications there ought to be plenty of budget available to do this.

I will certainly pass on that particular comment to my colleague, the Minister for Culture, Heritage and the Gaeltacht. I am sure she will be interested in taking it on board. Obviously it is important that any information we can get out there should be put out there.

In general terms, the processing system as we know it is working well. The vetting system is working well and the Garda authorities have said that the vast majority of vetting applications - in excess of 80% - are processed by the National Vetting Bureau in five working days, as the Deputy has said, or even fewer. This represents a very significant improvement in turnaround times in recent years. In mid 2013, an application for Garda vetting took an average of 14 weeks, as we can all recall. This improvement has come about because of the huge investment by Government and the Garda authorities in providing this service, including an increase of over 80% in staffing levels and the roll-out in 2016 of the eVetting system. The online processing of applications has streamlined the vetting process enormously and the eVetting system is available to all registered organisations.

In certain circumstances, processing times for a given application can be longer, for example when additional inquiries may be needed or where there are errors in the application and so on. Delays can also occur in other aspects of the application process which are outside the control of the Garda authorities. I emphasise that the vetting process demands rigorous procedures to safeguard its integrity and to maintain the highest level of confidence by the public and organisations availing of the service. It is a very important service, as I am sure we all agree.

The Deputy's main point is that more people need to be aware of their obligations under that service. I will certainly convey that request and the Deputy's message back to my colleagues.

Medicinal Products Reimbursement

I am disappointed the Minister for Health, Deputy Simon Harris, is not here. The matter is the urgent need for the Minister for Health to request an update from the HSE drugs group on reimbursement of the drug Vimizim.

Two of the children who use this drug are in the Public Gallery. One of them is from Leitrim and one from Kilkenny. Both of them are very anxious and worried that they have not got any decision. They really depend on getting this drug approved. There are only three children in the country using it. I appeal for something to happen in this regard.

I thank the Leas-Cheann Comhairle for selecting this matter for discussion. The drug Vimizim is produced by BioMarin in its manufacturing operations in Shanbally, Co. Cork. It has been granted market authorisation in many countries worldwide for treatment of Morquio A syndrome. This is a rare, degenerative, potentially life threatening genetic condition that affects major organ systems in the body. It can substantially limit the quality of life of those affected and patients rarely live beyond the second or third decade of life.

This drug, Vimizim, is the first and only enzyme replacement therapy designed to target the underlying cause of this disease, which currently affects only ten known patients in Ireland. As my colleague has said, one of these patients is an 11 year-old girl from my constituency, Carlow-Kilkenny, who has battled bravely to lead a robust and fun filled life despite this challenging medical condition. This little girl’s family were delighted when their daughter was one of two Irish children included in the trials for Vimizim which began in September 2011. I want to read a previous statement from her mother, who is in the Gallery, into the record:

This is a progressive and damaging condition. I don't know how she will be without the medicine. It gives her stamina and energy and it is our only chance for her.

Unfortunately this brave young girl could lose her access to this drug very shortly. The voluntary drug supply that has been given to her is being withdrawn next Friday. From next Friday, this child will not have this drug that has given her the quality of life of the last couple of years.

The HSE drugs group has denied a number of applications for reimbursement. It has denied it twice so far. BioMarin submitted an application for reimbursement to the HSE in 2015. On 15 June 2017 it received a letter from the HSE confirming the decision not to reimburse the drug Vimizim in Ireland. The decision not to reimburse the drug on the grounds of insufficient clinical data and lack of value for money is surprising, given the nature of rare disease medicines and the acceptance of these in other countries. BioMarin met with the HSE again in July 2017 and resubmitted additional evidence and a new commercial offering for consideration at the HSE drugs group meeting on 18 September 2017. On 13 November 2017 while attending the HSE on another matter, BioMarin was informed that the HSE would not reimburse Vimizim for Irish patients. That was the second time.

The negative feedback from the HSE for a second time was particularly unfortunate, given that the drug is currently available to children and adults with Morquio A syndrome in many countries following an assessment of the very same data. The drug is currently commercially available to patients in the United Kingdom, our next door neighbours, Northern Ireland which is joined to us, Germany, Spain, France, Italy, the Czech Republic, Hungary, countries in the Middle East, the Russian Federation, Brazil, Canada, and the United States.

BioMarin requested a meeting with the HSE again in December 2017 and agreed to submit a new application, which was due to be discussed at the HSE drugs group meeting on 18 January 2018, just a couple of weeks ago. However, since this date they have had no communication from the drugs group, which leaves both patients and the company in the dark as to whether the drug will be reimbursed or not. We understand from parliamentary questions, of which I submitted many, however, that the drug was discussed at this meeting. I know very well the Minister of State will state that responsibility for decisions on reimbursement is solely that of the HSE drugs group and he is bound by legislation not to intervene. Surely the Minister can contact the HSE drugs group directly on behalf of the young people who are here today, their families and the other eight known Irish people with this condition and demand that they urgently report on their most recent meeting of 18 January.

I thank the Deputies for raising this issue. It was raised this morning as well during Leaders Questions. I acknowledge the people in the Gallery who have more than a passing interest in this serious issue and in ensuring that we get a satisfactory outcome.

Securing access to new and innovative medicines in a timely manner is a key objective of the Minister for Health and the Health Service Executive. However, these new products are often very expensive, with significant potential impact on the health service budget. The Oireachtas has put in place a robust legal framework in the Health (Pricing and Supply of Medical Goods) Act 2013, which gives full statutory powers to the HSE to assess and make decisions on the reimbursement of medicines, taking account of a range of objective factors and expert opinion as appropriate. The Act specifies the criteria to be applied in the making of reimbursement decisions which include the clinical and cost effectiveness of the product, the opportunity cost and the impact on resources that are available to the HSE. In reaching its decision, the HSE will examine all the relevant evidence and will take into account such expert opinions and recommendations as are appropriate including from the National Centre for Pharmacoeconomics, NCPE.

This ensures that reimbursement decisions are made on objective scientific and economic grounds. The HSE has advised the Department that, following an intensive process, it has decided not to reimburse Vimizim, which is for the treatment of Morquio A syndrome. I appreciate that this condition is a serious one and that the families of children diagnosed with this illness are extremely anxious to obtain any treatment which they believe will alleviate its symptoms. The HSE drugs group, which reviewed the effectiveness of the drug, did not consider the evidence for its clinical benefit to be sufficiently strong in the context of the proposed cost and budget impact.

The applicant company was notified on 7 November 2017 of the HSE’s decision not to add Vimizim to its reimbursement list. The HSE advised the company that it would be open to reviewing any additional clinical evidence if this becomes available. The company submitted a new application for reimbursement in December 2017. This was discussed at the January 2018 drugs group meeting and will be considered further by the HSE leadership in the coming weeks.

The HSE drugs group, in its decision not to reimburse Vimizim, has on both occasions stated that there is a lack of clinical evidence on the effectiveness of the drug. They have acknowledged that the budget impact to cover the cost was relatively low. The drugs group itself agreed that cost was not an issue. When we talk about drugs we worry mostly about the cost. The drug is available in most of the European Union, including Northern Ireland, our neighbours, and is actually manufactured in Ireland. The manufacturing company applied again to the HSE drug group with new evidence late last year after the drug was rejected at the September meeting. This evidence was largely from the managed access agreement that the company are running in the UK, which the UK accepted. If the clinical evidence has proven acceptable in other countries and the HSE has acknowledged that the cost is not the primary barrier to reimbursement, then the drug should be made available to those who need it.

In respect of the cost, there are figures in the public domain which indicate a very high costing for the use of the drug per patient. These figures are factually incorrect as we are dealing with a weight-based drug, which means that the publicly quoted amount is substantially higher than what the price per patient would be because they are small and the weight per patient means less cost. It is also worth bearing in mind that in the decision not to reimburse the drug the cost was not cited as a significant factor in the decision.

In respect of the managed access agreement, BioMarin has an arrangement in the UK with the National Institute for Health and Care Excellence, the NHS and the patient group where patients who suffer from Morquio A syndrome sign a contract which states they must attend all medical sessions and that, if after a year the medical records note that there has not been an improvement in their circumstances, they agree to come off the drug. In England, if the drug does not work, there is an agreement to stop using it if it is not having any effect. This has the benefit of ensuring that patients who do benefit from the drug can use it and that those who do not discontinue treatment, ultimately ensuring that the costs associated with the drug are solely associated with those patients who benefit from the drug. Clinicians who currently work in this space in Ireland have drawn up a similar guideline in Ireland and the patients are also willing to engage on this basis going forward.

In respect of the HSE drugs group challenges, the decision-making process is non-transparent which leaves the patients and the pharmaceutical company in the dark. The current nature of the drugs reimbursement process as a whole is unsustainable. There are problems associated with the quality adjusted life year based analysis for rare and orphan drugs.

There are two little girls looking down on the Minister of State here today. Next Friday, they will not have this drug, which has helped them over the past four years. Will the Minister of State please, on humanitarian grounds, bring this issue back to the task force and explain the situation? It will involve only a small cost to the taxpayers of this country.

I assure the Deputy that I take very seriously my responsibilities in the Department of Health. Indeed, the Deputy takes his responsibilities very seriously, which includes being a representative for his constituents, as indeed does Deputy Martin Kenny. The Deputy makes a very good case, and I certainly will convey the very well presented and well-felt feelings for the two girls, his constituents, who are affected by this.

As the Deputy and the House will appreciate, neither I nor the Minister for Health, Deputy Harris, can tell the Department or the HSE what drugs to okay and what drugs to reject. There is a process in place as a result of the Health (Pricing and Supply of Drugs) Act 2013 which was passed in this House. The criteria is now set in law. It is a strict criteria because we cannot have a situation where drug companies can charge the State, funded by the working and contributing classes of this country, any price they want. There is no magic pot out there. We have to have a structure and there has to be a system in place. While that system is in place, I appreciate that there is a lot of anxiety on the part of the families now. My Department has written to the HSE and asked it to ensure that the care of these two people is paramount in all considerations, and that they will be contacted and kept informed of any decisions and assisted in any way possible. I will redouble those efforts, on behalf of my Department, and convey that to the HSE today, and I can assure the Deputy of that on foot of his request. I cannot go any further and give any confirmation at this stage as to what drugs will or will not be reimbursed by the State.

Hospital Facilities

Tá mé buíoch gur roghnaíodh an t-ábhar seo, a bhaineann le seirbhísí máithreachais in Ospidéal na hOllscoile, Leitir Ceanainn. I am appalled to say that this is not the first time I have raised this issue in this House. I refer to the fact that we have a maternity theatre suite in Letterkenny University Hospital that has never been commissioned. Indeed, there was widespread public anger when Senator Pádraig MacLochlainn and I revealed to the people of Donegal that the bespoke facility constructed in 2000 as part of the redevelopment of the hospital's renal dialysis block has never been used. Incredibly, when we pressed the management of Letterkenny University Hospital to explain the rationale behind this at a meeting, we were told that it was a resource issue. The necessary staffing was never put in place, and other resources were never provided, so therefore the theatre was never commissioned.

It is almost two decades since this facility was built. Before I spoke, I thought about the Minister for Health, Deputy Harris, who has to make a decision on this matter. He was 14 years of age when former Taoiseach Bertie Ahern announced the new theatre in Letterkenny University Hospital. He was probably entering secondary school. Today, he is the Minister for Health, and over that whole period not one mother has had the benefit of the use of that theatre, on which the taxpayers of Donegal and elsewhere spent a large amount of money to create. Why is this happening and when will it be put right? It is my view that the problem is down to sheer incompetence on the part of successive governments. At worst, it amounts to neglect of a part of the country which has been neglected time and time again by successive governments. That is shameful, and a dereliction of the duties of those governments towards the people of Donegal. In this instance, it is particularly a dereliction of their duties towards the women of Donegal.

It is a deplorable situation, but to make matters worse it comes at a time when the hospital continues to experience record-breaking levels of overcrowding. Letterkenny University Hospital has been in emergency status since before the start of this year. It has lengthening patient waiting lists. The hospital has four operational inpatient operating theatres at the moment, yet only three of them can be used all the time. The reason is that the fourth theatre is now used as the maternity theatre because the other maternity theatre, built 18 years ago, was never commissioned. This means the hospital is down to three full-time operating theatres. As a result of this, consultants tell us that they cannot get operating theatre time because one of the theatres is now used for emergency caesarean sections and so on. That means that of the five theatres we have in Donegal, only three are used on a full-time basis. That is not an effective use of resources, and it has been the case for the past 18 years.

Ba mhaith liom ceist a chur ar an Rialtas inniu. Cad é atá ag dul a tharlú i dtaobh an ospidéal seo? An bhfeicfimid an seomra seo ar feadh 18 bliain eile, nó an bhfuil Feidhmeannacht na Seirbhíse Sláinte agus an Rialtas chun pacáiste airgid a chur ar fáil sa dóigh is go dtig linn é seo a chur i gceart? It is unbelievable to think that, while lists grow in Donegal and demand for operations and procedures are at an all time high, the hospital has a purpose-built maternity theatre on site that has been lying idle since 2000. It takes up half of the entire floor it is situated on. To make things worse, a mother who is giving birth and who develops complications in the maternity suite, who should go next door to theatre for an emergency caesarean section, now has to be wheeled out of the maternity unit, through the halls, into a lift and taken to a different floor where the theatre she can be operated on is located.

This is a campaign we are very committed to and, on behalf of the women of Donegal and the children yet to be born there, we are asking the Minister of State for action.

Gabhaim mo bhuíochas leis an Teachta Doherty as ucht an ábhair thábhachtach seo a ardú. The Government is strongly committed to developing and improving services at Letterkenny University Hospital, as is evidenced by the significant level of investment in capital projects in recent years. These developments include a new state-of-the-art blood science laboratory in 2015, a new medical academy and a clinical skills laboratory, both of which opened in 2016. The Deputy will also be aware of the significant investment in the hospital following the flood in 2013. I should also note that further capital investment in the hospital is planned.

I am advised that the obstetric theatre to which the Deputy refers was built in 2000 as part of a four-storey building encompassing day surgery, renal dialysis, medical on-call rooms, a maternity ward and maternity delivery rooms. I have also been advised that the delivery suite was opened in 2007 and has been operational since then, while, as noted by the Deputy, the maternity theatre has never been opened fully and is not currently in use. My understanding is that all emergency caesarean sections are performed in the hospital’s emergency theatre, while elective sections are carried out in the general theatres along with other surgical specialties.

As the House will be aware, in recent years this Government has had a particular focus on the development and improvement of our maternity services. Since January 2016, Ireland’s first national maternity strategy has been published, as well as the HSE's national standards for bereavement care following pregnancy loss and perinatal death and the Health Information and Quality Authority, HIQA, national standards for safer better maternity services. Such initiatives represent essential building blocks to provide a consistently safe and high quality maternity service.

In January 2017, the national women and infants health programme was established in the HSE to lead the management, organisation and delivery of maternity, gynaecology and neonatal services, strengthening such services by bringing together work that is currently undertaken across primary, community and acute care. Last October, the programme published a detailed implementation plan for the phased implementation of the strategy. In that regard, additional development funding of €4.55 million will be provided to the programme in 2018 to implement the strategy and improve waiting times for gynaecology services.

Maternity networks are currently being rolled out across hospitals groups. In that context, and in view of the issue raised by the Deputy on the disused maternity theatre at Letterkenny University Hospital, I will ask the national women and infants health programme to engage further with the Saolta University Health Care Group in order to identify its resource requirements for maternity services in the context of the implementation of the national maternity strategy.

I welcome the Minister of State's commitment that he will ask the national women and infants health programme to engage with Saolta. We have met Saolta and the management of Letterkenny University Hospital. We have raised the matter with the Minister. We want to escalate this issue because we want delivery on it. Everyone will agree that it does not make sense to spend hundreds of thousands of euro constructing a purpose-built maternity theatre adjacent to the maternity suite and not use it. We can go back to the past about resource allocations and all the rest but we need to make sure we do the right thing.

This issue does not just relate to maternity services. While the Minister of State will ask the national women and infants health programme to engage with Saolta in terms of maternity requirement, he should remember that for every day this theatre is not commissioned he is denying the people of Donegal another theatre because the fourth theatre is out of use. It has to be retained at all times for emergency caesarean sections. It cannot be used for inpatient procedures, therefore, it has a knock-on effect in the hospital at large. I emphasise that this is not just about doing the best for the women and the children of Donegal, it is also a way of alleviating the pressure in terms of waiting lists. We have hospital overcrowding yet there is a large space at Letterkenny University Hospital that has been lying empty for the past 18 years.

I am convinced that the Minister of State understands this issue. I hope he does, and I hope this will add to the urgency in respect of it. There is a solution. We do not have to pay a fortune to build this theatre. It is already built. The equipment is in place but we need the staff now to support it. By doing what I propose, we will relieve pressure in other parts of the hospital, which is what we are supposed to be all about.

Go raibh maith agat arís, a Theachta. The Deputy makes a sensible, practical and reasonable argument on all fronts. I believe it is accepted across the House that that is the future. While we are grappling with so many issues in the health service, here is a solution. The role of Deputy Pearse Doherty and others in the House is to refocus, and that is what is missing here. We must refocus the energies and the efforts to utilise this space and, as the Deputy said, it is not just for the women, the children and the fathers of these children into the future. It is also for the well-being and health of the general population of Donegal - nothing to do with maternity services - because it will increase the throughput in the rest of Letterkenny General Hospital and allow many more procedures to be done and eliminate the waiting lists on which we spend so much time beating ourselves up over politically in this House in terms of trying to get to the bottom of them. It is eminently sensible. It is something that can be achieved. I thank the Deputy for raising it in the House as it affords us, as politicians, an opportunity to get our officials to go back to the HSE and work with the Saolta group to try to refocus efforts to get this commissioned and utilised today or sooner rather than later.

Rail Network

I thank the Leas-Cheann Comhairle for selecting this issue. People who woke up yesterday morning, particularly those who rely on Irish Rail, and read the lead story by Paul Melia in the Irish Independent would be concerned and anxious about the potential closure of rail lines. The Taoiseach tried to downplay that yesterday and said the report was two years out of date. That is factually incorrect. This report was given to the Minister with updated data as of November 2017, albeit the third review of the Irish rail network. The Minister sought submissions for the review of the rail network two years ago and my party made one at that time.

We have yet to have a meaningful debate in this House on the future of the Irish rail network. What we do know is that this year, Irish Rail is €43 million below what it needs to maintain the condition of the rail network. Certain rail routes are at absolute capacity; they are bursting at the seams, so to speak. The condition of certain rail tracks is impaired requiring reduced speeds, which means longer journey times.

Earlier today, at a meeting of the Joint Committee on Transport, Tourism and Sport, the Minister said he wants Irish Rail to be more efficient and more profitable. The simple truth of the matter is that we will not have any new carriages - additional capacity - in Irish Rail for a minimum of 18 months. I refer to the 28 reconditioned carriages that are due for delivery at the end of 2019. To date, funding has not been allocated to order new carriages and even if new carriages were ordered today, we would not see deliver until late 2022. There is insufficient funding for rail tracks. There has been investment in recent years, however, and the opening of the Phoenix Park tunnel in late 2016 demonstrates that where we provide an adequate service and connectivity, passengers will respond.

How does the Minister intend to increase the revenue? How does he intend to increase the number of people using our train lines? How does he intend to reverse the disastrous decisions taken in recent years in terms of under-funding a critical piece of infrastructure? This morning, I was contacted by commuters on the Mullingar to Dublin line. There was no heating on the train despite the fact that the temperature outside was minus 2° Celsius. That will not encourage more people to use the service in question.

First, can the Minister confirm that there will be no rail closures whatsoever? Can he confirm, here and now, how he intends to ensure that we can increase capacity, increase passenger numbers, reduce journey times and increase frequency to attract people to use Irish Rail?

Second, another important point for Irish Rail is the tens of thousands of CIÉ pensioners who are facing huge uncertainty. My colleague, Deputy O'Dea, raised that issue with the Minister in December and was complimented by the Minister for bringing it to his attention.

He was unable to give further answers at that time without engaging again with the board of CIÉ. What action has the Minister taken since and can he update the House in his reply as to how these people who paid into a defined pension scheme can have their legitimate expectations met by CIÉ?

I thank Deputy Troy for raising this very important issue. He has asked me to address the report on the future of the rail network, which I intend to do. The rail review report was undertaken jointly by the National Transport Authority, NTA, and Iarnród Éireann and published in 2016. The NTA then held a public consultation on the published review. The purpose of the review was to look at the existing rail network, identify the funding required both to maintain the network and provide for necessary capital works, and to consider the gap in funding in that regard. The review also examined the potential of the rail network to meet the economic, environmental and social needs of the State in the future and discussed the importance of maintaining a rail network to support strategic sustainable growth in travel demand. The review highlighted the considerable amount of taxpayer support currently provided to the rail network and provided an overview of the estimated additional funding required to support the network over the period 2016 to 2021. While the review identified a funding gap for Irish Rail, which stood at approximately €100 million per annum at the time of publication, I am glad to note that since the report was published, the Government has announced significant additional funding for rail infrastructure and services. As such, the funding requirement is being addressed.

Deputies will be aware that the Government and the taxpayer provide huge levels of support for public transport. Between 2008 and 2016, over €5 billion was made available to the three CIÉ companies across the public service obligation, PSO, and capital investment programmes. Of this, Iarnród Éireann received over €3.7 billion, or nearly 75% of the total Exchequer funding provided in the period. I have previously spoken to Members about how we are increasing our spending on public transport services. The PSO subvention increased in 2016 and 2017 and is increasing further this year. Over the three years, the PSO subvention will have increased by approximately 35% in total. In budget 2017 alone, we allocated over €50 million in additional funding to Irish Rail to bring total funding for that year to over €300 million. This significant increase allowed for greater investment in the maintenance and renewal of the network and rolling stock and provided more money for safety projects.

On the capital side, we announced €2.7 billion of Exchequer investment in budget 2018 to invest in public transport infrastructure and facilities over the next four years. The new national development plan will be published shortly and is a ten-year capital plan that will prioritise key investment actions to protect the quality and value of the existing extensive transport networks and to progress new key capital public transport programmes over the period to 2027.

The public consultation process held by the NTA following the publication of the review helped to begin an informed discussion on the current and future role of rail transport in Ireland. Over 300 submission were received in response to that consultation process. The NTA has prepared a report of those submissions, which it is currently updating to reflect the additional funding made available for rail infrastructure and services in budget 2018. Once I have received and reviewed the NTA's updated report on the consultation process, I intend to bring it to Government for consideration.

As I have said previously, I have no plan regarding the closure of any part of the rail network. The Taoiseach also gave assurances in the Dáil yesterday that there are no plans in that regard. To conclude, the role and potential of rail is linked intrinsically to where people live, work and wish to travel. These very issues form the core of the Government's national planning framework, which is being finalised. The new national planning framework will form an important context for the consideration of issues raised by the rail review report and for any recommendations I may bring to Government in due course.

I acknowledge the increase in funding in the past two years but the Minister must acknowledge that we are coming from a very low base. The plain fact is that this year, Irish Rail is €48 million below what it requires simply to stand still. The Minister referred to the review of the capital plan and what will happen over the next ten years, but what will happen here and now? What will happen those people who have seen new timetables for their services, which show increased journey times due to the condition of tracks that require trains to go slower? What will happen with rail carriages that are bursting at the seams? We will not have any further carriages until, at minimum, late 2019, if it is reconditioned carriages, or 2022 were new carriages to be ordered in the morning. The Minister is not answering that question. Funding is available in the Juncker plan, which is a point I have made to the Minister umpteen times at the Oireachtas transport committee, and CIÉ and the NTA should be making that investment in our rail network. The Minister referred to the national planning framework and he is right that we should be encouraging residential development along existing rail lines. We are not doing it, however, and in any event the existing lines lack any further capacity. What is happening here and now, not in ten years' time?

The Minister failed even to acknowledge the point I made in the last minute and a half of my opening statement. It is a matter Deputy O'Dea raised with the Minister in December 2017. The Minister gave an undertaking to come back to the House having looked into the defined pension scheme for the tens of thousands of people who have paid into it and who have a legitimate expectation of a defined pension. I hope the Minister will take his two-minute reply to answer their concerns.

I thank the Deputy for addressing these problems again and repeating what he had to say in the first place, partly, I suppose, because he feels I did not answer all of his questions. A lot of what the Deputy says is correct, but the CIÉ group, in particular Iarnród Éireann, is in a better place than it was two or three years ago. Things are improving significantly. Part of that is due to the fact that there is more Government intervention and funding. As a result, we have seen increased passenger numbers. Irish Rail is experiencing business growth with increasing passenger numbers and the introduction of new passenger services. It is not all doom and gloom. While it is difficult, it has always been so because it is, quite rightly, a heavily subsidised organisation.

I asked about new carriages and track improvement.

Last year, passenger numbers on Irish Rail services increased by 6% from 42.8 million to 45.5 million passenger journeys per annum.

I am aware of that. I asked specific questions.

The introduction of new passenger services, such as the service through the Phoenix Park tunnel from the Kildare line to the stations between Connolly Station and Grand Canal Dock for commuters, have helped to keep passenger numbers expanding.

I made that point myself.

The planned expansion of DART services to a ten-minute frequency and further enhancements of other commuter services will also help to grow the business further. It is not fair to come in and say things are getting worse when they are improving. They cannot all get better at the same time, but the Deputy is aware-----

Journey times are getting longer, there are capacity issues on our trains and I asked the Minister to address those two points.

The Deputy is aware of the great potential and the commitments that will be given in the national development plan. These will include many of the things the Deputy seeks. I ask for a little patience. The CIÉ group of companies is coming out of a very dark place. If we can get them out of that, we will have achieved a great deal for the nation and the travelling public.