Saincheisteanna Tráthúla - Topical Issue Debate

Fishing Industry

I am pleased the Minister, Deputy Creed, is in the Chamber because many of the issues I will be raising are technical and only he will fully understand them. There is serious concern in the fisheries sector among processors, producers, exporters and those involved in ancillary services regarding the Department's plans post 29 March 2019. It will be said that this is hypothetical, but we are only two months from that date. I am sure plans are in place, particularly in light of the votes in Westminster last night. We do not want this situation and I know the Minister does not want it. We would have preferred if the deal on offer had been accepted but we must live in the real world. I would like to know what is involved in regard to the proposed amendment of EU Regulation 508/2014, which provides for the European Maritime and Fisheries Fund. I am opposed, and I hope the Minister is too, to the transfer of capital from this fund to provide for emergency funding. There is not sufficient funds there to do that. Any funds for emergency should be additional funding.

I welcome the proposal for a regulation amending EU Regulation 2017/2403 of the European Parliament and of the Council, which makes provision for vessels fishing in UK waters. Has the Minister had discussions with his EU counterparts or his UK counterpart on these proposals? While the proposal is welcome, the arrangement has to be reciprocal. In addition, the producers are uncertain about what will happen after 29 March. I understand emergency measures will be put in place to allow for continuity until the end of this year. Can the Minister confirm that this was agreed at the December Agriculture and Fisheries Council on TACs and quotas? There is so much fear around Brexit. The Minister will shortly be allocating 100% of the mackerel quota to the vessels. I do not know if that is a good sign or not because the allocation is normally 80% or 85%. My fear is that unless there is clarity, this will be front-loaded and that is not good management. It is better if the catching sector can land over a longer period and thus ensure greater prices. Front-loading is worrying. There has to be clarity and I hope the Minister can provide it today and also set out what other plans are in place in the event of a crash on 29 March?

On the Brexit contingency action plan, which was launched on 19 December, as far as I can see there is no reference in it to fisheries. This sends out the wrong signal. It is no wonder the sector is edgy about the preparations and state of readiness on the part of the Government. I await the Minister's response in this regard and would welcome his views on the provision of emergency funding other than through extraction from the EMFF because that funding is required for other measures. To do that would be only a cosmetic exercise by the European Commission.

I thank Deputy Gallagher for raising this issue. The Government remains firmly of the view that the only way to ensure an orderly withdrawal is to ratify the withdrawal agreement as endorsed by the European Council and agreed with the British Government. The European Council has made clear that it stands by the withdrawal agreement and that it is not for renegotiation.

In light of ongoing uncertainty in the UK, however, we are continuing work to prepare for all possible outcomes, including the worst-case scenario of a disorderly Brexit. We have already introduced a range of measures to deal with the short-term impacts of Brexit through a €150 million low-cost loan scheme and increased funding under the rural development and seafood development programmes in 2017, along with a new €300 million Brexit loan scheme in 2018 for Irish businesses that are either currently impacted by Brexit or will be in the future, at least 40% of which will be available to the seafood and agrifood sectors.

Budget 2019 contains a €78 million Brexit package for farmers, fishermen and food SMEs. Our enterprise agencies are continuing to work with seafood companies to help them to deal with Brexit through making them more competitive, diversifying market exposure and upskilling teams. Specifically on fisheries, my priority has been, and remains, to maintain existing levels of access to waters and resources to provide continuity and certainty to our catching and processing sectors. However, in a worst-case scenario of a disorderly departure in March 2019 those reciprocal arrangements could be endangered. I continue to have positive, regular meetings with my European colleagues, especially those from the group of eight member states whose fisheries sectors are potentially most impacted by the United Kingdom's withdrawal from the European Union. I am also working closely with key stakeholders in the Irish fishing industry and I am pleased at the level of unity on these key issues.

In recent days, the Commission has adopted two legislative proposals to help prepare for the potential significant impacts that a no-deal Brexit would have on Irish fisheries. The first proposal is to allow fishermen and operators from European Union members states to receive financial aid under the European Maritime and Fisheries Fund, EMFF, for the temporary cessation of fishing activities. The aim of this is to help off-set some of the impact of a sudden closure of UK waters to EU fishing vessels in a no-deal scenario. The second proposal aims to ensure that the European Union is in a position to grant UK vessels access to European Union waters until the end of 2019, on the condition that European Union vessels are also granted reciprocal access to UK waters based on the agreement in the December Council on the fishing opportunities for 2019. The only clarity from the UK is that European Union vessels will no longer have automatic access to their zone. Whether this means a complete shut out of EU vessels or not remains uncertain at this stage. While I welcome these measures as useful first steps, additional measures, including further financing, over and above the EMFF, at EU level will be required. In this regard, I am continuing to work with the Commission and other concerned member states to continue to develop European Union-wide measures to address the very serious potential problems that may arise. It cannot be left to individual member states to address these problems in isolation. Ireland is particularly exposed with regard to the potential impacts for our fisheries sector. If there has to be a temporary cessation its use must be proportionate across all fleets. It cannot be the case that similar fleets are tied up in one member state and not in another. There must be a level playing field for all those impacted by loss of access to UK waters.

It is not possible to eliminate all risk in a no-deal situation. Any Brexit will be negative, but a no-deal Brexit is the worst possible outcome and would not be in the interests of the UK, Ireland or the European Union. That is why our focus remains on securing the deal that has been reached. Brexit will have negative consequences in all scenarios, but our key protection from whatever Brexit brings will be our status as a member of the European Union, with all the stability and solidarity that brings.

I thank the Minister. My worst fears have been realised. There is no certainty. The European Union, through the Council and the Parliament, have agreed to give UK vessels rights but there is no guarantee that we will have reciprocal rights. It is vital the Minister works with the eight like-minded countries to ensure that an emergency fund is put in place. The EMFF proposal is of no significance. It is only a paper exercise and a budget line. If the European Union is serious about this, the eight countries that are working with the Minister will require the support of the 27 countries to ensure that this funding is provided.

To give an indication of the seriousness of this, 60% of our mackerel and 40% of our nephrons are caught in UK waters. As a whole, 30% of our fish are caught in UK waters so this is vitally important.

When responding, perhaps the Minister could advise why there was no reference to fish in the Brexit contingency action plan of 19 December? Perhaps there is a reason for this but if there is not one, I would be concerned. While the Minister is taking a hands-on approach, does he have the support of the entire Cabinet given that it was not included in that plan?

I would urge the Minister to continue working with the European Commission and other member states on this a matter. The Minister said he is working with the sector but we require a forum to bring together all the interested parties over the next number of weeks and to give them an opportunity to outline to the Minister the seriousness of the problems and for him to let them know what exactly he is doing. I have not heard anyone talk about the link between fish and markets. We were told they would be inextricably linked. There has to be advantages for the UK there. Are we exploiting that?

I thank Deputy Gallagher for the supplementary questions. I assure him that we work extremely closely - hand in glove - with the industry in all its manifestations, from the catching sector to the processing sector. We are acutely conscious of the range of impacts arising from Brexit, not least the displacement from UK waters. The Deputy listed the primary stocks that will be impacted which, in value terms, is worth €85 million. The consequences of that are apparent in many areas, not least in the processing sector, but most critically in displacement and in terms of where those boats will consequently endeavour to catch fish. That is a real issue for us in the context of our capacity to deal with that in terms of our Naval Service, the Sea-Fisheries Protection Authority, overfishing and access via the landbridge to markets in mainland Europe. We are acutely conscious of this and we have always endeavoured, and I think we succeeded in terms of the negotiations on the withdrawal agreement, to link any future trading relationship in the context of the political declaration to continued access to UK waters. That is where the kernel of this is.

Unfortunately what the Deputy is looking for, which I cannot offer, is clarity at this stage as to all the consequences in a disorderly Brexit. We are engaged across the European Commission. Even as late as last Monday I had bilaterals with Commissioner Hogan and will be shortly meeting with Commissioner Vella directly on these matters. We have had ongoing engagement via the group of eight with Michel Barnier and all the asks of the group of eight member states, reflected also in the industry alliance, were delivered in the context of the withdrawal agreement.

That is the preferred route in terms of the UK's departure but the wisdom of Solomon would not suffice to tell us at this stage what the UK's ultimate course of action is going to be. We remain entirely focused on what is possible in the context of our engagement with our EU partners in terms of all the consequences but we have to be brutally honest about it. In the case of a hard Brexit and the UK crashing out, we avoid the desirability of a transition period and a negotiated future trading relationship wherein it was our ambition to link trade with access to UK waters. What the course of action the UK will adopt if it crashes out is unclear. It has not issued any guarantees of future access to its waters and, in that context, it is imperative that we prepare for all scenarios, including adequate financial resources and compensation from the European Commission.

Hospital Services

The programme for Government contains a commitment to "commence the design of a new ED in Beaumont later this year with a view to funding for the construction being provided as part of the 2017 Capital Plan Review." It committed also that:

The new Government will immediately proceed to the design and planning stage for a dedicated Cystic Fibrosis Unit at Beaumont Hospital Dublin for inclusion in the 2017 Capital Plan review. The HSE Cystic Fibrosis Clinical Programme will make further recommendations in the next few months, following a survey of centres and will complete a CF model of care policy.

I am glad the Minister of State, Deputy Finian McGrath, is here because I know he is probably responsible for including that in the programme for Government and has a big interest in these issues.

Beaumont Hospital is one of the busiest in the country and it opened in 1987. It treats in excess of 45,000 patients a year and yet there has been no major investment over the last 30 years. It is operating at maximum capacity while wards are forced to close to facilitate essential temporary refurbishment. Staff are being forced to work under difficult and stressful conditions with limited space and resources to effectively treat patients. The facilities in the emergency department at Beaumont Hospital are in urgent need of investment and improvement. In short, it is not fit for purpose and the people in the area know that.

As it stands, it seems little progress has been made to meet the commitment outlined in the programme for Government to construct a new modern emergency department that is fit to deal with the needs of the large growing population of north Dublin and beyond. This area of north Dublin has a large elderly population and these are the people who primarily rely on the services provided in the emergency department. However, they are fearful to attend the department given the current pressure it is under. The need for a new emergency department in Beaumont Hospital is a major concern for north Dublin. It seems we are nowhere near turning the sod on this project, let alone opening its doors.

What concerns me are the cost overruns in the national children's hospital. The figure for that project is now €1.73 billion and in that regard, €100 million will be needed this year alone. The Taoiseach spoke in the Dáil recently of "re-profiling" projects. I have not heard that word before and it is a very creative word. The overrun of the national children's hospital must have implications for all the other capital projects in the pipeline. I heard the Minister of State on the news one evening saying the situation in Beaumont Hospital was a bottom line for him and in respect of his commitment to the Government generally.

On the cystic fibrosis unit, this is estimated to cost €11 million. I saw reports recently that a planning application is about to be submitted and I would welcome an update on that. The Minister of State will appreciate this is life and death matter. It is of very serious concern to cystic fibrosis patients. Cystic Fibrosis Ireland said that rooms currently used by people with cystic fibrosis were sometimes required by those waiting for a transplant or end-of-life care. These beds need to be provided at Beaumont Hospital and we need to push this project as it is a huge issue.

In terms of the progression of the CF unit capital project, I was informed by the Minister for Health in July of last year that it has been included in the national planning framework under Project Ireland 2040 as well as being recommended for inclusion in the capital plan by the HSE national capital steering committee.

We need these projects. I know the Minister of State is personally committed to them but he has to accept that there have been delays. I would welcome an update on these issues.

I thank Deputy Haughey for raising this important issue and for giving me the opportunity to provide an update to the House on the provision of the new accident and emergency department and the new cystic fibrosis unit at Beaumont Hospital. I appreciate the fact he has raised this issue and is very supportive of it. I would agree with many of the comments he made.

As the Deputy is aware, the Programme for a Partnership Government contains commitments to the development of a new accident and emergency department and a new dedicated cystic fibrosis unit at Beaumont Hospital. I am the person, as the Deputy correctly identified, who included both of these projects in the programme for Government.

On the new emergency department, funding of €100,000 was allocated in 2018 to progress this project to design phase. Councillor Damien O'Farrell, one of my advisers, is driving these two projects with the Department and Government.

The HSE gave written approval for the funding which allowed Beaumont Hospital to go ahead with an EU procurement process for the selection and appointment of a design team for the project. The timeframe for the completion of the emergency department project will be informed by the work of the project team and this work will be undertaken in conjunction with the hospital and the HSE.

With regard to the cystic fibrosis unit, the project will be underpinned by the model of care for people with cystic fibrosis in Ireland which has been developed by the national clinical programme for cystic fibrosis. This will set out standards and requirements for the physical and human resources to be provided for treatment of cystic fibrosis patients from a national perspective. This model of care has been written and is undergoing the final stages of approval. The model of care states that adult cystic fibrosis units must have dedicated single inpatient isolation rooms with en suite facilities. The number of rooms will depend on the number of patients and there should be five inpatient rooms for every 50 adults with cystic fibrosis attending a unit.

Beaumont Hospital submitted a planning application to Dublin City Council on 6 December 2018 for the development of the new cystic fibrosis unit. As I speak, the planning application is up on the wall at the entrance to Beaumont Hospital. The hospital has informed the Department that "the programme of works, if commenced and delivered aggressively and without foreseeable delay, is estimated at 24 months subject to planning permission".

The national development plan, NDP, provides €10.9 billion for health capital developments across the country, including national programmes and individual projects across acute, primary and social care. Health capital projects and programmes currently under way will continue.

Following the publication of the its national service plan for 2019, the HSE is currently developing its capital plan for 2019. The HSE capital plan will determine the projects that can progress in 2019, having regard to the available capital funding, the number of large national capital projects currently under way and the relevant priority of each project. I reassure the Deputy that, despite the debate on the overruns for the children's hospital, about which we are all very upset, these two projects at the emergency department and the cystic fibrosis unit will not be affected, and I have received that commitment from the Government. The requirements of the new cystic fibrosis unit and the emergency department at Beaumont Hospital and other health capital projects, currently at various stages of development, are being considered as part of the capital plan process. When the HSE has finalised its capital plan for 2019, it will be submitted to the Minister for Health for consideration.

I agree with the Deputy that the bottom line is that the emergency department project needs to be done. The people of the area and throughout Dublin Bay North need a new emergency department and we also need the new unit for children and families affected by cystic fibrosis. The planning permission for the unit is up on the wall and we need to drive it on. I will continue to ensure we drive it on within government.

I do not doubt the Minister of State's commitment to these projects but, as I said, the timescale has slipped and there are delays. Beaumont Hospital was opened in 1987 and there has been no major capital investment since then. The services provided there always seem to be on a knife-edge, and while they are first-class services, it needs major capital investment, in particular in the emergency department. People report sitting on plastic chairs for hours at a time and not being admitted, and so forth. The physical infrastructure of the building needs to be modernised, changed and reconstructed.

I accept that procedures have to be followed and that there has to be a stage 1, 2 and 3. I recall being in the Department of Education and Skills and dealing with a school building project that seemed to go through endless stages before a sod was turned or a building opened, and it would seem this is the case with regard to these HSE projects. While the procedures have to be followed, I hope the procedures and stages are not just put in place to delay because the money is not available.

I welcome the Minister of State's commitment and statement that despite the overrun in the cost of the children's hospital, which will now cost €1.73 billion, these two projects will not be reprofiled, deferred or delayed. That is a very important commitment.

In regard to the cystic fibrosis unit, we are coming up to purple rose day, which is organised by Cystic Fibrosis Ireland, yet it is reported that patients and sufferers of cystic fibrosis and their families are deeply upset that this project is not up and running. As the Minister of State said, these projects need to be drive on and brought to fruition.

I again thank the Deputy for raising the issue. The Government and I are particularly committed to supporting hospitals to develop their services. Of course, I take the point regarding the need to support Beaumont Hospital. With regard to capital investment there, in 2016 we had the opening of the new, world-class kidney unit at a cost of €6.5 million. The wards and rooms in it are fantastic and I commend the staff and the team directly involved in that. Nonetheless, we need more.

Under the NDP, capital funding for the health service will be 165% higher for the next ten years than it was for the past ten years, which will make up for all the bad years. There has been a sea change in commitment to capital investment in the health services, with €10.9 billion available over the next ten years. The development of the new emergency department and the dedicated cystic fibrosis unit at Beaumont Hospital is progressing. We agree the hospital has the reputation for high quality and safe care of patients. The development will support the delivery of key services to all the patients in the hospital. When we talk about big plans such as the NDP, people are right to question them, but the bottom line is the emergency department and the cystic fibrosis unit at Beaumont Hospital have been included in the plan. It is my job as Minister of State, particularly as the local Minister of State, to drive these projects on and I will absolutely do that. As I said, the planning permission for the cystic fibrosis unit is up on the wall but we need to drive these projects on.

Pensions Legislation

The Government intends to pass legislation later this quarter to implement the institutions for occupational retirement provision, IORP II, directive. The Minister's counterpart in 2004, Séamus Brennan, provided for a derogation for a one-member scheme to apply when IORP I was being implemented that year. This was a practical solution in that the IORP I directive allowed one-member schemes, including self-administered pensions, to thrive and contribute significantly to Irish society from 2004 to the present.

The self-administered pensions sector is an indigenous Irish sector employing more than 320 people, and hundreds if not thousands more are employed indirectly through investments in Ireland. Self-administered pension holders, who are typically owners or employees of SMEs, invest a large proportion of their pensions, which are valued at approximately €4 billion in total assets, in Ireland. For example, they invest in Irish properties, SMEs, renewable energy and social housing.

As in 2004, the IORP II directive provides for the retention of a common sense and hugely beneficial derogation which would protect Irish jobs and investment in property, SMEs, renewable energy, social housing and much more. However, the Minister is choosing not to retain this derogation when the directive is transposed into law this year. She is choosing to put SMEs out of business, to terminate Irish jobs, to cut investment and financing of SMEs, to cut investment in renewable energy and, shamefully, to cut immediate investment in Irish social housing, when there is an unprecedented crisis in homelessness and social housing provision in this country. Why is the Minister choosing to do this at this time? It is beyond comprehension.

The UK specifically assessed this issue only recently. The UK Department for Work and Pensions produced an impact assessment on 25 September 2018, which determined that schemes with less than 15 members are to be excluded from the directive completely. This is common sense.

That is in accordance with the derogation that one of the Minister's predecessors, Seamus Brennan, sensibly implemented in 2004. What analysis did the Minister carry out to determine that this common-sense measure that is appropriate for UK citizens is not appropriate for Irish citizens?

In my constituency of Louth, Bespoke Trustees Limited and its sister company employ 32 people in Dundalk and is responsible for approximately 1,250 self-administered pension structures. Each of the 1,250 people concerned is affected by the directive. The self-administered pension clients are typically owners and employers of SMEs - the backbone of the economy. Many owners and employers want their hard-earned pension contributions to be reinvested in the economy. In conjunction with the local council and the approved housing bodies, respectively, Bespoke Trustees Limited has been responsible for numerous investment projects which have provided much-needed funding for both social housing units and housing units for the homeless in Louth and Dublin in the past three years. Since August, one project alone has been responsible for taking 30 families off the housing list and into newly acquired social housing properties. The project intends to house more than 100 families this year.

The overarching objective of the IORP II directive is to facilitate the development of occupational retirement savings in every EU country. Many of the provisions contained in the directive will support positive reform of the Irish occupational pension sector. The implementation of the directive will greatly enhance scheme governance and consumer protection for pensioners, members and future members.

The value of investments held in many small schemes fell substantially during the financial crisis. That highlighted the need for stricter supervision and regulation of schemes, especially for schemes investing in unregulated markets. The Government has agreed that the provisions of the IORP II directive should apply to all funded occupational pension schemes so that members of small schemes, including small self-administered pension schemes, get the same protections and oversight as members of large schemes, to safeguard their investments for the purposes of providing adequate income in retirement years. In that context, it is worth noting that the application of derogations in other EU countries is not common. It is unusual for the Deputy to compare us to the example set by the United Kingdom.

Article 19 of the IORP II directive sets out the investment rules for occupational pension schemes. The underlying principle in respect of capital investment is for schemes to invest in accordance with the "prudent person" rule and the other specific rules set out in the article. It is recognised that there should be an appropriate level of investment freedom for schemes within prudent limits and that is reflected in the rules. Assets must be predominantly invested on regulated markets, which means, at least 50%. That allows adequate scope for investment in instruments with a long-term economic profile and non-listed undertakings such as property and infrastructure.

There are approximately 100,000 single-member schemes in Ireland. The Pensions Authority advises that approximately 98% of those are already compliant with the new investment rules under the IORP II directive. According to the 2017 report of the Association of Pension Trustees of Ireland, APTI, there are 22,312 self-directed pension arrangements in Ireland. Only 7,756 of these are self-directed pension schemes. It is that small cohort that will now have to meet the standards that apply to all other occupational schemes in the country. Information from the Pensions Authority indicates that the vast majority of schemes are already compliant with the provisions of the new directive. It is important to note that the small percentage of existing schemes which are not compliant with the new rules will not be obliged to change their existing investments or borrowings.

Small self-administered pension schemes may continue to invest in the economy, including property and SMEs, but their investments must be properly diversified to avoid excessive reliance on any particular asset or group in order to minimise risk in the portfolio as a whole. Such diversification has been proven to reduce investment risk. The new directive does not ban self-directed investment. Rather, it does not facilitate further borrowing for investment and it limits future investment in unregulated sectors.

This is probably the most important part of what I will say. The application of the directive is prospective, not retrospective, which means that the changes will not affect existing investments and borrowings by schemes. The information given to the Deputy that a company will be affected and jobs will be affected is not accurate. The new directive will only impact prospectively. Single member schemes, including small self-administered pension schemes, will no longer be allowed to enter into new borrowing agreements, except for short term and liquidity purposes, and all future investments will have to be in accordance with the rules of the directive. Accordingly, no current investment plans will be impacted upon or jeopardised.

Officials in my Department, supported by the Pensions Authority, are managing the transposition process of the IORP II directive. The drafting of regulations is at an advanced stage to facilitate transposition into Irish law later this quarter.

If the directive is transposing the law as outlined, the much-needed projects to which I refer and many others will have to be terminated. I have seen the fantastic work they have done in Drogheda and Dundalk. That will take money away from providing immediate positive contributions to the housing crisis. I do not agree that what the Government is doing is in people's interests. If the directive is transposed as outlined, the approximately 30 jobs to which I refer will all be lost. I do not say that in order to scaremonger. The situation will probably be replicated throughout the country.

It is great to see companies investing in projects and in the wider economy. The Government must help people. This local business in Dundalk is responsible for 1,250 small self-administered schemes. The company has worked very hard. One of the Minister's predecessors, Seamus Brennan, identified the problem in 2004 and resolved it. It is unfair to state that we should not look at what happens in the UK. We replicate much of what happens in the UK. Much of the money that is being invested goes back into the economy. We have a serious shortage of housing and we have other serious problems. Currently, pension schemes invest the money in the economy. The last thing we want to see is multinational companies coming in, taking all this money and investing it outside of the country or the vulture funds coming in and not distributing money fairly. I urge the Minister to examine the position. She could make the required decision with the stroke of a pen. This is her directive. I would very much appreciate if the Minister addressed the issue.

With the height of respect, I do not believe the Deputy's information is not accurate. The application of the directive is prospective, so all of the 1,250 small self-administered pension schemes in Dundalk to which he refers are entirely safe. There is no risk of the loss of the 30 jobs to which the Deputy alluded because none of the current practices are changing. The directive only relates to future investments. When a new self-managed pension scheme is established the new directive will apply to it. The directive does not affect existing investments, governance aspects, property projects, etc. The directive will only affect newly established small self-administered schemes from the day the directive is applied, which will be later this quarter.

We already have schemes that are managed by multinational investment companies and I do not see why a small self-administered fund should be governed any differently to a multinational one. We have pension rules and they should be as easily applicable to the smallest of schemes as to the largest. There should be equality of governance. That is all the IORP II directive seems to do, namely, to set out a single regulatory authority across the European Union for all managed pension funds. There should not be a difference. There will not be a derogation in Ireland.

Departmental Funding

I take it that the Minister of State, Deputy O'Donovan, is here to reply to this matter. With the greatest respect, he will not necessarily be aware of the situation but this is the third occasion on which I have raised this as a Topical Issue matter and on which it has selected been for debate. Whatever about not being available on one occasion, on each occasion the Minister, Deputy Madigan, has not been available to come before the House.

That is not good enough. To be honest, it smacks of disrespect and a lack of interest in this project. I know the Minister for Foreign Affairs and Trade, Deputy Coveney, is doing his best and we will get to the issues at play, but Deputy Madigan is the senior Minister in this Department and on three occasions she has failed to come before the House to discuss this very important issue, a crucial issue for Cork and the region. That is not good enough. Whatever about once, to be missing on three occasions is just not good enough.

I will read the Minister of State some of a very lengthy piece about this ongoing saga that was in the Irish Examiner on Monday. The people of Cork are sick and tired of hearing about it. Unfortunately it has been dragging on for years and years, and progress is slow. The following is from the piece by Mr. Eoin English:

It was a few weeks before Christmas when the chief executive of Cork Chamber, addressing their Dublin dinner event, imagined the Cork of 2040 and spoke of his hope of seeing thousands of concert goers flooding into a gig at the venue earmarked for South Main Street. The ripple of laughter through the room at the mention of the stalled project spoke volumes.

Hard to blame the audience for sniggering really given the amount of announcements, assurances and timelines that have come and go since the outline of a new funding deal was agreed in principal almost one year ago, since the sod turning almost three years ago, and since the tender for the initial €20m in state-funding was awarded to developers BAM just over four years ago.

I was at that dinner, and the reaction is described accurately. I do not believe it was malicious or anything like that. It was a resigned sort of laughter, as if to ask "Will we ever see progress on this?", which is the mood that exists. This is a project that has been mooted in one form or another since the late 1990s. It began to take real shape towards the end of the 2000s, and four years ago we were dealing with a concrete proposition which involved public investment. At that stage the cost was expected to be €53 million. It is now expected to be approximately €80 million.

It is now almost three years since the sod-turning. It is now a matter of fact that it was an election stunt, given where we are now. It became clear that there was a need for additional funding for this project. Cork City Council made an application in September 2017 to the Department of Culture, Heritage and the Gaeltacht for an additional €10 million in State funding. That application of September 2017 took a long time to be approved. Strictly speaking it still has not been approved. There was a lot of discussion in the background, or so we were told, trying to iron out difficulties around state aid and so on and seeking the advice of the Attorney General. My understanding from speaking to the city council is that this was an application for state aid, that is, for a grant. There was no indication at any stage beforehand that this was to be a loan. I welcomed the Minister's statement that the Attorney General's advice, given just before Christmas, was that the additional €10 million could be given. Now it appears that €9 million of this will be given as a repayable loan to the developer. Was that the request that came in from the city council? I sincerely doubt it. At what stage did it become clear to the city council that it would be a repayable loan? The city council, which is already under financial pressure, is asking questions about the viability of the project. Everyone in Cork wants this to happen. I do not want it to be suggested that we do not want this to happen, but we need clarity.

I thank Deputy Ó Laoghaire for raising this matter. I apologise on behalf of my colleague, the Minister for Culture, Heritage and the Gaeltacht, Deputy Madigan, who is abroad on official business today. I presume the House will accept her bona fides on that. I am sure there are other avenues the Deputy will use to raise this issue in the House, including by way of parliamentary question. However, I accept his frustrations with the Minister's itinerary. I am sure he accepts that it could not be avoided.

The Cork event centre project consists of the design, construction and operation of a new multifunctional facility in Cork city centre. It will have a capacity of approximately 6,000 persons. This is a project led by Cork City Council with the development company BAM, which was selected by Cork City Council as the preferred tenderer. BAM in turn has engaged international events company Live Nation as the preferred operator. The project is ultimately being developed and managed by the city council. This means that Cork City Council has responsibility for its delivery. In 2013 the Government announced that an Exchequer grant of €10 million would be made available to Cork City Council to assist with the project. In 2015 the grant was increased to €12 million. To date, €1 million has been paid to Cork City Council.

The latest financial projections provided by Cork City Council to the Department of Culture, Heritage and the Gaeltacht indicate a significant increase in the original cost of the project compared to when the project tender was issued in December 2014. The estimated cost at that point was €50 million. The cost is now estimated at around €80 million. A significant part of this increase is accounted for by the redesign of the facility since the original tender to allow for a large increase in the capacity of the venue. In light of this cost increase, Cork City Council wrote to the Department of Culture, Heritage and the Gaeltacht seeking €10 million in additional funding for the project from the Exchequer. This would bring the Exchequer contribution to €22 million and total public funding to €30 million.

Following detailed consideration and in light of the additional works which are now required for the Cork event centre, the Department of Culture, Heritage and the Gaeltacht considers that in accordance with public procurement rules the total public funding for the project may be increased by €10 million to €30 million. This will be made up of grant aid of €21 million and a repayable loan of €9 million. The Department of Culture, Heritage and the Gaeltacht has confirmed that it wrote to Cork City Council on 21 December 2018 about the provision of additional public funding for the development of the Cork event centre. Furthermore, the Minister has been informed that officials of the Department of Culture, Heritage and the Gaeltacht met with Cork City Council officials earlier this month to discuss all aspects around the public funding elements of the project. There are complex legal, state aid and match-funding issues involved in this project and it is important that sufficient time is allowed for these important matters to be resolved satisfactorily. The Government is confident that this is happening. Cork City Council is now reviewing the potential additional funding by the Department of Culture, Heritage and the Gaeltacht and has stated that it will formally respond to the Department on this matter shortly.

The Cork event centre is a Government commitment and it underlines the Government’s commitment to culture. The new centre will provide a substantial addition to the cultural offering in Cork city and county when it is complete. The development of a major new event centre in Cork city centre is very much in line with what the Government is seeking to achieve in terms of balanced regional development and sustainable urban development under project Ireland 2040. The important thing is to ensure that the project is delivered in accordance with the relevant legal and value-for-money requirements. The Minister understands that officials in her Department are in regular contact with the relevant stakeholders, including Cork City Council and the Department of Public Expenditure and Reform, with a view to progressing the project as a matter of urgency.

I accept the Minister of State's explanation but I find it difficult to accept it for the other two occasions. At some stage or other the Minister should be willing to address this issue in the House. As an aside I note that along with the national children's hospital this shows that there is a serious problem with tendering, or so it appears to me. It seems to be practically impossible to hold people to the tender application that is initially made.

I asked a specific question. Was it the case that the application which came in from Cork City Council in September 2017 was a request for a grant? That is not my understanding of it. What the Minister of State read out refers to public funding for the project being increased. As part of that, it refers to a repayable loan of €9 million. At what stage was it first broached with Cork City Council that this would be a loan that the city would have to repay as opposed to a grant? As I said, the city is currently in the process of a very complex and potentially expensive transition and expansion. It was discussed at the last meeting of the city council. The head of planning said that the city council is now looking at the implications of the Department's letter and its impact on the viability of the project. I repeat that I want this to succeed on this site and I think it will be of great value to Cork. When the announcement was made I welcomed the fact that the Attorney General had cleared additional funding. However, there is a lack of clarity here and it is once again undermining confidence in this process.

Additionally, I note that freedom of information requests made by journalists are not being acceded to. I ask for those freedom of information requests to be granted. If there are commercially sensitive details, let them be redacted. There should be transparency here.

I have a number of questions. Was it an application for a loan? If not, at what stage was the idea of a loan broached with the city council? Did it agree to it? The Lord Mayor, Councillor Mick Finn, has asked for round-table talks with all stakeholders. Will the Department participate in those talks?

The Minister's statement which I have circulated to the Dáil answers all of Deputy Ó Laoghaire's questions.

The reason the price and the tendering costs have increased is because there is a redesign and I presume that redesign is as a result of the city council's own engagement in it. I assume no one would suggest now that it should be redesigned backwards and that somehow money should be taken out of the project.

On the specifics of the tender, I am in the Department of Public Expenditure and Reform. Nobody-----

None of those is an answer to my questions.

-----is suggesting that a coach and four should be driven through tendering requirements. The Minister also outlined in the response to the House that discussions have taken place between her Department and the city council.

I asked four questions.

All representatives of the Cork city and county area, including my colleagues in government, the Minister of State, Deputy Stanton, who is present, the Tánaiste, the Minister, Deputy Creed, and others, are very anxious that this will go ahead. It is not only a project for Cork; it is a project for Munster. As a Limerick person, I am anxious that it happens as well. The Minister, through her engagement with Cork City Council, has proven her commitment to the project. If the Deputy has other specific questions, as I said at the outset-----

Can I remind the Minister of State of the question I asked? It has not been answered.

As I said at the outset, and I am sure the Deputy appreciates that I am deputising for the Minister, who is out of the country, if he has other questions they could be raised by way of written or oral parliamentary question.