Saincheisteanna Tráthúla - Topical Issue Debate

Illness Benefit Payments

There are serious issues with the new illness benefit system. I cannot be the only Member contacted weekly about illness benefit claims or payments as it has been going on for several months. The issue first came to the fore in my office last August with dozens of complaints from ill and vulnerable people genuinely upset by the disruption to their payments with no money suddenly coming into their accounts. It was a case of a little bit here and none there, all with no warning from the Department of Employment Affairs and Social Protection. Last month, we learned of a 14-fold increase in complaints relating to illness benefit in 2018, accounting for 40% of all complaints made to the Department. This is hardly surprising when people were left for weeks with no payment and referred to the community welfare service. Sick people or people in recovery were left without an income. The illness benefit section in the Department did not answer phones or reply to messages. Staff in my office were unable to contact the Department and there are still issues with this. On 7 January, I received email responses from the illness benefit section to representations made in mid-October, four months later. These are issues involving sick and vulnerable people who are only looking for their own money back.

A lady contacted my office who had to take bed rest due to severe pregnancy complications and was receiving illness benefit. She had €66 for two weeks and then nothing for the following two weeks. With no medical card, she had no money for vital medication for her unborn baby. She also missed a mortgage payment.

Another person undergoing chemotherapy with radiation to follow did not get any payment for three weeks. The Department sent the individual letters stating their claim had been selected for review. This was their fourth review in a matter of months and the individual in question had returned documentation multiple times. This is obviously a distressing situation. The person involved, a cancer sufferer, told me that it was as if the Department did not believe they were sick.

I want to raise one particular case today, one of the worst I have ever seen. I must be thorough about it and I plead the Minister of State’s patience because the people involved have none left. It involves an illness claim which started last September and is still an absolute mess, to say the least. I have more than a dozen letters received by the applicant from 7 November 2018 to 9 January 2019 but not one of them is correct. I also have a record of eight hours of telephone calls made by the applicant’s spouse to the Department over the two-month period. Contact was also made through my office. The local community welfare office was involved and I thank those officials for their help.

The claim started on 19 September 2018. On 7 November, a letter issued to the applicant awarding them illness benefit from 19 September for €361.20. My office phoned the Department straight away because this was incorrect as the payment did not include provision for a second dependent child. A letter on 14 November sought further information in this regard which was forwarded. On 15 November, the claimant received their first payment to their bank account of €739.20. On the same day, they received a letter from the Department awarding them a rate of €393. On 27 November, they got a payment of €485. On 5 December, they received two letters, one awarding them a rate of payment of €361.20 and the other of €345.30. Two days later, on 7 December, another letter was received, this time awarding them a rate of €198.00. This rate was reiterated in another letter the following week on 12 December. On 17 December, a payment of €870.85 was issued. On 20 December, there was a payment of €690.60. On 4 January, there was no payment.

On 7 January, two letters were received from the illness benefit section, both missing what can only be the first page of correspondence. All that was in these envelopes was a back page with the standard clause of “if you are not satisfied with this decision, etc, etc, please reply within 21 days”. On 9 January, this person’s payment was €35.65. On that same day, 9 January, they received a letter awarding them €361.20. The next day, on 10 January, two payments to their bank account were made of €2.65 and €392.15. On 17 January, a payment was made of €229.80. On 24 January, a payment was made of €191.50. On 4 February, a payment was made of €427.10.

On 7 February, there was a payment of €195.33 which should have been €229.80.

The Deputy will get another two minutes.

On contacting the illness benefit section, my office was informed that 15% of the payment had been taken back through debt recovery. That was the first the family knew about it. They received no notice or letter whatsoever.

The Deputy will get another two minutes.

I thank the Deputy for raising this important issue. I commend his work in highlighting issues with claiming illness benefit. I appreciate his genuine concern.

The Department informs me that people who are due payments and whose certificates and claims are in order are receiving their entitlements promptly. Departmental staff are processing over 9,000 transactions per day, which is an indication of the volume of work in that section. It is important to note, however, that there are always individual cases, as the Deputy has highlighted, whereby people’s payments are legitimately stopped, paused or delayed for a variety of reasons, including the late submission of medical certificates.

As the Deputy will know, in recent months issues arose with the scheme when my Department transferred administration of the illness benefit scheme from an old legacy payments IT system which is approaching end of life to its core BusinessObjects IT platform in August. Since then, the Department has worked hard to resolve these issues and to ensure that claims are processed and paid promptly. We have made good progress in this regard, with payment levels maintained at the expected norm over recent months. Telephone helpline and call-handling performance have also been addressed and are now back to normal levels, although customers may still sometimes experience delays due to call volumes. I agree that it is not acceptable that families have to make phone calls lasting more than eight hours. I can also confirm that discussions with GP representatives with respect to a move from paper to e-certification have concluded successfully. As a result, we expect e-certification to be introduced this year. This will significantly improve service to clients and GPs. The Department has had a long and positive partnership with GPs over many years and is committed to maintaining good working relationships with our GP partners.

Customers who experience an urgent financial need as a result of possible delays in respect of their illness benefit payments can apply to the Department’s community welfare services in order to obtain interim payments. They should contact their local Intreo centres in that regard. The illness benefit section can be contacted by phone on 01 7043300 or 1890 928 400, or by email to

I understand the Deputy's concerns over this particular case. I will follow up further on the individual case. Eight hours of phone calls is not acceptable and we need to do something about it. However, the section is handling 9,000 transactions per day and at times it is very busy.

I thank the Minister of State for his response. This is a very difficult case. Even though the person was overpaid and our office notified the Department that the person was getting the incorrect payment, nothing was done. The person then received a number of payments, very few of which were correct. The person then received a payment with a 15% deduction because the Department claims that €800 was overpaid.

I accept that this money has to be repaid, but the Department should at least contact the people regarding the overpayments and the fact that it needs to deduct the money. What has happened is very unfair. The least the Department could do is contact those involved. We are talking about vulnerable people who are sick. They would work if they were able to do so but, unfortunately, they cannot. They are getting back their own money. It is wrong to treat people like that. They are the most vulnerable individuals who would normally work but who cannot do so as a result of health problems.

This is not the only case and many other families are finding it very difficult. I do not want to blame staff or anything of that nature. The system is not working. Somebody needs to take control of it in order to ensure that these vulnerable people are paid the money to which they are entitled because of their sickness.

I accept the Deputy's point on the vulnerable people and we need to resolve and address that. A number of difficulties arose with the changeover to a new system. These included people not receiving payments or receiving split or irregular payments. A large number of queries led to long delays in call answering. Up to 20% of those in receipt of illness benefit were impacted upon. However, we are gradually getting back to normal payments.

The Deputy is right that we need to ensure we fix the problems. We have taken three steps: additional staff to process the claims and answer customer queries; we have developed some IT routines that can further automate the process to ensure a faster flow through to payment; and review the design rules in the system to afford greater flexibility in processing the claims and certificates. In addition, the Department continues to engage with local professionals regarding the implementation of the new process.

If problems are fixed, why are some people not being paid, being paid more or less than expected, or still due arrears? There has been an increase in claims for illness benefit in January. This trend reflects the annual increase at this time of year due to seasonal illnesses. There are delayed payments, extra payments and payments less than expected. On delayed payments, overall payment levels in respect of illness benefit are now normal. On the extra payments, delays in processing have meant that some customer claims which should be closed were open longer than should have been. As a result of the fact that we have not received final medical certificates, they have to receive an extra payment. This is also the case under the legacy system. In addition, the process of certification in 2018 which ensured that people got paid and also paid people who had not submitted a final certificate resulted in some extra payments to users. I take the Deputy's point and will bring his concerns back to the Minister.

Fisheries Protection

Early last week, concern was expressed regarding two fishing vessels that were in difficulty off the west coast. One of them was an Irish vessel and the other was a Russian trawler. What was most striking was when it became apparent that the Russian vessel, described as a trawler, had a crew of 91 on board meaning that, effectively, it was a factory ship. Over the weekend, a number of fishermen drew my attention to the marine traffic with the tracking of these trawlers fishing off the coast. Approximately 57 factory ships work west of County Galway and of Loop Head in County Clare in the vicinity of the Porcupine Bank. Their daily take would vary between 200 tonnes and 400 tonnes of blue whiting. On a good day, they would have 14,800 tonnes if they caught the maximum number of fish for the day. The consequences of that primarily for fish stocks and ultimately for the environment are drastic. I am informed that there is no policing of it in that there is nobody on board to determine if they are declaring what they are catching and whether they are caught within or outside European or Irish waters.

Obviously, this leads to many difficulties for the Irish fishing fleet. Before commenting further, I commend the Minister on his decision to exclude vessels of or greater than 18 m in length from fishing within 6 nautical miles of the Irish shore. That was a very positive step to take. However, many fishing vessels are short of quota or have no quota. These would have an historical track record but maybe not updated such that they would qualify for it.

I have been told that Norway has done a deal with the EU under which Norwegian factory ships have access to European waters. It is my understanding that it has negotiated for 250,000 tonnes of blue whiting and the trade-off for that works out at around 30 tonnes of cod for the Irish fishing fleet.

The SFPA will claim that it is monitoring the situation but how can it monitor factory ships that are working at between 150 and 200 miles off the coast? Staff of the SFPA are sitting in an office in Clonakilty, watching the sea on television. That is effectively the only monitoring I know about.

Factory ships are seriously detrimental to fish stocks, particularly in the context of 14,800 tonnes of whiting being taken from the sea per day. This needs to be investigated. I have suggested in the past that the large boats working within Irish and European territorial waters should have a member of the SFPA on board permanently to monitor them properly. If that is not done, and I see that the Minister is smiling at me now-----

Has the Deputy cleared that with his own fishing representatives?

If that is not done, essentially there will be no monitoring or policing as such. We do not know what these boats are taking on board or the damage they are doing to fish stocks in general. We also do not know what environmental damage they are doing. Factory ships should be obliged to have a member of the SFPA on board at all times.

I thank the Deputy for raising this matter. Under the Common Fisheries Policy, CFP, non-EU vessels are precluded from fishing in the waters around Ireland up to the 200-mile limit, other than under an EU agreement. For example, limited access is provided for Norwegian and Faroese fishing vessels under reciprocal access agreements. The Russian and Icelandic vessels referred to by the Deputy are not allowed to fish inside the waters of the Irish 200 nautical mile exclusive economic zone or any waters of the European Union.

Waters outside the 200-mile exclusive economic zone are considered to be the high seas and are open to all under international law, subject to certain regional management regimes between coastal states, for example, the North East Atlantic Fisheries Commission, NEAFC. Up until our accession to the then European Economic Community, EEC, and our declaration of the 200 nautical mile exclusive fisheries zone in the 1970s, factory ships from Russia and other countries were a common sight just 12 miles off our shore. At that time, the waters outside the 12-mile zone were high seas and we had no legal means of restricting the activity of those large ships. Our membership of the EU and the CFP ensured that we were able to put in place a strong policy and legal framework to manage fishing sustainably. This provides protection such that vessels from third countries such as Russia and Iceland have no access to our 200-mile zone. Our waters and their fishing resources are protected from any reoccurrence of the effective free-for-all which existed prior to our accession and the establishment of the CFP.

Fishing access to the Irish exclusive economic zone is strictly controlled and monitored by the Naval Service and the SFPA in co-operation with our EU partners. At a wider EU level, there is limited fishing access granted to some non-EU countries, including Norway, as part of reciprocal fishing agreements but no such arrangements exist in respect of fishing vessels from either the Russian Federation or Iceland. Vessels from all countries are free to use our port facilities in cases of force majeure and normal freedom of navigation rules apply. As the Deputy may be aware from media reports, a Russian vessel is currently in Castletownbere for repairs. I have been informed that this particular vessel, while operating outside our exclusive zone, reported a damaged propeller and was towed to the south side of Bere Island by another Russian trawler, where tug boats brought it into the bay. The vessel is under the supervision of personnel of the Marine Survey Office pending completion of repairs to free the propeller and follow-up procedures and it is expected that this work will take some time.

I wish to refer briefly to the issue of factory ships more generally. Quota in Ireland are a public asset and are not privately owned. Had we privatised that asset many years ago, we would have far fewer trawlers now and the smaller number of vessels would be large factory ships. We decided to keep the quota as a public asset and to allocate it on the basis of fishing effort on an annual basis. Others have chosen an entirely different approach and they have fewer and larger boats or factory ships. Those factory ships, insofar as they are under the flag of EU member states, operate under the CFP and fish under the quota regimes of that policy which are negotiated on an annual basis. While I appreciate that there are emotive arguments around factory ships, which are large, they fish only in accordance with CFP rules and regulations and quotas allocated to them.

Icelandic and Russian vessels have no legal entitlement to fish within the 200-mile exclusive economic zone. That zone is a creation of our membership of the EU and the CFP.

I do not know where the Minister is getting his information but the information I have is that these Russian and Icelandic factory ships are operating inside the 200-mile territorial limit. How is the exclusion zone is being policed? The SFPA is not policing it because it does not go out that far. Is the Department depending on the Naval Service to police the area?

On the Norwegian agreement, will the Minister confirm that 250,000 tonnes of blue whiting was given to Norway in return for 30 tonnes of cod for the Irish fleet?

On the SFPA and monitoring, the Minister will tell me that the authority can monitor the area by way of satellite and so forth. That is the answer that we get all of the time but, in reality, that is not the case. If vessels enter Irish territorial waters but there is nobody within 100 miles to police them, they can fish those waters and leave again.

Was the Russian boat currently in Castletownbere inspected by the SFPA? Did inspectors board her and check the type of fish that she had on board? She was fishing for a significant time before she broke down. I understand that she lost a propeller. Did the SFPA board the Russian vessel that towed her in to determine the type of species on board and whether any of the catch came from Irish or European territorial waters?

For the Deputy's information, the regulation and policing of this area is determined under the Sea-Fisheries and Maritime Jurisdiction Act 2006. It is interesting to note in the context of that legislation that I am specifically mentioned and prohibited from any involvement in the day-to-day management, supervision and operation of the enforcement regime, which is only right and proper. Under the Act, day-to-day operations are the job of the SFPA and the Naval Service. I invite the Deputy to visit Clonakilty where the SFPA has an active capacity to monitor the movement of all ships within our 200 nautical mile zone. My information is that the fishing endeavours of the trawler that was towed into Castletownbere were outside of our zone.

There is a tendency never to let the truth get in the way of a good story and the Deputy has told a good story here today-----

It is the truth.

-----but his information is at variance with the facts as conveyed to me by officials in my Department. We are adamant that our fishing resource is adequately policed and monitored to maintain sustainability, and to ensure that our waters are not over-fished and that people fish only in accordance with the quotas that are allocated to them on an annual basis.

There is some access for Norwegians on the basis of coastal state negotiations in respect of certain species on an annual basis - the pelagic sector in particular. This is a reciprocal arrangement. The Norwegians have access to area 6 west of Scotland but north of 56° latitude, which is roughly in line with Edinburgh. These are reciprocal arrangements in terms of EU negotiations and EU member states having access to Norwegian waters and Faroese waters in those circumstances. Access is governed by international negotiations where issues between coastal states and the European Union are at play.

To return to the core point which the Deputy raised, there is no access to Russian or Icelandic vessels in EU waters. It has been sought in the negotiations but resisted on all occasions.

School Accommodation Provision

Pelletstown Educate Together national school is a rapidly growing school in an area where hundreds of houses are being built, sold and occupied on a monthly basis. There is demand for an additional 60 children, approximately, for September 2019 and, thus, urgent requirement for two additional prefabricated classrooms and additional space for other school activities on the temporary site currently occupied by the school while it awaits a permanent building. The parents, pupils, teachers and staff of the school are concerned that nothing has happened to indicate the building of the two prefabs is receiving the urgent attention required to ensure that children have classrooms to go to come next September. What is the reason for the delay in submitting a planning application for these two prefabs, which are urgently required for next September? Will the Minister of State clarify whether the planning application to Dublin City Council in respect of the prefab development has been submitted and if agreement has been reached with the developers of this large housing site for the temporary installation of the prefabs on the site currently occupied by the school pending the development and construction of a permanent school on the lands at Pelletstown? This is a successful neighbourhood with an expanding population in Ashtown beside the Grand Canal.

In September 2017, the school was in crisis when prefabs failed to materialise and junior and senior infants had to be taken by bus to the Broombridge Educate Together school some miles away. This was very difficult for the pupils, teachers and the parents.

Pelletstown Educate Together held a public meeting last night at the Royal Canal community centre, which was attended by teachers and more than 100 parents. The history of this school does not vindicate good departmental policy in terms of forward planning policy for schools. According to the parents and children, owing to a site delay, the school started out in a bunker with no natural air or light and no play space. In 2017, owing to a delay on the part of the Department in securing temporary accommodation, the school was split and some children had to be taken by bus to another school a few miles away at a cost to the Department of a couple of hundred euro per day.

The school faces a new accommodation crisis for 2019. As Deputy Burton mentioned, the responses of the forward planning section of the Department have been ambiguous. While it is positive news that a site has been secured for a permanent building, the planning application for the additional accommodation required for 2019 has not been submitted. There was a significant delay in securing temporary accommodation in 2017. We do not need evasive language or ambiguity. The feedback from the Department is that the planning application will be dealt with shortly. We all know that in Civil Service-speak "shortly" can mean weeks or months, which means delays and uncertainty for the school community of Pelletstown and Ashtown.

I ask the Minister of State to outline when the application will be submitted and to give a guarantee that this project will be progressed for September 2019. This is the feedback and certainty the teachers, pupils and parents need. Up to now, the history of this school in terms of development has not been good from a departmental perspective. It is important these issues are rectified now and that the Minister of State provides greater certainty than the answers heretofore.

I am taking this matter on behalf of the Minister, Deputy McHugh. I thank the Deputies for raising the issue as it gives me the opportunity to set out the position in regard to the interim accommodation needs of Pelletstown Educate Together national school. The school is currently in interim accommodation at Ashtown Road, Rathborne, Dublin 15, on a privately owned site and currently has sufficient accommodation.

In September 2019, the school will require additional interim accommodation. Officials at my Department are aware of the additional accommodation requirements of the school and work is ongoing to ensure sufficient suitable additional accommodation will be available to the school for September 2019. The Department has been seeking the landlord’s permission to install the two prefabs that will be required for September 2019. The landlord has recently given consent and the Department is currently working on the planning application, which will be lodged with Dublin City Council shortly.

With regard to the permanent school building project for the school, I am pleased to advise that the Department has secured the permanent site for the school and planning permission has been lodged with the city council. Providing the planning process runs smoothly and no issues arise, the project is scheduled to be on site in quarter 2, 2019. It is intended that construction will take place in a manner to allow for a phased handover of sufficient accommodation to meet the school's need by the end of January 2020. Phase 2 of the project is expected to be ready for quarter 3, 2020.

The Department is in regular contact, and holds monthly meetings, with the school's patron body in regarding to this and a number of other projects under its remit and will continue to keep the school's patron body fully informed of progress.

Deputy Burton asked the reason for the delay in submitting the planning application. The Department was not in a position to submit a planning application until consent was received from the landowner. The necessary consent has now been received and the Department will shortly submit the planning application for the additional accommodation required for September 2019 to the local authority.

I thank the Minister of State for his reply, which I acknowledge is very positive. The Minister of State has promised the parents, pupils and staff of Pelletstown Education Together that they will have their prefabs in September 2019. I welcome that promise. We will hold the Minister of State to it. This school has been split and we want a commitment that it will not be split again.

I am interested to hear that the developers, who are advertising the wonderful schools in the area to sell the houses, were slow to give their consent to the installation of the prefabs on the current temporary site. Will the Minister of State confirm that the entire site, which is a large site, will be useable as required for the prefabs and for the essential purposes of the school?

I hear the Minister is lodging the planning application shortly. Does "shortly" mean by the end of next week because it will take a couple of months to build the prefabs and satisfy the planning conditions? We want it open in September.

I welcome the comprehensive response from the Minister of State. There is a division of language. Much certainty has been provided on the timeline for the permanent school build, which we are aware of. He spoke about being on site in the second quarter of 2019 with completion in the third quarter of 2020. There is an urgent need for the school now. The primary issue we both discussed in this Topical Issue debate is the definition of "shortly". Is it a week, is it a month, or is it five months? It is for the Department to provide that certainty.

It is good the Government and the Minister of State at the Department of Education and Skills are providing a guarantee to parents, children and the broader community that the prefab will be on site. The reason I referenced the historic issue in this school and the difficulties it has had with Department is that promises were not fulfilled, despite them being well-intentioned. Will the Minister of State provide clarity on what "shortly" means for this school? Is it a guarantee that the prefabs will be on site in September 2019? When will the application be lodged?

I reiterate that the difficulty was seeking permission from the landlord to install the two prefabs. That was the immediate problem the Department had. We were not in a position to place the planning application until we had received written confirmation from the landlord, which has been received. I spoke to the Department and the Minister this morning and now that it has been received, there will not be a delay. The Minister is aware of the difficulties that Deputies Burton and Jack Chambers have brought to his attention.

On the permanent site for the school, the site acquisition process is now complete and it is a 1.57 acres site in Ashtown. That is sufficient to deal with what is required. The Department told me this morning that it is in regular contact - the Deputies can confirm this with the patron body of the school - and that there are agreements to have monthly meetings with the patron. We will give regular updates on what is happening to both Deputies. The Department officials told me this morning that there will not be a delay. Now that everything is in order and the landlord has given consent, this will be done immediately.

Rail Network Expansion

I appreciate the Minister coming in to discuss how we extend the metro to the south side of Dublin. He may be aware that on Monday night, South Dublin County Council approved a motion, advanced by my colleague, Councillor Francis Noel Duffy, that rather than stopping at Charlemont, Ranelagh or Beechwood, as I believe the Minister and the Department may be considering, we would continue the metro south west, through my preferred route of Harold's Cross, Terenure, Knocklyon, Firhouse and Tallaght. Thinking really big - cities like Copenhagen have done exactly this - we should put an orbital metro in place where it would run around the south side of the city from Knocklyon to Sandyford to UCD and back into town. That way, we would solve the congestion concerns coming from Sandyford. Critically, it would go back to the original metro design, which was to run a spur to the south west of the city. As the Minister will know, this is an area that is atrociously served by public transport.

I was at a meeting on Monday night in the Hilton Hotel on BusConnects and considering the Rathfarnham bus corridor route. It is going to be the hardest, most difficult route. There was real anger from local people because front gardens are going to be taken away. No matter what we do on that route, we are not going to have the level of public transport the areas deserve and need in order to thrive and develop. There is significant development potential, particularly as one goes further south. On the edges of the mountains, we are building thousands of new houses. The current and projected public transport system - buses and cycling facilities - will not be able to cope with this and the metro is the right option.

It will obviously cost an additional and a significant chunk of money. We should not be scared off doing anything additional because of the national children's hospital. There will be concerns, and the Minister may articulate these in his response, that we do not want to delay the overall metro project. I, for one, am the last person who would wish for that because we need the metro.

This can be done. Under the existing plan the metro will run from Charlemont Street, St. Stephen's Green, O'Connell Street or whatever section one wants to have as the breakpoint. The metro could proceed as planned for the north side of Dublin. When that is going through the whole procurement and rail order phases, one could work out to the Minister's satisfaction the design, costing, and alignment of the extension of the metro to the south west rather than digging up and closing the Harcourt Street line. That is the last major case for this alternative approach.

What the Government is planning to do - it goes back to the 2015 transport plan, so this is not just about this Government in that it has been thought about for a while - about which we became aware recently is to close the green line, to convert what is a highly successful pedestrian access Luas line into a segregated metro route, which cuts off local access to the line and cuts across communities even with measures to try to protect against that, and to close that critical public transport artery for a year to two years. That would miss the opportunity to service a wider variety of catchment areas with a high-quality rail-based transport system, which is the scale of ambition we should have and what we need.

It will cost money and may require a complicated planning process. As we are proceeding, we could develop the final rail order for the south side. In terms of engineering coherence, servicing people of south Dublin, meeting our climate objectives and switching from the car-based system choking our city, this is the right way to go. A study published this morning found that Dublin was the worst city in the world for traffic congestion. This city needs this scale of ambition to solve this problem. I encourage the Minister to consider this and I am keen to hear what he has to say on the matter.

I thank the Deputy for the opportunity to address this important question on transport in Dublin. I welcome a debate on how best to use the increased levels of investment this Government is making available to support the development of improved public transport. I am sometimes fearful that we do not seem to be learning from the lessons of the past. By that I mean - I believe the Deputy would agree with me - that we need to move away from transport projects by press release and instead move towards a planned and integrated development of public transport and land use strategies. That is why the Oireachtas voted to create the NTA in 2008. Importantly, and I know the Deputy will agree with me, the legislation gave it a much-needed statutory power to develop a transport strategy for the greater Dublin area and that this strategy must be integrated within land use planning strategies across the greater Dublin area, GDA.

We now have a statutory transport strategy in the greater Dublin area which covers the period 2016 to 2035 and which must be reviewed every six years. That strategy is the basis for the development of an integrated transport system for the GDA. Development of the strategy was subject to a full public consultation period and any and all interested parties were able to make their views known. Following that public consultation, the approved strategy set out an ambitious range of improvements across the area of metro and light rail. These improvements include: the development of a metro from the city centre to north County Dublin; the development of a metro from the city centre to south County Dublin along the Luas green line; the need to improve the capacity of the green line in advance of its upgrade to metro standard; and a number of Luas extensions to Lucan, Finglas, Bray and Poolbeg. What we are now trying to do is to implement that strategy. That is why I secured the funding allocations under Project Ireland 2040 to allow for its implementation over the next ten years. The need for the development of a north-south metro has been recognised for 20 years or more.

The Deputy will recall how A Platform for Change, published in 2000 by the then Dublin Transport Office, called it the spine of any future metro system. The need to upgrade the Luas green line to metro over the medium to long term was recognised then as it is today. We are providing longer trams and purchasing more trams under the green line capacity enhancement project but, ultimately, that only buys us time; it does not solve the problem. In the long term, the upgrade to metro standard is necessary to ensure growth along that corridor can be accommodated.

I have not yet formally received the council's motion, as proposed by the Deputy's council colleague last Monday. From media reports and the information the Deputy has provided today, it would appear to be an entirely new set of projects, both Luas and metro, rather than an extension of the MetroLink. I am clear that we need to implement the transport strategy in a planned and co-ordinated manner, and I am also sure that new projects and programmes can and should be considered as part of the review of the strategy in the next couple of years, which obviously includes what the Deputy has just suggested. We are planning to transform the greater Dublin area's transport network in line with the strategy, whether MetroLink, BusConnects or DART expansion, and we need to work together to ensure this transformation takes place in a timely fashion.

There has been 30 years of work on this issue so it was not just by press release that they were trying to make the case. The fundamental case is that the plan can and should change, and it already has changed. It included in its original form a DART interconnector which has since been removed by the Government as an aspiration or put off into never-never land. As a result, the MetroLink plan has been moved to the city and, as a consequence, now threatens the Markievicz pool. That plan is constantly changing and it has to change further to get it right.

The key failing, and it is only in the detail that we discover this, is that going back and turning the green line into a metro line is a flawed engineering approach. It is flawed because it has to be shut for a year or a year and a half, flawed because all the great aspects of pedestrian accessibility are being taken away and flawed because it is missing the opportunity to branch elsewhere. The key concept is that we do not just connect MetroLink into the green line, but we keep the tunnel running. Once there is a tunnelling machine in the ground, I am told by the engineers I trust that it is much lower-cost to keep the tunnel running, so we should use that opportunity to keep it running to the south west. As an alternative, we could keep it running to the south east to UCD and Sandyford, or, as Councillor Duffy suggested, have a southside loop. This is what Copenhagen has done in the same time we have been talking; it has built two metro lines while we have been thinking about it and saying we are going to do it. Copenhagen is now building just such an orbital loop and I see no reason we should not do that for south Dublin.

We asked the NTA what our climate emissions will be from transport in Dublin, given all the other planned projects, and its answer was that there would be increase of 30%. I said to Mr. Cregan at the BusConnects meeting on Monday that this metro alternative should be done. He agreed it was the right project but he said he could not do it because he does not have political clearance for it, effectively. He would love to do it but he needs political support to make it happen, which is why the Minister and his Cabinet colleagues are critical. This is a political decision. Will the Minister think big about public transport in south Dublin or is he going to stick to the existing plan?

I thank the Deputy for taking a far more moderate approach to this problem than he normally takes. Any suggestions he makes will certainly be considered in the review which comes up in 2021-2023 because, obviously, there are some constructive elements to what he has to say. I acknowledge his recognition of the costs of what he is suggesting but I do not see any figures or any suggestion as to how it is to be paid for. While I am open to correction, it seems the Deputy has two principal suggestions, first, that there would be an extension of Metro North from Charlemont to Knocklyon, and the second involves the red Luas line from Tallaght to Booterstown. I do not have a clue what that would cost, nor has the Deputy. To make a suggestion of that sort, which would cost billions of euro, without even suggesting where the money will come from is fairly irresponsible-----

Take it from the motorway programme.

It is a luxury which the Deputy enjoys in opposition, although he did not exploit it so well when he was in power.

The Minister is adding blindness to insult.

Let us have lots more of the Deputy's suggestions, which will, of course, be considered, but when they are considered they will have to be carefully costed. The Deputy hopes what has happened with the national children's hospital will not stop us from embarking on big projects, and it will not, but it will certainly make us more careful. It will also put a burden on the Opposition to not just throw out castles in the air like this but to acknowledge that such suggestions will cost billions of euro and that they do not know where those billions of euro are going to come from.

Take it from the motorway programme.

The Deputy mentioned he is hoping to take the metro through Rathfarnham and Terenure. A very detailed analysis was conducted in the transport strategy. It concluded that the actual and forecasted demand along the Rathfarnham-Terenure corridor does not meet the threshold of a metro-style service. That is the only scientific evidence which has been produced. Whatever the cost, and the Deputy does not seem to worry about the cost, it does not even meet the threshold of numbers.