Saincheisteanna Tráthúla - Topical Issue Debate

Protected Disclosures

I thank the Ceann Comhairle for allowing me to raise this important matter and I thank the Minister for attending in person to hear what I have to say. Tonight I raise the issue of the plight of two female employees of the University of Limerick, who have spent the last number of years on half pay and who are now suspended and in receipt of social welfare payments. These are dedicated, hard-working and courageous women who performed their duties in an exemplary manner. One might well ask what nefarious crime they committed to find themselves in this unfortunate situation? They blew the whistle on blatant wrongdoing and exposed wasteful, wrongful and wanton expenditure of taxpayers' money.

They have been vindicated by a number of independent reports, they have been vindicated by the Comptroller and Auditor General and, importantly and perhaps astonishingly, they have been vindicated by their employer. On 23 November 2017 and on 15 March 2018, the University of Limerick acknowledged that their suspension between 2015 and 2017 was wrong. It went on to apologise for describing their complaint as malicious. Last year the university wrote to these employees thanking them for bringing important matters to the attention of the university and recognising their courage in doing so, courage which it said was greatly valued. Despite this, they are still suspended and are now, as I have said, reliant on the tender mercies of the Department of Employment Affairs and Social Protection. Apparently the university is prepared to apologise to them privately. It should apologise to them publicly.

When they were vindicated, the Department or the Higher Education Authority, HEA, organised a mediation process to get them back to work. Mr. Kieran Mulvey was appointed as the mediator. They only had one meeting with him and he told them he was delegating the matter to a consultant, Mr. Sean O'Driscoll. On various occasions they were promised by the university that a transition process would be put in place whereby they would be able to take a course in the university, for which the university would pay, while at the same time they would be gradually reintroduced to work. Of course, they would not be sent back to the finance department, where I personally know that there is a great deal of hostility towards them. It would not be possible for them to go back to the finance department. Suddenly, in July last year the university unilaterally withdrew these promises and directed them to go back to the finance department, giving them literally no choice. It was the modern version of Cromwell's injunction to the dispossessed Irish, to hell or to Connacht. It was to hell or to the finance department. The Minister should believe me that it would be hell for these people to go back to the finance department. I know what I am talking about because I have represented that constituency for many years and know all the various actors in this particular drama.

This issue brings into question the efficacy of the whole whistleblowing system. It is fatally flawed if two genuine whistleblowers can end up being treated in this fashion. I also remind the House that the University of Limerick recently conferred an honorary degree on Ms Vicky Phelan for having the courage to tell the truth and to do the State some service. The attitude of the university to its own employees who have also told the truth and done the State some service is radically different. This is intolerable and unacceptable. It makes a mockery of the whistleblowing process for which the Government claims so much kudos for introducing. What action does the Department or the HEA intend to take in respect of the plight of these women?

Gabhaim buíochas leis an Teachta fá choinne an tseans labhairt ar an ábhar seo. I thank the Deputy for giving me an opportunity to speak on this issue publicly. I know his county colleague, Senator Maria Byrne, and his party colleague, Deputy Michael McGrath, have also raised this issue in these Chambers. By way of background, the Deputy will be aware that the Protected Disclosures Act 2014 provides a detailed and comprehensive legal framework to allow any worker who is penalised for making a protected disclosure to secure redress. The Act is supplemented by the procedures that all public bodies are required to put in place under section 21 of the Act for the making of protected disclosures and for dealing with such disclosures. My Department operates within this legal framework when dealing with protected disclosures. The Deputy will also appreciate that there is a legal responsibility on my Department to protect the identity of any individual who makes a protected disclosure.

While respecting this legal responsibility, I am happy to provide the Deputy with an update on the specific issue raised today. In April 2015 the two staff members referred to by the Deputy made a protected disclosure to the then chief executive officer of the Higher Education Authority, HEA, and the Minister alleging workplace bullying and errors in practice and wrongdoing that they identified as part of their work in the finance department. Since that time, various review processes, including three independent reports, have been undertaken by the Department of Education and Skills, the Higher Education Authority and the University of Limerick in an effort to address the issues raised by the two staff members. The most recent of the reports, the Thorn report, published in November 2017, outlined a number of recommendations related to the allegations made by the two staff members, referred to as persons B and C in the report, and those of a number of other individuals who had come forward as part of the process. The university accepted in full the recommendations made in the Thorn report and has been liaising with the HEA and the Department on its progress in the implementation of the recommendations.

Arising from the Thorn report, the university embarked on a process of mediation, led by Mr. Kieran Mulvey, former head of the Workplace Relations Commission, with a number of the individuals referenced in the report in an effort to reach a satisfactory resolution of their issues. The two staff members referred to by the Deputy were included in this mediation process, during which the university engaged with them to facilitate their return to work. However, my understanding is that mutually acceptable employment positions could not be agreed to between the parties. The mediation process in respect of the two staff members was unable to reach a satisfactory outcome and has now ended.

The issue was most recently discussed at a meeting last week between the president of the University of Limerick and the Secretary General of the Department of Education and Skills. At the meeting the president outlined the position on the steps that had been taken to facilitate the return to work of the two persons referred to by the Deputy. The president also outlined the university’s desire to ensure the issue would be resolved as quickly as possible and requested the assistance of the Department in that regard. It is the view of the HEA and the Department that the issues raised by both persons have been fully investigated at this point. The one issue that remains to be resolved is the return to work of the two individuals concerned. It is primarily an employee-employer issue and I hope the university and the two individuals can agree on a mutually satisfactory outcome that will see these staff members return to the workplace as soon as possible. While this is an issue for the university to resolve, the Deputy has raised it here publicly, while Deputy Michael McGrath raised it previously, as has Senator Maria Byrne in conversation. I want to let the Deputy know that I have discussed it with my officials since it was raised. My Department is willing to assist the university in exploring potential opportunities to facilitate a return to the workplace of the two individuals in question.

I thank the Minister. If I am reading it correctly, the mediation process that was put in place is now over.

The Minister has said the president of the University of Limerick has requested the assistance of the Department in bringing the issue to a satisfactory conclusion and that he agrees that his Department will be available. What practical steps can it take to bring it to a successful conclusion? We have a situation where people were wrongfully suspected. They are being forced to rely on social welfare payments. They did the State some service and we want to get them back to work. Does the Minister agree with me that it does not indicate good faith on the part of the university when it directed them to go back into the very section of the department where it was known that they would not be accepted, where they would encounter hostility and where it would be impossible for them to work? That indicates to me an intention or objective on the part of the university to essentially get rid of the two staff members. Would the Minister regard it as useful to meet them in order that they could tell him face to face about their experiences and in order that he could tell them what the Department intended to do to assist the process of getting them back to work? What can we expect to happen next?

To be helpful, essentially it is an employer-employee relationship issue. I am conscious of this, but I did say publicly that I would become involved to try to facilitate an outcome that would be satisfactory to all parties. The Secretary General has met the president of the university and I did emphasise the word "any". They are going to look at opportunities, but at the end of the day, we cannot force people to go into something in which they will not be happy. That would not yield an outcome that would be desirable. I acknowledge the Deputy's points about the service both individuals have provided. I am very conscious of this, but I am also conscious of my role not to become directly involved. I am confident that when the president and my officials sit down and the two individuals at the heart of the issue, there will be opportunities presented to them to find a solution. Without pre-empting the outcome, I take the Deputy's offer at face value to meet them. At this stage it might be a little early for me to do so because I am confident that the parties and the employee-employer relationship will be protected in finding a solution. I am confident that they will find a solution with which both individuals will be happy. I will certainly be happy to meet them after a solution is found.

Childcare Costs

I thank the Minister for coming into the House to deal with this matter. I am asking her to address the recent findings made by the ESRI that disadvantaged parents were twice as likely to have unmet childcare needs as those in better off groups. This is on the back of a report that was issued in the past few days. The document examines data collected by the CSO for 5,219 households and 13,186 individuals. The analysis made in the paper uses weights designed by the CSO in order to ensure the sample is representative of the population. The survey looked at whether households with persons in need of care, defined as children under the age of 12 years and people who were older or had a disability which required the provision of care for them, had an unmet need in making these care arrangements, that is, whether they needed more care than they were in receipt of.

The survey found that 24.5% of lone parent households had unmet needs. I found this shocking. Some 35% of households experiencing deprivation also had an unmet childcare need. Between about 70% and 90% of people with unmet needs report the reason as an inability to afford formal childcare services. Again, lone parents emerge as the group facing the worst situation, with 91% reporting that they cannot afford the required formal childcare service. When we talk about lone parents, sometimes people think we are talking about those who are completely in the social welfare system, but that is not the case. Many lone parents go out to work and are struggling to meet their childcare needs. We have had numerous reports from the ESRI and elsewhere and all know that the cost of childcare is crippling. It is incredibly difficult for single parents who are trying to rear a family and cannot afford to pay for childcare.

The affordable childcare scheme was announced by the Minister in 2016 and we had hoped it would be up and running by 2017. However, owing to ICT requirements, it is not yet ready. What comfort can we give to parents who find themselves between the cracks? Children do not have access to childcare services. While a child might have access to the ECCE programme, his or her parents are not able to provide full-time childcare because they cannot afford it and so cannot afford to return to work. The vicious circle begins and parents are not able to get out of it. Will the Minister explain to the lone parents watching these proceedings how they will be able to access the system? How will it benefit them? I am aware that it is income based, but the lone parents at the lower end of the threshold are finding it very difficult. One of the main reasons is the lack of affordable childcare services.

Providing a childcare infrastructure that enables accessible, affordable, quality childcare for all has been a cornerstone of my work as Minister for Children and Youth Affairs since 2016. The research report is from that year. The years I have been in office as Minister for Children and Youth Affairs have seen an unprecedented increase in investment in key early learning and care, ELC, and school age childcare, SAC, areas, with annual investment rising to €574 million, a 117% increase since 2015. The increases have allowed us to introduce measures designed to be a major step towards accessible, affordable and quality ELC and SAC after decades of under-investment by successive Governments.

The measures I have introduced include increases of up to 50% in targeted subsidies since 2016 and the introduction of a universal childcare subvention payment of up to €1,040 per annum for the care of children aged from six months to the first eligible point of entry of the early childhood care and education, ECCE, programme. We have also since the report was carried out doubled the free pre-school scheme ECCE to enable parents access to two years instead of one. These changes are waypoints towards our goal of delivering genuine affordable, accessible, quality ELC and SAC. The launch of the new affordable childcare scheme this coming October will alter the landscape of childcare in Ireland. It will provide financial support for parents, establish a sustainable platform for investment in the childcare sector for decades to come and, crucially, allow us to continue to invest in giving children the best start in life.

In December I signed regulations which will provide, for the first time, for the registration of school-age childcare services with Tusla. The regulations came into force yesterday, 18 February. This means that parents of school-age children will be eligible to apply for subsidies under the affordable childcare scheme from the outset. Under measures included in budget 2019, I was able to further enhance the affordable childcare scheme by raising the upper and lower thresholds for income-related subsidies, meaning that maximum subsidy rates will now be paid to all families with a net annual income of up to €26,000, up from €22,700. The increases will ensure an even greater number of families will benefit from the highest subsidy rates available under the scheme once it is launched.

It is also important to note, particularly in the context of our discussion, that the Childcare Support Act 2018, the legislative basis for the new scheme, specifies five statutory bodies which may make agreements on referral procedures for free or additional childcare for children with the greatest level of need. These are known as sponsor arrangements. I also highlight that First 5, the Government’s ten-year strategy for babies, young children and their families, was launched in November 2018. It is a fundamental concept which provides for a progressive universalism and seeks to strengthen the supports and services available for all babies, young children and families and put in place additional measures for those with additional needs.

I am committed to continuing to radically reform childcare services for the benefit of children, families, women, our society and economy. I believe that when the ESRI or any other research body does a similar piece of work utilising SILC CSO data from 2017, 2018 or 2019, conclusions on the childcare needs of disadvantaged parents will have changed significantly for the better.

I hope so, too. I welcome all of the good work the Minister has done, but I still have concerns about lone parents and families with one income. That is why I have raised this question which I know the Minister understands. For a two-income family childcare costs are a little less of a burden. As the Minister gets ready for next year's budget, is she making any provision for the single income family? I am thinking of the trainee nurse or beautician with a child who needs access to care. If these persons cannot afford it, or if they are at a certain stage of their career progression or in education, will there be a mechanism under which we can support and encourage them into the workforce? Their income might be below a particular threshold, but they will still need to be able to access full-time childcare. Consideration must be given to them. I would love to hear the Minister's response in that regard.

The Minister is planning to launch a campaign which will involve myGov.ie. We have to make people aware of why they have to sign up to the website and the need to use it and tell them that it will prohibit them if they are not registered on time. There are so many families who are not registered on it. How will the Minister's Department communicate this message to families to encourage them to sign up? It is important that they follow the process and sign up in advance. If we wait until next September to do it, the system will crash.

I agree with the Deputy on all of the questions and issues she has raised. Single parent families were a key group I had in mind when I decided to move towards the affordable childcare scheme. Even though the full scheme is not ready to be launched and the streamlining of all of the different targeted subsidies is not yet complete, from the beginning of my ministry and the first budget I negotiated I have received additional targeted subsidies especially to enable those families with the least to get the most to meet their childcare needs. This is in addition to the universal payments available if single parents have an early born child. From the very beginning much of the political approach I have taken has been to design the affordable childcare scheme which simply seeks to bring together the various schemes already available in order that they will be easier to administer. Prior to that happening, we have increased significantly the targeted subsidies, especially for those families with the least income. They receive the most. When research is carried out in the future on the position in the years 2017, 2018 and 2019, I believe we will see a different picture.

The Deputy asked whether there could be something in particular provided to target one-parent families. In the context of the overall plan and the overall family and household income thresholds, the scheme is probably sufficient; those who have the least get the most. It is also true that, with the First 5 strategy, we are looking to develop a model that will offer a more DEIS-type approach to early learning and care centres in areas where one-parent families are seeking to access childcare and particularly in need of it.

The Deputy's questions on the information campaign are excellent. We are working on it and hope to initiate it in the next month.

All those aspects, especially those relating to the MyGovID portal, are absolutely crucial for people to be aware of, especially where lone-parent families are seeking to access the subsidies.

National Broadband Plan Implementation

Last week, as the Minister is aware, Eir announced plans to roll out fibre broadband to approximately 80,000 homes in the intervention area of the national broadband plan. Imagine announced plans for 400,000 premises earmarked for the intervention area as well. These announcements are welcome for those who will finally have the potential to receive high-speed broadband. These people have been across the digital divide for some time.

For 140,000 households not included in last week's announcements the national broadband plan remains the only show in town. The announcements have several potential knock-on effects and the Minister needs to clarify the situation. What is the position for the households not included in last week's announcement? The first question arises around the size of the intervention area. The rules of the national broadband plan were clear, as I understood them anyway. The plan cannot cover areas where a commercial operator is already in place or has already identified an area as being commercially feasible. Can the Minister confirm that the size of the intervention area has been reduced as a result of last week's announcements?

The second question is around a timeline for the national broadband plan. We understand that the final tender has been with the Department since September. In November, the Minister indicated that he would bring his recommendation before the Cabinet within weeks. Since then we have not heard much detail other than that it will happen within weeks. Perhaps the Minister can give us some clarity on that point.

Have these announcements in the past week or week and a half delayed decisions being brought forward by the Minister and his Department? Had the Minister any foreknowledge or forewarning that these announcements were imminent? Did he know that the companies concerned were working on plans to roll out high-speed broadband to those areas?

The final issue is around cost. We know the Secretary General of the Department of Communications, Climate Action and Environment accepted at the Committee of Public Accounts that it was reasonable to conclude that the removal of the 300,000 homes from the intervention area in March 2017 made the national broadband plan less attractive to bidders. Does the same logic apply here? Can we assume that the decisions of Eir and Imagine to effectively offer a service to potentially in excess of 400,000 homes will impact significantly on the attractiveness of the national broadband plan? I would have thought it was reasonable to assume that the final price and roll-out will be influenced by the size of the intervention area. It is reasonable to assume that the NBP cannot be rolled out in areas where a commercial operator is in place. We know the issues around state aid rules. Prior to the development of the intervention area map there was a good deal of toing and froing between the Department and the European Commission.

It is reasonable to assume the NBP cannot be rolled out in areas where a commercial operator is already in place or has already proposed to roll out a service on a commercial basis. If the intervention area shrinks by up to 400,000 overnight, what will happen to the cost to the State? Has the cost per household of the roll-out increased or decreased as a result of the announcements last week? It was reported previously, in rather informed leaks to The Irish Times towards the end of last year, that the cost of the national broadband plan to the State was a multiple of what was originally envisaged and outlined in the national development plan. The figures quoted then seemed to suggest that it had increased by between four and six times what had been originally envisaged. Can the Minister provide us with some clarity? How much is Granahan McCourt potentially going to get paid in that case?

I thank Deputy Dooley for raising this matter. It is of considerable importance. The backdrop to the national broadband plan is exactly as the Deputy described. The purpose of the national broadband plan was to promote commercial investment to the maximum extent possible. Indeed there has been €2.75 billion worth of investment in upgrading telecommunications networks since the national broadband plan process started.

The issue of the intervention area where a subsidy can apply, as the Deputy has said, is confined to areas where it has been established that other companies will not provide a commercial service to an adequate standard. Some time ago it was envisaged that there would be approximately 750,000 premises in the intervention area. However, through monitoring by my Department and discussions with the commercial providers the figure was reduced by 300,000 where Eir undertook to deliver to the necessary standard on a commercial basis. At the same time some areas were added to the amber area or the intervention area provided the Department was satisfied that people in the relevant areas would not be served by companies that had previously signalled an ability to do so.

The position on these new investments, which are welcome indeed, is that my Department is seeking an early meeting with both companies. At this point neither operator has submitted commercial or technical plans for the Department to assess. For the Department to determine that the companies have met the standard to reduce the size of the intervention area we will need to have a certain level of scrutiny of the proposals. The intention of the national broadband plan was to deliver to 100% of premises a high-speed service, which was specified at that stage as being 30 Mbps.

The only other comment to be made is that the two announcements by Eir and Imagine are somewhat different. The announcement by Eir covered expanding the company's commitment to deliver fibre to the home. This indicates the trend of the thinking across much of the sector that fibre to the home is the standard to which we need to move in the long term. The Imagine proposal is delivered through wireless technology so it is somewhat different in its delivery. I realise there were comments and questions in the committee about the capacity to deliver 100% in the way that fibre would. These are issues that the Department will want to work out with the two companies to see what impact they might have on the intervention area.

I thank the Minister for that clarity. The final line in the Minister's written statement is that he expects to bring a recommendation to Government on the national broadband plan in the coming weeks. I take it that will be influenced to a large extent by the discussions or presentations from the companies concerned to the Department on the impact of their announcements on the intervention area. I can assume that is the case.

If the intervention area is to change significantly, then the position is absolutely clear. If the 120,000 homes that are still not covered by any of the commercial operators are to be facilitated, then the cost effectively remains the same. This is because of the need to roll out high-speed broadband to the areas concerned. It is effectively the same network that we will have to roll out so the cost per household goes up significantly. Does the Minister accept this is a factor or at least that it comes about as a result of the tardiness of this Government and the previous Government in reaching a decision and failing to roll out the service? As a result of tardiness and delay we are now left with a situation whereby we are effectively going to have to pay the same amount of money to cover far fewer homes.

The public private partnership that was envisaged as part of the national broadband plan bidding process recognised that in addition to the State subvention there would be a revenue return from customer uptake.

If the cherry-picking has been done, given the two announcements, it is going to put a much greater liability on the State and delay further the roll-out of high-speed broadband to those homes.

I am not going to draw conclusions about the proposals. The figure that Eir and the Department have in common is 335, so there are 35,000 additional premises served by Eir. At the same time, there is a considerable number of premises which the Department has identified, in addition to the 84,000 that were taken out before, where although there was an indication that commercial service would be delivered, it does not now seem that it will be delivered.

On the service which is wireless and based on 5G technology, the point has to be made that both the Commission for Communications Regulation, ComReg, and the Department's experts have always argued - indeed, in common with much of the industry - that 5G networks and 4G networks are complementary technology to fibre roll-out and are not a replacement. There are a number of reasons for that. One is that the wireless technology is line-of-sight, which has restrictions on its capacity. To overcome those restrictions, one would need to build a great number of masts. The evaluation by ComReg indicated that to build the number of masts on the scale needed would cost in the region of €1.8 billion. The second reason is that it is shared or, I think the word is "contested", which means that when a service is delivered, the more people who come on board for the service means that it becomes diluted, which is unlike fibre to the home.

There are issues here that clearly the Department has to tease out with the two companies. It would be untrue for the Deputy to assume that the intervention area has been reduced to whatever the number he quoted as result of these decisions. Clearly, investment in this area is very welcome. It brings forward the delivery of service but we will listen closely to the companies before we give an indication and I will inform the Deputy.

Planning Issues

I thank the Ceann Comhairle for selecting this Topical Issue matter. It is fair to say the planning laws are only as good as their enforcement and each local authority has a different approach. In addition, the courts are often involved in the most egregious cases. As is usual, I am dealing with several unauthorised developments at the moment, as I think is every other Deputy. I have chosen three to give a flavour of some of the problems.

The first is a garage and panel-beating business within a residential setting in Naas. It is located to the side of a private home and it does not have planning permission. An unauthorised development file was opened in May 2015, following which the council initiated legal proceedings later that year. After many District Court postponements, the case was heard in September 2017. Following that, there was an application to retain, which was subsequently rejected and which was then appealed. When that process was exhausted, an application to declare the development an exempted development was made and rejected and is being appealed. In the meantime, the council is back in the District Court and the case has been mentioned but postponed until the appeal is decided. In the meantime, the neighbouring home is subject to noise from early morning until late at night with activity at weekends and their garden is now simply off-limits to them. I am also told that the licence for chemicals has expired, so there are potential health and fire risk implications. No commercial rates are being paid because there is no planning permission. That is totally unfair on other businesses which are trading in an unequal environment. No development levies are being paid either. In May of this year, it will be four years since the unauthorised development file was opened and it looks like it will still be in operation four years later.

The second example is a large quarry in Ballysax beside the Curragh in south Kildare. The Ceann Comhairle will be more than familiar with this particular one, which is not in my constituency. The site in question has no planning permission and its footprint has expanded to more than 60 acres. It has gone through the whole entire unauthorised development process, including warning letters and enforcement and has gone right up to the High Court which made an order to cease operation. The decision specified that quarry owners were to wind down the activity. They were given a very generous six months to do that. They were to cease all activities on 1 February of this year. What has happened is that the activity has accelerated and the footprint has widened. The amount of traffic has noticeably increased. I have photographs that show this and are truly shocking. The council has applied to the Circuit Court to enforce the High Court order. The council is now in the hands of the court as to when the case will be heard.

There is an interesting contrast between how Kildare County Council and Wicklow County Council apply the law regarding quarries. Wicklow takes a no-nonsense, straight in with the injunction approach, while Kildare takes a more lenient approach. There is a noticeable contrast in the behaviour by quarry owners when a different approach is applied.

This quarry has no planning permission and, therefore, there are no funds for reinstatement, there are no bonds, there are no development levies and there is significant ongoing damage being done to the roads which the council is repeatedly repairing. It is being argued that the road repairs are being funded from the public purse to facilitate what is essentially an illegal development. The neighbouring homes are living with dust, noise, heavy commercial activity, significant damage to the landscape and the water table has been altered. There are mountains of soil there that did not exist before. I have numerous photographs which I can give to the Minister as to the operation and planning breach here.

I will continue with what I was going to say in my response later.

I thank Deputy Catherine Murphy for raising this important issue which is the enforcement of planning law regarding unauthorised developments and consequential damage and maintenance issues concerning surrounding infrastructure. I am conscious that in her presentation she mentioned cases, the details of which I do not have and of which I am not aware. She has put them on the record and we can check them out. That may help to inform future decision-making but I cannot comment on something I did not know about until it was presented tonight.

On the issue the Deputy raised, I take this opportunity, as Minister of State, to outline my role in relation to the planning system which is mainly to provide and update the legislative and policy guidance framework. The legislative framework comprises the Planning and Development Act 2000, as amended, and the associated planning and development regulations. Furthermore, my Department issued a large number of planning guidelines under section 28 of the Planning Act to guide planning authorities in relation to the implementation of the wider planning policy framework which they and An Bord Pleanála are obliged to have regard to in the exercise of their planning functions.

However, the day-to-day operation of the planning system is a matter for the individual planning authorities and under section 30 of the Act, the Minister, Deputy Eoghan Murphy, and I are specifically prohibited from exercising any power or control in relation to any particular case, including an enforcement issue with which a planning authority or the board is or may be concerned with. The Deputy has outlined a number of cases, and will probably mention more later on, of which I have become aware but in which I do not have a role. It is worth hearing about them because, as we review policy, it is important we keep all scenarios in mind.

Under planning legislation, any development which requires permission and does not have that permission is unauthorised development. This is also the case with a development which is proceeding in breach of conditions laid down in the planning permission or any exempted development that is carried out that does not comply with the limitations of that exemption.

The planning code also provides that enforcement of planning control is a matter for the individual planning authorities, which can take action if a development does not have the required permission or where the terms of a permission have not been met. In this regard, planning authorities have substantial enforcement powers under the Act.

A planning authority may issue an enforcement notice in connection with an unauthorised development, requiring such steps as the authority considers necessary to be taken within a specified period. If an enforcement notice is not complied with, the planning authority is further empowered to enter on the land and take such steps, including the removal, demolition or alteration of any structure, as is deemed necessary as well as to recover any costs incurred in undertaking such actions.

Second, a planning authority may also seek a court order under section 160 of the Act requiring any particular action to be done or not to be done. For example, a person can be required to cease carrying out unauthorised development or can be required to restore any land to its condition prior to the unauthorised activity being carried out.

Taking account of these points, responsibility for enforcement action in respect of any breach of the planning code is a matter for individual planning authorities under the powers available to them under the Act. Accordingly, individual cases of unauthorised developments or non-compliance with planning permissions should be brought to the attention of the relevant planning authority, which can then take the necessary and timely action as provided for in planning legislation.

I suspect that, had I forewarned the Minister of State about the details what I was going to raise, he might have responded slightly differently. Like any of us who have been through the local government system, I am well aware of the process. I accept that there are guidelines but are they being adhered to? The Minister of State mentioned that planning authorities must have regard to them. In theory, local authorities can enter onto lands but that never happens and there are undoubtedly people who use every avenue to prolong a process. That is in their interests. They are not paying the commercial rates, levies and so on that go into the public purse.

This problem undermines the planning process and is unfair on the developments' neighbours. In some cases, public funds are being used to carry out repairs. In the case of a quarry, for example, who will pay for the reinstatement? No commercial rates, bonds or development levies were paid over.

Standards are set across a range of areas, but where someone has an unauthorised development, there is no testing or enforcement of those standards. Are data collected regarding how many unauthorised commercial developments are not subject to commercial rates? Is there a risk assessment of liabilities? In Naas in my constituency, we ended up with a mountainous dump that went on fire and cost more than €20 million to reinstate. It was an unauthorised development that had consequences.

Are there plans to tighten up the unauthorised development process? Is there oversight of attempts to get consistency in local authorities' application of unauthorised development laws, given that that application can vary?

My ministerial role in the planning system is to provide and update the legislative and policy guidance framework. As the Deputy is aware, I cannot get involved in or exercise any power in respect of any particular case, including an enforcement issue with which a planning authority is or may be concerned. Recently, though, I have stated that we are prepared to examine this area. We set policy and guidance, which I am happy to have reviewed to see if we need to strengthen it. We are in talks with local authorities around the country concerning various issues. In terms of dereliction and vacant properties, for example, we have examined whether their enforcement powers need to be strengthened and whether the Act is strong enough. That is something that I can talk about and am happy to discuss. We can review the policy and legislative situation in respect of the cases the Deputy raised but the cases themselves must be dealt with individually by each local authority. Responsibility for enforcement action in respect of any breach of the planning code is a matter for individual planning authorities. In the cases the Deputy referenced, that is Kildare County Council.

Part VIII of the Planning and Development Act 2000 sets out the comprehensive enforcement powers that are available to planning authorities. If we need to strengthen them in general, that is something that we can review. Indeed, we review it on an ongoing basis, and changes were made a number of years ago to the planning code. I agree with the Deputy that local authorities should be in a strong position and be able to use their powers when they feel doing so is appropriate. I also agree that there can be delays in planning authorities taking enforcement action against unauthorised developments and that situations may arise in which those developments impact on the surrounding infrastructure. For instance, if damage is caused to roads by certain construction activity and is not acted upon, it can at the very least be a source of annoyance or inconvenience for local residents, never mind the additional cost it incurs for us all.

It is important that there be enforcement, and at an early stage where possible. The earlier that an instance of unauthorised development or non-compliance with planning permission is brought to the attention of the relevant planning authority, the earlier the relevant enforcement powers provided for in legislation can be activated by the authority. Where authorities deem it fit, these powers should be activated as quickly as possible in such situations.

In general, I would be happy to examine enforcement powers to see if they can be strengthened.