I call the Minister for Rural and Community Development, Deputy Ring, for questions and answers on Covid-19. The Minister has ten minutes. Fianna Fáil will have 15 minutes, as will Sinn Féin. We then revert to ten minute slots for everybody.
Covid-19 (Rural and Community Development): Statements
I welcome the opportunity to address the Chamber today to update Deputies on the work of my Department as part of the national efforts to address the challenges presented by Covid-19.
Community organisations, charities, social enterprises and the volunteers who assisted them have been an integral part of our country's response to the pandemic. While elements of our society and economy are now beginning to reopen, the reality is that community and the voluntary sector never closed. In recent weeks, when other sectors have been unable to operate, the community and voluntary organisations, charities and social enterprises have stepped up to the plate in their local communities, delivering vital service to those most in need. While a whole-of-Government co-ordinated approach is the backbone in planning and managing the effects of this emergency, solutions are ultimately implemented at a community level. Recent weeks have demonstrated as never before the benefits of having a robust community structure in place. It is vital that we continue to support our communities as our country moves into recovery phase.
From the outset of the crisis, my Department has played a central role in supporting the needs of the most vulnerable in our communities. As a result of the partnership approach developed by my Department with the community and voluntary sector, we were well placed to respond quickly and effectively to the challenges presented by the Covid-19 crisis. Due to our expertise in the area, my Department was represented on the NPHET subgroup on vulnerable people and was instrumental in planning the Government's response to the needs of vulnerable people in our communities.
As an immediate response to the crisis, I published a Covid-19 action plan as the first step to support the community response. Its three key initiatives were: letting people know how and where to volunteer; increasing community supports for older people through a partnership with ALONE; and launching an email helpdesk supporting smaller community groups. At the same time, my Department produced a Covid-19 communication pack for communities. Following the launch of our action plan, my Department developed proposals for a whole-of-Government response to the needs of vulnerable people in our communities. This ultimately became the Government's Community Call initiative, an unprecedented mobilisation of national Government, local government and the community and voluntary sector to support vulnerable people in our community during the Covid-19 emergency.
The Community Call is managed locally by local authorities, led by chief executives who chaired a dedicated community forum in their local authority areas to respond to the needs of people cocooning in their homes. Crucially, the community forums included all of the State and community and voluntary organisations responding locally to the Covid-19 crisis. The Community Call initiative has ushered in a new way of working, a shared purpose and a significant level of collaboration between local and national Government, community and local development and the volunteer sector.
My Department has played a central role in the Community Call from its inception, sitting on the national oversight committee and providing funding and support for many elements of the community response. Last month, in response to the urgent need for equipment and other supports, I announced a €2.5 million Covid-19 emergency fund for community and voluntary groups taking part in the Community Call. Local authorities are distributing the funding to community groups supporting vulnerable people in getting through the crisis.
Volunteers have been very much to the forefront of the community response. Volunteer Ireland and local volunteer centres participated fully in the Community Call structures. With their help and advice, many pressing issues in relation to the community response, such as safe volunteering, volunteer management and Garda vetting, were dealt with efficiently and professionally. In response to the significant extra demand on their services, my Department provided additional financial support to our volunteer centres.
The Covid-19 community outreach scheme, run by The Wheel and Irish Rural Link, was another important element of the Community Call fund provided by my Department. Community champions are now in place in all local authority areas and are represented on local community response forums.
In addition, our public participation networks are currently playing a central role in the community response to the Covid-19 emergency, as evident by initiatives at local level throughout the country. The response by the 49 local development companies to Covid-19 has been rapid and widespread, with many of their 170,000 service users reached in the early days and weeks of the crisis. Local development companies played a key role in the Community Call, participating on all of the community forums and helping to co-ordinate the community response. Through the national social inclusion and community activation programme, SICAP, local development companies continue to work with the most disadvantaged in our society. This is more important than ever during the crisis.
In addition to the Community Call, we supported our public libraries, which were quick off the mark to expand and adapt to the digital service once the Covid-19 restrictions were imposed. Branches had to close, but our libraries are now delivering more services online and it is possible for new members to register online to avail of them. Over the last three months, I have provided an extra €400,000 to the library service to meet the demand for online services.
My Department has also responded to the urgent needs of the community and voluntary organisations, charities, and social enterprises that are suffering financial difficulties as a result of the Covid-19 restrictions. A few weeks ago, I announced a €40 million package of supports consisting on two key elements. First, a €35 million Covid-19 stability fund to assist organisations experiencing severe financial difficulties due to the reduction in fundraising and traded income as a direct result of the Covid-19 epidemic. The second part of the package is the €5 million Government contribution to the Innovate Together fund, which is also supported by charitable donations.
As well as developing the new funding schemes, existing supports provided by my Department have been enhanced in response to the epidemic. An example of this is the adoption of the seniors alert scheme to link with ALONE national helpline, offering a befriending service to participants. My Department and Pobal are allowing the maximum level of flexibility possible to community services programme, CSP, supported organisations to ensure they can continue to employ their staff and support their communities. We have also put in place a support fund which is providing an additional one-off payment to eligible CSP-supported organisations to assist with staffing costs in the short-term.
My Department also recognises the challenges being faced by local action groups in delivering the LEADER programme 2014-2020, and swiftly moved to introduce additional flexibility to support the ongoing operations.
Despite the cancellation of this year's Tidy Towns competition, I have committed that funding allocated to groups throughout the country this year will still be available to continue the great work in making our towns and villages attractive and welcoming.
I have outlined to Deputies my Department's work in responding to the Covid-19 crisis since the middle of March. As we are now beginning to ease the restrictions, it also has an important role to play in the recovery. Last week, I announced a package of measures under my Department's rural development investment programme to help rural economies and communities in the post-Covid recovery. This package includes €15 million for the town and village renewal scheme, €10 million for the outdoor recreation infrastructure scheme, and €5 million for the CLÁR programme. Each of these schemes has been adjusted this year to help rural towns and villages to adapt to how to do business and to how people can socialise within the context of the public health guidelines.
The rural regeneration and development fund will also be instrumental in supporting the economic recovery of rural areas following Covid-19. To date, funding of €148 million has been approved for 110 projects under the fund, and a budget of €53 million has been allocated to the fund for 2020.
A significant factor in the economic recovery of rural areas will be the availability of access to high-speed broadband. Broadband connection points will be opened across the State in the coming weeks and months, allowing many communities without reliable broadband an opportunity to work remotely and to conduct their business online from local facilities.
Social enterprises are also an important part of the local economy in rural areas and are well-placed to address our priorities in the Covid-19 recovery phase by creating jobs, generating local economic activity and addressing broader policy priorities relating to the environment and local services.
Above all, as we head into a new phase of the economic recovery it is important that no region is left behind, and that no person is left behind. We need to ensure we bring all of society with us. Covid-19 has brought about a shift in our values as a society, with greater emphasis placed on the value of our neighbours, our communities, and of being in this together. We have always known in Ireland that our communities-----
I thank the Minister. His time has expired. He may refer to the rest of his speech in the course of his questions and answers. Is that okay?
That is grand.
Is there a copy of the speech?
It is being circulated. Fianna Fáil is next with 15 minutes. Who is Deputy Calleary sharing with?
I am sharing with Deputies Cahill, Moynihan and Ó Cuiv. There are a couple of others in the slot. We will manage the time.
It is going to be very difficult to manage the multiplicity of interventions. I ask everybody to keep to the time as much as possible.
I thank the Acting Chairman.
I join the Minister in acknowledging the huge effort that has been put in over the past number of weeks in the first phase of Covid by the local development sector, local authorities, organisations such as LocalLink, RSS and Tús, CE workers, and sports organisations in communities across the country. Truly meitheal was part of our defence against the first phase of Covid, and meitheal will be the essential part of the ongoing response to it.
One of the questions I would like to ask the Minister concerns these organisations. Many of them are facing huge pressure as a consequence of the restrictions. The Minister mentioned the stability fund for community, charity and social organisations. When will he be in a position to make announcements about awarding that funding. He surely understands the urgency of that funding for their cash flow, and the importance of that cash flow to many providing essential services.
The Minister mentioned the community services programme, CSP, and I welcome the flexibility he has shown to CSP companies in the past number of weeks. However, as we move on, their commercial income will be affected by the ongoing restrictions. What flexibility will continue to be there as the various phases of our response to coronavirus are rolled out? Will there be flexibility when looking at their income, and looking at their inability to generate commercial income?
The Minister mentioned rebuilding rural Ireland, and that is the phase we must move to. The town and village renewal scheme and the various capital programmes are essential and it is particularly important that we now recalibrate the town and village renewal scheme to take account of social distancing and of the extra space, and to use it as an opportunity to make our towns and villages even more attractive places to come to and socialise in.
On the overall recovery plan, it is reported the Minister has views on travel restrictions. Does he think it is fair that the 20 km restriction, which in my county, and which is also the county of the Minister and Deputy Conway-Walsh, would not bring one far, should be left as is, or should there be some sort of flexibility given for inter-county travel and travel within counties? That too would allow our towns and villages to catch a breath, even if it is kept to within the county.
There are issues around rates. Our rural businesses, communities and clubs will not survive unless there is a break given on rates, and unless there is some sort of continuing reform in the temporary employee subsidy programme around seasonal workers.
I suspect many private companies are making plans to take services out of rural Ireland and use Covid as a cover to do that. I refer specifically to banks. As Minister for Rural and Community Development, has he taken a stand against banks which have used Covid as a cover to close branches, and are delaying reopening them? That is a disgraceful way to treat rural Ireland, given that it helped pay the bills that those banks left behind. This House needs to make it very clear today that we will not stand for withdrawal of any services from rural Ireland using Covid-19 as a cover.
I call Deputy Michael Moynihan. We will take all the answers at the end, otherwise the last speaker will have no time at all.
I will make my contribution and the Minister can reply to me in writing afterwards. I want to make a few points in the limited time we have.
I welcome the opportunity to speak in this debate. I want to pick up on Deputy Calleary's point regarding the 5 km limit. For many urban dwellers, this limit does not impede them at all because they can do all of their business within a 5 km radius of their home. However, for people in rural communities, even the 20 km limit is problematic and for places like north Cork, we really need more flexibility. There must be a sense in the discussions that are held tomorrow and the announcements that will be made over the next while that we take the concerns of rural people into consideration in terms of what they and everyone else, both urban and rural dwellers, have endured in the context of the Covid-19 crisis over the last number of weeks.
There is an opportunity here. The Minister said in his opening statement that there has been a shift in values and there is no doubt about that. People are talking to other people and have met their neighbours more over the last while and there has been a shift in values. We should use the opportunity that is facing us now to make sure that we can renew and write a new chapter for rural Ireland. We have seen an increase in "smart working" over the last number of weeks. The term "remote working" is being used by many but Cork County Council is quite right to describe it as "smart working", with people working from home and taking advantage of connectivity, whether they are in rural or urban communities. People can have a choice as to where they work. We must refocus and use every policy instrument available to the Department of Rural and Community Development to repopulate rural Ireland. This can be very good for rural Ireland and society as a whole. We have seen the benefits right across the spectrum in the context of Covid-19 and how the disease is spread. As we move into the next phase, there can be an economic benefit from rural living. I appeal to the Minister and his Department not to lose this opportunity.
I wish to focus on three areas, namely, the community and voluntary sector, transport and mobility and broadband. Broadband is a major issue for so many rural communities and has been thus for many years. The recent increase in working and studying from home has further intensified the problems and has highlighted the broadband black spots. While additional bandwidth has been made available and wireless connections have improved, the black spots remain where wireless coverage is not available. Is there any way that the Minister can highlight this with the national broadband plan? There must be a focus on the already-identified black spots so that they can be prioritised in the roll out of rural broadband. This is a hugely significant issue.
On transport and mobility, the point has been well made already with regard to the 5 km and 20 km limits which are very restrictive in rural communities. To put it into perspective, one can travel for up to 20 km in Dublin and engage with anything up to 1 million people, thus potentially driving on Covid-19 at a super-spreader rate whereas in a rural community if one travels 20 km, one may not meet anything more than a handful of people. In terms of people being able to drive around and do their business in rural communities, the limits are very restrictive. Has the Minister raised this matter with the Minister for Health and the Taoiseach? Is there some way of doing away with that limit or having flexibility within it to make it more realistic for rural communities? If we attempt to enforce an unrealistic limit on people, it will bring the whole thing into disrepute and will not be practical.
According to CSO figures from 2016, 25% of people in my own area covering north and west Cork commute for well over 45 minutes every day. This includes people travelling to Cork and Limerick for college or for work. Travelling is a big issue for people and in the absence of public transport, the car is essential. In that context, having a driver's licence is a big issue for a great many people.
Is there some way whereby newer drivers who are ready to take the test can do so? The issue has been resolved or contained for those who are seeking renewals but is there some way for newer drivers who have taken driving lessons to get tests as this would thereby give them the opportunity to obtain driving licences, reduce their insurance costs and have the mobility they need in rural communities?
Regarding community and voluntary groups, while the stability fund initially focused on Covid-related activities, there needs to be some way that the wider community groups, whether they are involved in Ionad Cultúrtha in Ballyvourney or Independence Museum Kilmurry, are able to avail of that funding to support their local communities.
I agree with Deputy Calleary about the significant work that community and voluntary organisations have done throughout the Covid-19 crisis. We must welcome the €40 million package of support for these organisations, charities and social enterprises announced on 8 Mary 2020. Many of these community and voluntary organisations have seen their incomes decimated because of the Covid-19 restrictions. This emergency package includes a stability fund of €35 million and an Innovate Together fund of €5 million for these organisations. The stability fund will provide important support to sectors, including health and social care, child and family services, housing, homelessness and community services such as meals on wheels and old age supports. While the deadline for the first round of applications for the Innovate Together fund has passed, two further application rounds are planned for June and September of this year. Could the Minister bring forward details of these immediately?
Regarding rural regeneration and development and town and village renewal programmes, which I know the Minister values, as do I, Tipperary town in my constituency is in the very early stages of developing a long-term and sustainable development plan. It is envisaged that infrastructure, job creation, commercial service provision, provision of housing and enhancement of heritage and other community assets will all form part of the plan. However, one piece of the jigsaw is required to make it possible for all the others to fall into place and that is the need for a ring road for Tipperary town. There have been reports that what is now being discussed in this regard is an inner relief road. What is needed is a road that routes traffic around the town rather than one that would simply reroute traffic through other parts of the town. An inner relief road would clearly hamper the overall ambition for the town and merely relocate rather than solve existing problems. The Department and others will be required to invest significant funding in the coming years if we are to make the vision for Tipperary town a reality. It is critical that the main infrastructure provision is done properly because it will impact on all other plans. Will the Minister put on the record within the Department that a ring road is what is required for Tipperary town rather than an inner relief road?
I will talk about Tús and community employment, CE, schemes in the limited time I have left. I know that these matters do not fall directly within the remit of the Department but they are hugely important for rural communities. I ask that restrictions in place at the moment be reviewed in line with Covid. In the case of Tús, the existence of 12-month-only placements pertaining to many of the current participants means that they have missed out on actual working time due to the lockdown. Could their time be extended beyond their finishing date? If it was possible, could the option of a second year on a scheme be introduced and possibly longer for those aged over 55? Could the waiting time between placements be reduced from the current three years to one year? Could mandatory retirement at 66 be abolished because the schemes are particularly useful for people who may be of retirement age but who still wish to work within their community? There are Tús and CE schemes that cannot recruit employees because of social distancing. If it can be proved that social distancing can be observed without difficulty, as many of these participants work on their own, could these schemes be resumed as quickly as possible? It would obviously be of great value to rural communities.
I will not be able to answer all of the questions in one minute, but I will do my best to answer some of them. Deputy Calleary raised the issue of the stability fund. The Deputy is correct. My plan is to roll it out as quickly as possible. The funding is in place and more than 1,000 applications have been received. I want the funding to be paid out as quickly as possible. We did have to engage with some of the groups in regard to the manner in which they filled out their applications. I want to ensure equality between the groups in terms of applications. It is important we are all singing from the same hymn sheet. Pobal will make the decisions. As I said, my plan is to roll out the funding as quickly as possible.
On the issue of services in rural Ireland, if any of the banks or public services are using this opportunity to shut down services, I would condemn them. I call on Bank of Ireland to ensure that all of its branches which closed during the crisis are reopened immediately, because if the business existed prior to the crisis, it should be there after it. I hope that they will be reopened.
On the rates and other facilities, schemes have been put in place and the Government has announced a package. I hope that the local authorities will show flexibility to businesses. What we need now is business to reopen. The local authorities need to assist them in their hour of need. I do not want local authorities or any other service putting pressure on businesses that need to open quickly and commence re-employment of people as quickly as possible.
Unfortunately, time has caught up with us. Every effort is being made to facilitate everybody. The time allocation is in members' hands. If members want full answers, the time is available for that. The next tranche of speakers is Deputies Rose Conway-Walsh, Martin Browne and Pauline Tully of Sinn Féin, who are sharing 15 minutes.
Go raibh maith agat. I welcome the Minister, Deputy Ring, and this opportunity to get answers to some questions. I thank the Minister for the funding that has been made available to the community and voluntary sector and I commend the meitheal of volunteers that have done Trojan work throughout the country. We need to examine the value of the community and voluntary sector. I refer the Minister to the community employment supervisors and their pension entitlements, which issue has been through the many mechanisms of the State. When can they expect to get justice?
I know the Minister will want to join me and Deputy Calleary in sending sympathy and solidarity to the parents and family of five-year-old Ben Duffy from Tourmakeady who lost his life earlier this week in a tragic accident. I know also that the Minister will be as horrified as all right-minded people by the killing of George Floyd in America. I take this opportunity to send solidarity and sympathy to his family and friends. This is not enough. We need to listen and to act with humanity. Community development, which is under the remit of the Minister, Deputy Ring, is about building capacity in people and empowering people and communities, providing equality of opportunity and ensuring that everyone is included and treated with respect. Is the Minister committed to stamping out racism? This commitment can be demonstrated by ending the direct provision system and introducing hate crime legislation. As Minister for Rural and Community Development, what has Deputy Ring done to advance these two actions and what can he commit to do in the future under the rural Ireland and community development remit to ensure that everybody is included? I welcome the Minister's earlier statement that nobody would be left behind because we are leaving whole cohorts of people behind. The Minister also referenced vulnerable people and their not being left behind. There is nobody more vulnerable than the people who are locked up in the direct provision centres. I ask the Minister to speak to that issue.
I also want to raise the issue of the community and voluntary stability scheme and the operational fund. Will the Minister indicate if it will be paid out at the end of July or the end of August? This is what the community groups want to know. I appreciate there were a large number of applications for funding but the community groups would like to know when they can expect it.
As regards the LEADER programme, what provision has the Minister made for community and enterprise projects that have been allocated money which cannot now be drawn down? For example, communities are unable to fundraise the matching funds because of the restrictions on them at the moment, and some businesses that had planned to expand are now fighting for their very survival. Will the Minister give assurances that businesses that have drawn down funding in the current programme and cannot meet the employment targets or may even have to close will be exempt from any of the penalties to which they would be subject in normal times?
What provision has the Minister made to cover the interim period between the end of the current LEADER programme and the beginning of the next one? As regards the structure of the LEADER programme, is he giving consideration to returning to a community-led programme? It was a major mistake under the last programme, as the EU Commission agreed. We had a model of very good practice that was commended throughout the EU and it was brought under the local authorities against the wishes of the people who gathered in community centres throughout this country to tell the Government it was a mistake. There is an opportunity now to review and revise that.
I welcome the request for the revision of the TEN-T core network to include Ireland's western arc region, which was made on 19 August last year. The Minister will agree that it was a major mistake to take it out in the first place. It should never have been taken out. It was acknowledged that without the required infrastructure, not least the transport infrastructure, our potential for economic growth will stall, and the lack of high-quality connectivity within the Atlantic economic corridor has been a major impediment to its development and potential to act as a counterbalance to Dublin and the east. I welcome the response and the letter received from the EU Commission on 10 October giving assurance that the Commission is ready to co-operate very closely with the Irish authorities and that the concerns and specifics of the Irish situation will be fully taken into account in the review process. Will the Minister confirm that his Department will push ahead with the development of the Atlantic economic corridor and that the critical infrastructure projects will be delivered in the lifetime of the next Government if his party is part of it? The opportunities identified by the Atlantic economic corridor to drive the low-carbon, high-value strategy are game-changing. Will the Minister ensure it is supported at an EU level by leveraging all funds available through the EU as well as at a national level?
It is deeply concerning to me and Sinn Féin that the west and north west have been downgraded from a more developed region to a region in transition. The fact of the matter is that all key economic indicators show that we are at best standing still and at worst in decline. I will leave my contribution at that to allow some answers and will hand over to my colleagues.
There will only be time for written replies, unless we have space at the end. I call Deputy Browne.
I will concentrate on three things, though I would love to have time to do more. I raise the issue of the N24 which connects Limerick and Waterford and passes through several towns in Tipperary. This route is vital to the connectivity of the region and to regional development as it is the link between Shannon Airport and Rosslare Harbour. However, past Governments from both Fine Gael and Fianna Fáil have neglected the route. The lack of a bypass for Tipperary town means there is an unacceptable level of traffic in the town and the air pollution is twice the level recommended by the World Health Organization. The bypass was first mooted 40 years ago and it is a damning indictment of Ministers and Ministers of State down through the years that they have let this situation continue. Immediate work is needed to upgrade this route both to improve the living conditions of the people of Tipperary and ensure the necessary infrastructure for economic development, particularly post Brexit with any increased demand for shipping through Rosslare. Plans need to be enacted straight away to put in a ring road, as was suggested by Deputy Cahill, and not an inner relief road, which will not work.
Cashel is a perfect example of where a ring road was built and then linked to the bypass afterwards. I would like to ask the Minister when a bypass will be provided for Tipperary town and if his Department will commit to providing the necessary investment to upgrade the route in light of Brexit.
I want to raise the issue of community resource centres. While many aspects of their funding fall under the remit of the Department of Children and Youth Affairs, the services provided by these centres play a key role in community development through the provision of supports for families, resources for those seeking jobs and supports for the more vulnerable members of our communities. I am involved in the resource centre in Cashel and I know how important it is to the community. Given the uncertainty around the country's economic future post Covid-19, I ask the Minister to outline what supports will be made available to these resource centres as many are already struggling with insignificant funding, yet are to the forefront in supporting people during the current crisis. I ask the Minister to ring-fence the current money available and commit to providing extra funding when required. I also ask that a Cabinet Minister with responsibility for community development be retained.
While I am sure the Minister shares the concerns expressed by me and everybody else about the ongoing anti-racism Black Lives Matter protests in America, support for the protesters from Irish people is also to be commended. Ireland, like every other country, has its own challenges in achieving equality and maximising social inclusion in our communities. Among such barriers is unsustainable accommodation for asylum seekers. This creates barriers to maximising the benefit of community development in Ireland. What measures is the Department taking to encourage the participation of minority groups in community development initiatives? I ask that communication be kept open with community groups. As Deputy Conway-Walsh stated, this is not just about those in direct provision. Several communities are being left behind because of decisions made by Government.
As there are four minutes left in the slot, it is up to Deputies whether to leave time for replies or get written responses.
One of the biggest problems facing rural Ireland has been the lack of investment in our towns and villages that over decades has resulted in the depopulation of once vibrant communities. My county, Cavan, has, like most of the Border region, endured an unprecedented level of decline, not least in those towns and villages where several empty, and sometimes derelict, buildings blight the main streets. These decaying structures dishearten and demoralise the people who reside in these towns and villages, as well as anyone living in the neighbouring hinterlands. The buildings in question are usually a mixture of residential and business premises, and sometimes a combination of both. Many are older structures that in the past were an intrinsic part of a uniquely Irish rural streetscape but now these same buildings have, because of years of neglect, become run down. They are unwanted eyesores and a blight on the landscape, and illustrate the failure of successive Governments to support rural Ireland.
The cost of renovating these buildings is frequently excessive. In some cases, the buildings are in an appallingly dangerous condition and are potential deathtraps that are easily accessible, especially for children whose natural inclination is to explore such structures. The years of rural neglect that these crumbling structures represent remind us of the failure of Fianna Fáil and Fine Gael-led Governments to implement the type of policies and vision that would have sustained rural communities into the future.
In recent years, the level of decline has accelerated at an alarming rate. Towns and villages have lost vital services such as post offices, banks or Garda stations. This has, in turn, impacted on the viability of other businesses such as small shops, pubs, cafes and hardware stores, all of which are vital to ensuring social cohesion. In the small village of Kilnaleck, where I am from, I can easily count ten properties which are lying vacant, some of which are in a terrible state of disrepair. In the neighbouring town of Ballyjamesduff, the Percy French Hotel was once a renowned establishment. Now it lies derelict and is an eyesore.
When I canvassed in Swanlinbar in February, I asked the local man accompanying me why we were not canvassing a certain row of houses, only for him to tell me they were all empty. The same story could be told about towns and villages all over Cavan, Monaghan, Meath and, indeed, Ireland. The roll-out of rural broadband would help to keep people in rural Ireland instead of forcing large numbers of our population to gravitate towards large urban centres, especially Dublin. Better road infrastructure is also essential, especially in the Border region.
However, it is 20 years since I, as a councillor on Cavan County Council, considered plans to upgrade the M3 from Dublin to Meath to extend into Cavan and bypass Virginia. The work to extend this busy road failed to materialise. The M3 still stops at Cavan and with the county council still considering plans and routes, we continue to live with bottlenecks in places like Virginia.
I acknowledge that there are several schemes such as the rural regeneration scheme and the national vacant housing reuse scheme. However, the uptake on the latter scheme has been pathetic with less than a third of its target achieved. The rural regeneration and development fund is badly needed but there are doubts that it will achieve its aims of pumping life back into smaller towns and villages. Bureaucracy will make it difficult to access as with so many previous schemes.
There needs to be a straightforward process in place when administering this scheme so that it can be easily accessed and of benefit to the community. It should not be so inaccessible that it can only be exploited by some greedy developer who sees an opportunity to buy up property cheaply, renovate using funding and sell on at a large profit. Schemes such as these need to be properly funded and carefully planned if the Government is serious about reversing rural neglect.
There is also a need for an immediate time-limited review of these schemes with a view to setting ambitious targets for the return of vacant homes back into use and for the regeneration of our towns and villages from empty shells to vibrant communities. This must be part of a wider vision for rural areas which if implemented can, I believe, go some way to reversing the serious decline of rural counties such as Cavan and the resulting depopulation and restore once-thriving communities which are now struggling to survive.
The Minister has 21 seconds. I doubt if he will have time for much.
We will need to get written responses to the issues Deputy Conway-Walsh and others raised because I do not have the time. I want to be associated with her words of sympathy to Alan Duffy and his family.
Regarding what happened in America, the Deputy asked me what I had done on racism. My Department funds national organisations that fight against racism. I am totally appalled at what happened in America. My Department has a fantastic record in supporting groups fighting racism in this country. The social inclusion and community activation programme, SICAP, is there to help people in disadvantaged areas to give them the opportunity to get back to education or get into work or an apprenticeship. SICAP does not get the credit it deserves. I was out-----
The Minister's time has concluded. We are doing our best to try to include everybody, but if time is not given for the reply, we cannot do anything about it and so we will have to do it the other way. It is beneficial to the Members to get a reply if they can make time for that. Incidentally, this interruption does not in any way shorten the speeches of those waiting to speak.
I am sharing time with Deputy Peter Burke.
The Minister is very welcome here today. I grew up over a newsagent shop in Boyle. In the last ten years when the recession came, I saw how small towns like that were deeply impacted. When I was growing up, there were at least one or two football teams in our own street. Maybe 150 people lived over shops on our street, but now it is down to one or two. That is the same in every town and village around the country. Now is the time to address those serious situations. The Minister has made a significant difference. His Department and its budget have given hope and funding to towns and villages around the country, which needs to be continued.
Deputy Tully is right in pointing out the many over-shop dwellings that were once a good house. Maybe we all in our haste to get out of town into new houses have left good properties. People say there is a housing crisis and yet towns and villages have many vacant houses and places over shops in which many families were raised. I know standards have improved, but we need to look at it again and address it.
I will be a bit parochial. My town of Boyle has received significant funding in recent years. Nearly €1 million was allocated to knock down a hotel and make it look better. We also have a cycleway between Lough Key Forest Park and the town. Much more funding has come into that town as with every town and village.
No Opposition Deputy can deny that. The past four or five years have seen generosity and help extended to these towns. The Minister referred to the rural regeneration fund and I have a few related issues. Lough Key Forest Park is near the town where I live, and I was involved with that 20 years ago in politics. It is absolutely brilliant. The local authority is working with Coillte. We do not have a hotel, however. We had two hotels, but they are now closed.
It is a tourist area and a tourist town, but we do not have a hotel. Nobody will build a hotel because, unfortunately, it is possible and cheaper to buy a hotel in every town and village around the country than to build one. There are only five or six towns like this throughout the country and we need some mechanism in place. Perhaps the local authority could build a hotel and lease it out to a hotelier. A hotel is now a part of the social infrastructure, because it is where people go for coffee, weddings, communions, etc. It is embarrassing that we have the King House, Boyle Abbey and Lough Key Forest Park but we do not have a hotel. We need assistance and help in trying to get something like that. Does the Minister have any views on how we can address that serious situation? There are only five or six towns in the country with this unique problem. Nobody will build a hotel in this climate unless the local authority were to get funding and then lease it out.
I would like to bring to the Minister's attention a project in Multyfarnham which, under the town and village scheme, was awarded €100,000. I was working with Councillor Emily Wallace and Councillor Frank McDermott regarding revising the project. The local authority has asked the Department for an extension to April 2021 because several environmental studies will have to be carried out to revise the project. We met with residents and discussed the different issues and because the project requires the bridge to be narrowed, it would not be feasible due to heavy agricultural machinery operating in the area. It is a big farming area and a tourism hotspot. We want to look at a different revised project that will not impact on the width of the bridge. I would be grateful if the Minister would look into the request to grant an extension, because it is a good and worthwhile project.
I acknowledge the great work the Minister has done in his Department. I refer to major schemes such as CLÁR, the rural regeneration scheme, local improvement scheme, town and village renewal scheme and urban regeneration scheme. If I look in my constituency, the footprint the Minister has created is evident from Kinnegad to Moate and from Emper into Mullingar. Those various schemes have delivered in every corner of the constituency. They are much appreciated by communities. As I recall, in the most recent budget the Minister was one of the only members of Cabinet who received an increase in his allocation. That money will allow him to get projects of this type, which really deliver for people and improve their quality of life, off the ground. We are working very hard in Kinnegad in trying to get the exciting project in question up and running. The initial design fee was approved by the Minister's Department. When I look at the smaller projects, I always think of Mullingar Sub Aqua Club, which got funding for its first responder vehicle under CLÁR. That was hugely appreciated by the club. The club does great voluntary work and that was a way of thanking its members and showing them we value their input into and work for our community.
I really appreciate the good work the Minister has done and I hope he will be given the opportunity to continue with it. It is important to have a Minister in situ who understands the Department and what is required in rural Ireland. Despite some of the criticisms that can be heard in this House, the Minister really has rural Ireland at heart. He delivered in spades on the ground, if people look at the figures and the projects and talk to the communities.
The Minister has four minutes. It is the first opportunity he has got.
I thank Deputy Feighan for his kind comments regarding his town of Boyle. I was glad to hear him speaking about the schemes, including the town and village scheme and the rural regeneration scheme, because it annoys me sometimes when I hear people knocking rural Ireland, not being factual about rural Ireland and not being truthful about the previous Government regarding the investment of funds and the amount of money that went into towns, villages and counties throughout the country. Every town and county got funding from my Department in the last budget. People have short memories.
The Department will be only three years in existence this month. We had a small bit of resistance in the Dáil when I was setting up the Department. I had a bit of difficulty getting the Bill through the House. I must compliment the Seanad, which passed it very quickly, but certain Deputies tried to hold up the Bill. We were here at 11 o'clock one night, and if we did not get it done before 12 a.m., we would have run into difficulty as it would not have been possible to pass it until October, after the summer recess. We got the Department up and running. I say this openly and honestly: we have the finest Department. I want to put this on the record, and I should not but I will, whoever comes into Government, I will see it as a slight on rural Ireland if the Department of Rural and Community Development is not continued. I do not care who goes into Government; that Department must continue.
That Department has a budget for 2020 of €308 million for current spending and €150 million in capital funding. It is responsible for the town and village renewal scheme, the rural regeneration scheme, the outdoor recreation infrastructure scheme and the CLÁR programme. I was glad to hear Deputy Peter Burke talk about those schemes and the difference they have made in towns and villages.
Deputy Tully criticised the amount of funding received by County Cavan. That county got substantial funding from the Government under all those schemes. The Deputy should check the record in that regard. It received substantial funding under the town and village renewal scheme. I was not expecting to get parochial today but, as the Deputy has raised this issue, I will do so. I remember allocating funding for a scheme to open the county up for IDA Ireland. I dealt with several schemes, including the rural regeneration scheme. Under the Government, County Cavan did very well on the rural regeneration scheme, the town and village renewal scheme and the CLÁR programme, and rightly so. Every town in every county got an opportunity under the town and village renewal scheme. In some cases, the local authorities received the funding. In fairness to them, they submitted more applications than the Department could fund.
The town and village renewal scheme and the outdoor recreation infrastructure scheme have changed the face of rural Ireland. Let nobody tell me that rural Ireland is not a better place since the Department was set up. It has done a tremendous job in the public realm through the rural regeneration scheme.
It did fantastic work through the broadband scheme that has been the subject of much discussion. Do Deputies remember the difficulties in that regard and that the Government was threatened with elections and that we would not get support if we went ahead with the rural broadband scheme? I, along with others, put the pressure on in Cabinet to ensure that scheme was rolled out. It has worked so well that people are saying that if it had been rolled out sooner, more people could work in rural Ireland. I wish to put on the record that there are now more people living and working in rural Ireland than at any other time since the foundation of the State. It is not me saying it. It is not the Government saying it. That is the case according to figures produced by the Central Statistics Office.
I will try to leave the Minister plenty of time to reply. I thank him and his Department for their vital work and the support they have provided to rural and urban communities in recent months. As we watched the pandemic sweep across the world, it was telling that Ireland had something unique in its toolkit: the innate sense of community knitted within the fabric of our land. It has stood us well. The challenge of staying together while forced to be apart was and continues to be met with defiance, determination and creativity. It falls on the Department the Minister was instrumental in creating to ensure that adequate supports are in place for the community and voluntary sector and for rural Ireland to trade through these dark times and continue to support communities as it is tasked.
As we look with horror across the miles at what is unfolding following the murder of George Floyd and the disgraceful response of the Trump Administration, it is important to support the Black Lives Matter movement and to challenge racism and discrimination at every turn. It is important for the US to rally and become, as P.J. Harvey calls it, a "community of hope" and not be dragged down by fear, hatred or bigotry. It is equally important to note that although we are fortunate not to have such deep-rooted division in Irish society and no far right civil or political movements, we cannot and must not take for granted the notion that as a nation we are free of discrimination towards minorities. Ireland has a job of work to do here.
The Irish Network Against Racism reported a number of weeks ago that reported incidents of racism in Ireland had more than doubled in the first quarter of 2020 compared with the same period last year. Much of this increase can be accounted for by online racist abuse or hate speech directed towards certain minorities due to the coronavirus. It is a worrying trend.
In December of last year, the UN Convention on the Elimination of All Forms of Racial Discrimination made some useful recommendations to the Irish State as to future actions that needed to be taken to tackle discrimination against minorities. The Irish Human Rights and Equality Commission is tasked with taking these recommendations back here to ensure that all who have a role in fostering greater inclusion and combating discrimination do so in a co-ordinated way. The UN committee expressed its concern about the "increasing incidence of racist hate speech against Travellers, Roma, refugees, asylum seekers and migrants" and echoed the commission’s recommendation for the State to develop a comprehensive regulatory framework to combat hate speech online, including measures to encourage reporting of racist hate crime. Commission member, Salome Mbugua, said:
The State must step up and show leadership across its political and public institutions to proactively combat racial discrimination and tackle issues which can fuel its growth. We need as a society to ensure that in our communities and country racism has no safe harbour, no resting place.
It should be of deep concern to us in this House that racism and hate speech have a safe harbour when it comes to discrimination towards the Traveller community. At times, it seems there is a tolerance and an acceptance of discriminatory language directed at Travellers both politically and socially. It is reflected too in the continuing deterioration of health, educational attainment and employment opportunities of Travellers. Women of African descent were highlighted as experiencing a high level of discrimination in Ireland, which is very worrying. I know from talking to my African, Traveller and Muslim friends that while they feel at home here, many have experienced some level of verbal abuse, been refused entry to premises or have felt threatened or intimidated in recent times.
The Minister's Department has a key role in this regard. Direct and sustained funding of community development groups working with minorities, refugees, asylum seekers and the Traveller community has a direct correlation with well-being outcomes for these vulnerable groups. Traveller development and advocacy groups, in particular, had their funding disproportionately cut during the last downturn. The impact of such cuts is reflected in health and well-being outcomes but also, importantly, in advocacy and campaigning ability, that transformative and emergent work which is hard to quantify.
I welcome the fact the Government has committed to extra funding for community development work for groups whose income streams dropped due to Covid. These groups will be vital to chartering an alternative vision for a post-Covid Ireland and the Minister's support is most welcome. What input has the Department of Rural and Community Development had in the implementation of the National Traveller and Roma Inclusion Strategy 2017-2021, led by the Department of Justice and Equality? Is the Minister aware of a review of this strategy and planning for a new plan period and a collaborative process?
In the midst of the general election, an important document was lost in the mix, namely, "Sustainable, Inclusive and Empowered Communities: A Five-Year Strategy to Support the Community and Voluntary Sector in Ireland 2019-2024", the Government’s roadmap for community development which was launched in February. It is our view that this important work needs to be updated to fit a post-Covid framework and that a collaborative process to take on board the views of the sector in this new reality needs to happen. Can the Department of Rural and Community Development initiate this work as a matter of urgency? Does the Minister think it is feasible that his Department might lead and support stand-alone county integration and inclusion strategies, supported by the LCDC network? It would seem like a natural fit for such community-based work.
I believe that such strategies are vital to ensure that actions towards inclusion and integration happen at a local, community level. County Carlow produced a wonderful integration strategy a number of months ago and I was also deeply involved in the process to develop County Kilkenny’s first integration strategy. I also had the privilege to attend a launch a number of months ago at which the Minister's colleague, the Minister of State, Deputy John Paul Phelan, spoke well of the need for support for community-led integration work. Indeed, Carlow can be held in high regard for the collaborative work with the Rohingya community there, work that I feel could act as a template for inclusion and integration planning.
I thank the Deputy for his comments about the Department, in particular with regard to funding for community groups. Deputy Noonan has given me an opportunity, for which I have waited a long time, to compliment a colleague of mine, the Minister of State, Deputy David Stanton.
He has shown great bravery, courage and commitment to the role in the Department of Justice and Equality. Particularly in the context of equality, he has certainly fought the case for our new citizens coming into the country and for the rights of Travellers and other communities. He has never been afraid to stand up and be counted. He has worked hard and has taken a lot of personal abuse. He is certainly somebody who has worked very hard in the Department. I want to take this opportunity to compliment him on and thank him for the great work he has done and for the courage and guts he has shown over the years. I met him on many occasions when he was under a lot of stress and pressure from groups antagonised by people calling protest meetings about various issues. He dealt in a very sensitive way with a lot of sensitive problems. I saw him bringing people to the Department and speaking to them, explaining to them and working with them. He might not always have brought them around to his point of view but at least he listened.
My Department supports the Department of Justice and Equality, particularly with regard to equality. We support groups under the community services programme and we fund a lot of the national organisations of these groups. I would love to be in the next Government because the Department has a great understanding of voluntary groups. The Department has networks. People speak about all of the funds established and how we could respond to the crisis so quickly. I will tell the House why we responded to the crisis so quickly. It was because the Department has had a working relationship with many of these groups over the years and has built up contacts and the confidence of some of these groups. We do not get everything right. The groups will look for extra funding and supports and in every way we can help them we will do so. We have the contacts and we speak to the various groups and listen to them, including Father Sean Healy and other such people who have done great work over the years. These groups certainly have not been afraid to take on social issues. Sometimes people come in to criticise the Government and state we are not doing enough. Sometimes they are not there to stand up when an injustice is done against these people. There are times we have to stand up and say this is the right thing to do, whether it is for new people coming into the country or Travellers.
The Department is on interdepartmental groups with the Department of Justice and Equality. We always listen to views and provide the necessary funding to groups. Whenever they have needed the funding we are there. In the context of Travellers, I have allocated some funding for various issues over recent years but we never hear people say, read in the newspapers or see RTÉ covering the funding we have put in place to support these groups and help them to ensure that they have the facilities they need and want. There has been a crisis in certain areas.
There is one matter I must take up with other Departments. Sometimes when there is an issue, various Departments throw it to the Department of Rural and Community Development to be dealt with. I do not mind them throwing over the issue but they never throw over the funding, and we have to take that funding out of the existing budget. Everything can be resolved. It is a bit like today as I listen to people speak about issues for which I do not have direct responsibility. I have direct responsibility as a Cabinet Minister and I highlight these issues. When I am there everything must be rural proofed and urban proofed to ensure in particular that the vulnerable in society are looked after.
I have been in disadvantaged areas in Tallaght, Limerick and throughout the country and SICAP is probably one of the best programmes out there. The problem is that many people in the Dáil and outside it do not know what the programme does. It deals with the most vulnerable in society. It assists the most vulnerable and gives them an opportunity. We can deal with groups and individuals and we must give them the same chance and opportunity as everybody else. The one great thing about the Department is that it is the Department of Rural and Community Development and, as far as I am concerned, community is the most important part of it.
That has proven to be right in recent weeks.
I believe the Minister is a very fair-minded person. By any objective analysis, he has always been distributional in terms of his ethos and of funding across the State. A point was made earlier about urban renewal. There needs to be new thinking around tackling the level of degradation of buildings, particularly in urban areas, villages and towns where there is a rural hinterland. I refer to areas in which buildings have been left abandoned, there are absentee landlords, and there is an absolute need for a coherent policy around incentivising people to come back to live again in the main streets in our towns and villages. We have all witnessed the level of degradation of certain buildings within towns. It seems we are powerless to intervene with a local authority or with the owners of these buildings to place an onus on them to ensure they can enhance the public realm to which the Minister referred. To be fair, by any objective analysis, the town and village renewal schemes have proven to be quite successful. Credit is due there. The point Deputy Tully was making was around that level of degradation of certain parts of towns and streets. I support her contention.
I also share the concerns that were raised by Deputies Michael and Aindrias Moynihan from Cork North-West in respect of the 5 km rule. In urban areas, we have all witnessed people congregating, young people in particular. It is hard to blame them in certain respects, but let us be honest that the social distancing rules are being flouted. It is self-evident. I am not going to argue against a bunch of young people if they want to get together. There are rules in place and the relevant authority to enforce them is An Garda Síochána. However, it is also the case that somebody cannot visit somebody else in a rural area such as a grandmother or grandfather. Grandparents are not able to see their grandchildren at the moment by dint of the fact that they live more than 5 km away. There is an inequity there. It is unfair. I ask that the Minister use his very influential and strong voice at Cabinet to articulate these viewpoints, as I am sure he has. It is having an effect in rural communities in particular or, for example, where a son or daughter lives with his or her children in an urban area but wants to travel beyond the 20 km to visit a grandparent. Perhaps the Cabinet could take a look at that again.
I also wish to raise the scheme for mná tí in Gaeltacht areas. I know it is not the Minister's line Department but I am sure he will have a view on the scéim na bhfoghlaimeoirí Gaeilge, which provides for up to 27,000 students. It is a per diem payment for the bean an tí for students who are learning in Irish colleges. We know that the Irish colleges are not going to be operational this summer. Will the Minister give us a sense of whether the Government has given any consideration to providing some degree of compensation to the mná tí who host these students every year and who will have lost a significant amount of income? They are in our rural communities and Gaeltacht areas. We know there is a massive multiplier effect as a result of these payments to mná tí in their local communities. Have the Minister or his colleagues given any consideration to providing some sort of compensation to the mná tí for the loss of income they will incur during the summer period?
The Deputy is correct. I did not get the chance to publish the new policy on rural Ireland, although I have it ready and I want to put on the record that I am hopeful that I will publish it in the next fortnight. When I was drawing up that new policy, one of the big issues I looked at was the pilot scheme I carried out for towns and villages. We picked six towns and villages and we gave €100,000 to each local authority. We asked them to have consultations with the chambers of commerce, the community groups and anybody who was involved in any kind of commercial activity or in the community and to come back with some ideas to see what we could do about the public realm and the dereliction we have in some towns and villages. Two big issues came back.
Governments never like to hear about grants, but whether we like it or not, whoever comes into government will have to provide a grant scheme for people to do up derelict buildings in a town to make the buildings available. I know some people talk about the importance of renting, but it does not matter if these buildings are made available for sale or for renting, once somebody is in these properties. I was proposing to the Government that we should try to get a grant scheme through to do that. Local authorities will have to use the Derelict Sites Act 1990 and they will have to use it more often. There are properties in towns and villages that the local authorities know are there and nobody knows who owns them. Those properties have to be taken in and used by the local authorities.
The Deputy talked about the 5 km limit and I cannot disagree with him. I have spoken about this issue and raised it. There is a difference between 5 km in an urban area and 5 km in a rural area. I hope that now that we are coming into phase 2 of the lockdown, we will see changes, but the Deputy is quite correct. The whole lockdown has been hard on people, particularly on elderly people who have been cocooning and have not been able to get out of their homes. Even walking 3 km or 5 km is not simple and it is something the Government is looking at. We have a Cabinet meeting this week, I have already highlighted that issue and I hope decisions will be made to help that situation. There has been a lot more movement in the past week. People have been good and patient and it has been difficult on people. There is no point in pretending otherwise and I do not mind saying that I found it difficult. What I miss most is meeting and talking to people. It is difficult, as the Acting Chairman knows, when one has spent one's whole life going around talking to people and meeting people and all of a sudden that stops.
LEADER delivery contracts with the local development companies will expire in December of this year. Will the Department notify the development companies that the Minister will be extending their contracts after December 2020? What is the Minister's view on the extension of the Common Agricultural Policy, CAP? What are the Department's intentions on the LEADER timeframe and the budget for LEADER in the context of CAP? The Minister has not referred to that in his speech but I would welcome a written reply on that matter if he does not have time to elaborate on it.
I refer to the mná tí in the Gaeltacht areas. I know my colleague, the Minister of State at the Department of Culture, Heritage and the Gaeltacht, Senator Kyne, has been talking to the Minister for Finance, Deputy Donohoe, to see if anything can be done. I will respond to Deputies Sherlock and Conway-Walsh about this. Deputy Conway-Walsh raised LEADER as well but she has the same problem in the Gaeltacht areas. The work of the mná tí has been a way of life for people in the Gaeltacht and people have made a living out of it. We want to assist them in that. I know the Minister of State, Senator Kyne, is looking at that matter. I am not saying he will get results but he is looking at it.
The matter of LEADER is simple. LEADER finishes in 2020.
The CAP negotiations will take place, but in the meantime a decision will have to be made. Funding will have to come from either Europe or central government to continue the LEADER programme. My officials are having discussions with the Department of Agriculture, Food and the Marine and with Europe to see what we can do about the new round of LEADER because it is a very important question. I have been talking for the past two years in my Department about trying to continue the LEADER programme. That is a matter for the next Government. Let the next Minister decide who will administer it and how it will be administered.
I have a brief statement to make and then three questions for the Minister. Like many, I am outraged at the killing of George Floyd and the treatment of Black Lives Matter protesters in the US. As public representatives, it is important we respond to these events and listen to and amplify the voices of those affected. We cannot ignore this; that is how racism thrives. We also need, however, to reflect on racism in Ireland. This includes the inhumane direct provision system, attitudes towards Travellers, and everyday racism suffered by black people and other people of colour.
Covid-19 has revealed and heightened inequalities. It has disproportionately impacted the vulnerable. Poorer and disadvantaged communities have vastly higher contraction and death rates. We can see this in our nursing homes, direct provision centres and meat processing plants. The elderly, people with disabilities, migrants and low-paid workers are too easily overlooked. The pandemic has highlighted these neglected areas; it did not create them. As public representatives, we must rise to these circumstances and meet racism with equality, disadvantage with justice, and fear with hope. This crisis is an opportunity for deep reflection. It has forced us to rethink what really matters. Our society needs to change to reflect the hard-learned lessons of this pandemic. We need a new social contract. The State needs to fulfil its responsibility. Neither the voluntary sector nor the market is there to relieve that responsibility.
At the beginning of this emergency, three things we were told could not happen were achieved: a single-tier health service, rent freezes and a reduction in emissions. In the midst of a global tragedy, we put people first. This needs to continue. As restrictions lift we need to be cognisant of the dangers of going back to "business as usual". "Business as usual" was thousands on hospital trolleys, rapidly rising homelessness, hours spent in traffic and a crumbling ecosystem. If we have not learned that we need to prioritise people, families and communities now, when will we? A rights-based approach is essential for progression: the right to a home, healthcare and equality and, with that, no regression of our existing hard-earned rights. For example, next year we will review our termination of pregnancy law, and we need only look at last night's debate on abortion legislation in Stormont to realise we cannot be complacent. We all want to live in a more just society. The community and rural development sector is crucial to helping bring about a better, fairer and more just Ireland.
I have three questions. Community and voluntary organisations have been severely impacted by the pandemic. At the same time, these groups have done incredible work in supporting vulnerable people. While the Covid-19 stability fund provided support for charities and social enterprises, it also highlighted their precarious position. An effective community sector should not be relying on fundraising to provide essential services. There is an abdication of responsibility to properly fund disadvantaged communities and vulnerable groups. The State outsources the provision of services to overstretched organisations, dedicated volunteers and people's generosity. Despite the coronavirus, there has been incredible creativity in fundraising, but mental health charities, people with disabilities and older people should not have to rely on sponsored runs, coffee mornings and Instagram challenges for funding. Will the Minister ensure that his Department will move towards a properly resourced community sector with multi-annual funding, enabling these groups to operate with greater security? Furthermore, many smaller local groups did not have the capacity to demonstrate how they met the requirements of the Covid-19 stability fund. Groups such as parenting support programmes, family resource centres and youth clubs will have to incur substantial additional costs if they are to reopen following the Government guidelines. These costs are not provided for by the stability fund.
Will the Minister expand the scope of the fund, widen the definition relating to it to include costs associated with Covid-19 reopening and provide a more suitable process to facilitate smaller groups in applying?
As rural Deputies, we know there is a desperate need to invest in our communities as we emerge from Covid-19. While I welcome the rural development investment programme, I am keen to see more ambitious funding. The funding of €30 million will not cover the amount required to ensure social infrastructure in all towns and villages. Covid-19 has shown that in Ireland community comes first. Government needs to respond appropriately. We need a new community-led initiative to create inclusive social infrastructure and public spaces. We need projects that will foster community well-being while helping local businesses and encouraging tourism. Biodiverse parks can create opportunities, educate children and provide space for exercise and socialising. Inclusive design of streets will enable older people and people with disabilities to feel safer and more welcome. We need to move away from the matched funding model. The Department needs to invest and put trust in communities, who know what is best for their areas. Participative decision-making and subsidiarity will enhance active communities and local democracy. Will the Minister expand current rural and community funding streams, with a focus on inclusive public spaces? Will the Department take a more participative approach in the context of operating these programmes?
I thank Deputy Cairns for her comments. As I said earlier, my Department is represented on several groups, along with the Department of Justice and Equality, that address migrant, immigration and Traveller rights issues. All of the issues that Deputy Cairns has raised arise at these forums. We have the Roma strategy and strategies for the different groups. We fund these from my Department.
The Deputy asked about charities. She is quite correct to state that charities have gone through a difficult time since this crisis. The Charities Regulator gave me a briefing on how charities are responding and what is happening. I will give the House some pointers. The impact has been severe on all charities. A total of 55% of respondents indicated that their finances were uncertain and that they were in difficulty. Some 45% stated that their funding would barely be okay between now and the end of the year. There is no doubt about it. They all said that fundraising activities had to be stopped because of the crisis. To be fair to some of the charities, they have looked at new ways and new initiatives. RTÉ, including via "The Late Late Show" and shows like it, has highlighted some of the charities whose funding has been cut. I must say another thing that I cannot put on the record often enough: we have a wonderful country. Sometimes people knock this country but it is a fantastic country. We have a fantastic mindset. A great many people support charities every Friday night and every day of the week.
Deputy Cairns is right about social enterprises. Most of these have been able to operate. We did not cut back on any of our funding channels for these groups. In fact, we have been very lenient to them, and rightly so, because we learned one thing in this crisis: but for the voluntary and community sectors we would have serious problems in this country. People talk about volunteers and people giving of their time. We have volunteers in this country. When we had the community call a total of 17,000 people put their hands up and said they were ready to volunteer. People did not know what volunteer centres were or what they did and what we were funding. We gave them extra funding. These volunteer centres have been in operation and have matched up people with organisations that needed support and help. The one word I must say is "volunteers". I thank them on behalf of the Government and the country for the way they have responded, the way they have put their lives at risk and the way they have responded to the community call. I cannot thank them enough, but I can say "Well done" to them. What a great country this is.
My Department has the €40 million-----
I am pleased that the Minister has acknowledged the extent of our reliance on those voluntary sectors. This highlights one of my questions. Does the Minister acknowledge that maybe there is an over-reliance on these organisations having to fundraise? The State should not abdicate responsibility in that sense.
The State will not be able to fund everything and there is no point in pretending. We have a great many organisations and groups. Let us consider the community services programme and the funding that my Department provides. We can see all the groups. People would be amazed with all the groups. Maybe that is one of the things we should be looking at. We have a €5 million innovation fund. Perhaps we should be looking at ways and means of doing business differently.
Perhaps we should consider whether some of these groups could amalgamate with other groups to work together on providing the same services. There are many groups and services. In saying that, I will never be critical of the voluntary groups or other groups that we support. It is only in a time of crisis that we see how some of them actually work.
The Deputy asked a question. No, the State will not be able to fund every single group in the country. We would have new groups every day. The minute they were set up, they would want to become national organisations, have CEOs and employ staff. We cannot do that. We have to set limits. In fact, I had to make decisions last year regarding groups' funding. They were to receive funding over a number of years and then become self-sufficient, but that did not happen. I then had to come along and fund some of them because they were providing essential services. When groups get funding from the State, it is very difficult to take it away from them.
Next is Solidarity-People Before Profit. Is Deputy Bríd Smith sharing time?
Yes, with Deputy Paul Murphy.
Is that agreed? Agreed.
I wish to raise the recent CSO statistics with the Minister. The CSO identified a slight decline in cases of the virus in cities but an increase in the number of cases in urban towns. It examined the figures for counties like Cavan and Monaghan. The number of cases hit its peak in April when Cavan had a high of 182 cases per week and Monaghan recorded 176 new cases per week. According to the CSO, this may have reflected "the move out of the cities and into independent urban towns".
Obviously, there could have been a number of reasons for these numbers. Cavan and Monaghan are near the Border and there are different protocols on the other side. Nevertheless, there is a possible link with meat processing plants, but we lack a study or information on this possibility that is in any way meaningful. There are 45 meat processing plants in rural Ireland, up to 16 of which have clusters. Recently, the Department of Health reported a further 100 confirmed cases in meat plants. SIPTU's Mr. Greg Ennis labelled these figures "absolutely shocking and most disturbing".
Despite protestations from the Ministers involved whom we questioned about this matter, there are high degrees of exploitation of workers in these plants. There has been a lack of concern for their health. In a strong interview by The Guardian of some of the workers, one said: "If the disease was in the animals, they'd have closed the place." Not so with the workers, though, most of whom are migrants.
We gave been given assurances that this situation will change or has changed, but we are not convinced that any such change will be adequate. It is still difficult to find out whether any meat plant has been inspected by the HSE, where the inspected plants are and how many they number. Our concern is that we are blind to what is happening and could happen, not just in those plants but in the communities surrounding them.
I was slagged about quoting a piece of research and was told that it came from Trump's America, but it actually comes from an internationally renowned university called Johns Hopkins University and the Government should take it seriously. The research showed that counties within 15 miles of meat packaging plants had twice the national average rate of Covid-19 cases. This was explained as owing to the interaction between workers and communities and the high incidence of Covid within the plants.
Will the Minister raise this concern at Cabinet? Will he seek for the Cabinet or the State to investigate the pattern of outbreaks around the 45 meat plants? This morning, I heard a Monaghan GP raise this very concern on radio. She did not raise a concern about the meat plants, but she said that she had seen a level of reportage of Covid within her clinic that was as high as when the outbreak started. She is concerned about it.
We have been told repeatedly since the start of the crisis how important the industry is and how important the plants are to rural communities, but those communities themselves are important and they need to know whether the level of infection in the plants is spilling over into their communities and how that will impact on them. Will the Minister reassure them that this concern will be taken seriously by the Cabinet and there will be an investigation into the statistics on all 45 sites and the level of infection in the communities surrounding them?
Does the Deputy want a reply now?
Yes, please. I have a minute and a bit left.
I do not have responsibility.
I will raise the issue at Cabinet and ask the relevant Minister to respond to the Deputy. All I can do is raise the matter at Cabinet. I must say that meat plants are important to rural Ireland and to the agricultural sector. It is very important that we have meat plants but it is equally important that they operate in a safe manner. I will raise the Deputy's concerns at the Cabinet meeting tomorrow and ask the Ministers for Agriculture, Food and the Marine and Health to respond to her.
In the few seconds remaining I would like to ask if the case I have made about the study in the US and the statistics coming from the CSO are a cause of concern to the Minister given his responsibility for rural affairs, if not for meat.
I am always concerned about what is happening in rural Ireland and I can stand over my record. The investment made by this Department in rural Ireland has been substantial over the last number of years. There is no doubt about the fact that my Department has helped to create jobs in the context of the rural regeneration scheme. One can go to many parts of rural Ireland where people would not be working today were it not for my Department. Whether the Deputy likes it or not-----
That is not the case.
I can use the same statistics as the Deputy. There are more people working and living in rural Ireland now than since the foundation of the State.
I wish to raise three issues with the Minister, the first of which is not an area under his direct responsibility. However, it is an urgent issue so I will raise it with him now. I have written to the Minister for Justice and Equality about it and ask the Minister for Rural and Community Development to raise it with him as well. I refer to the conditions inside the direct provision centre in the Central Hostel in Miltown Malbay, County Clare. A series of very worrying reports about conditions inside the centre were relayed to the Minister last week. These include leaks in ceilings and water running down the walls of bedrooms. In a bedroom shared by two men there is no door to the en suite bathroom, with the toilet and shower visible from the bedroom and no privacy for the occupants. Rodents were spotted in the bedrooms and there was a lack of adequate heating or hot water during the winter months, with only one hour made available per day. Two former residents have alleged that they were assaulted by the owner of the hostel. They complained that the food was consistently substandard, with fried chicken, rice and chips served every day, as well as a lack of clean drinking water. I could go on. In response, the International Protection Accommodation Service, IPAS, has arranged for a Zoom call to take place tomorrow but incredibly, the service has asked the owner of the hostel to arrange that call and to arrange for the men to speak with the IPAS about their experiences. Given that there are significant and serious allegations against the owner of the centre by residents, including allegations of assault, it is clearly completely inappropriate for the owner to act in such a role. Those who are acting in solidarity with the residents have asked that the Zoom call be called off and that the IPAS would intervene directly with the residents and have confidential discussions with them so that they are able to talk freely about their experiences. I ask the Minister to raise this with the Minister for Justice and Equality.
The second issue relates to the Free Legal Advice Centres, FLAC, which have experienced a significant increase in demand for their services, particularly for employment-related advice in the context of the coronavirus. A range of different questions have been reported with women being asked to go on maternity leave early, people being told that they must return to work despite underlying health conditions or being told that they must take annual leave and so on. Effectively employers are not following the rules, are trying to take short cuts and maximise their profits at the expense of workers' health and safety. This has demonstrated the need for FLAC services, with employment-related queries doubling in recent times. FLAC receives funding from the Department of Rural and Community Affairs through Pobal. Will that funding be increased as necessary?
The third issue relates to libraries. While our libraries have largely been shut during the coronavirus pandemic, there has been a huge expansion in the number of people using library services such as Borrow Box and so forth. Thankfully, this serves to demonstrate to people the importance of public spaces.
At a time when so much public space is being privatised and people have to pay to spend time in it, libraries, be it remotely or on site, are incredibly important. They constitute a service that has been underfunded, that will be increasingly important, that may need extra space in the context of coronavirus and social distancing and that may well need extra staff, so I ask whether, linked to that, the Minister is considering increasing funding for libraries.
We do not fund free legal aid. That is a matter for the Department of Justice and Equality. I have overall responsibility with regard to Pobal, but it deals directly with the Department of Justice and Equality. The Deputy wrote to the Minister for Justice and Equality. I will ask my officials to raise the Deputy's concerns with the Minister again.
I am glad the Deputy raised the issue of libraries. This has been one of the success stories with regard to this virus. More people have joined the online service. I put an extra €400,000 into it since we had the virus and I must say that the number of people using libraries now is fantastic. A number of new libraries are being built around the country. I want to seek libraries spoken about the way people talk about post offices. If people do not use libraries, it will be like what happened with post offices: they will close. Libraries must become community centres where people can come in and fill out their application forms for jobs and use the facilities. With regard to broadband and rural libraries in particular, there will be a number of points where people can come in and use that service. The library service has been a great success and I am very proud of the work my Department has done with regard with libraries in recent years.
I am deputising for a colleague at short notice so I apologise in advance if I am not fully au fait with the Minister's brief. Regarding the town and village renewal scheme, I think everybody would agree that it is a great opportunity to develop towns and cities, but I wonder about the idea of drawing up the strategic plans around it, particularly for community groups. Has the Minister's office considered providing funding through LEADER or local area partnership groups to bring in strategic mentors to write these plans and applications? I have some experience in this area and I think it can be difficult to navigate. A large amount of the time, it can be difficult to get the key points across, so that is something the Minister might have a look at.
To reflect what one of my other colleagues said earlier about community organisations, one of our colleagues in the regional group received an email from the Drum Heritage Group in Roscommon. This is a very small heritage visitor centre. It flagged that its operating costs were rising by €6,000, taken up with insurance, electricity and additional maintenance. No grant aid is on offer to a grouping like that. It had contacted the Department, but as a tourist cultural centre it does not qualify. As the Minister knows, these are very important initiatives in small rural towns and it is a pity they are left out of some opportunity to get support.
Everybody welcomes the stability fund but I notice that the fund has been closed since 20 May. One thousand applications were received, yet there are 10,000 registered charities in the country. I know the fund is focusing on health and well-being and, obviously, is being administered through Pobal, the Department of Health and the Department of Children and Youth Affairs, but it was based on an income loss of 25%, so people are effectively saying that they are not in a position to raise money with the Covid situation. Was there any opportunity to accommodate organisations that have seen a rise in expenditure? I am thinking of people who are basically facilitating travel in particular where they now have minibuses where they have to take one patient at a time. I think some organisations felt closed out. In respect of 10% of all charities applying to that fund, is the application process too onerous and rigorous? Has the Minister had a chance to look at that again?
In respect of schools and community safety, given the recent tragedies around the country and indeed the near misses of the last week, could we look again at some specific initiative for community and schools safety, particularly water safety, around children's inflatables and signage around inland waterways? It is very important and has, unfortunately, come into sharp relief in recent weeks.
On the Minister's comments regarding the grant scheme for refurbishment of urban properties and the derelict site tax, I know from the just over 13 months I was a member of Waterford City and County Council that in Waterford there are problems in both areas. I support the Minister's comments but perhaps he would outline how the grant scheme for the refurbishment of urban properties will be administered? There is need for simplification of the application process.
On the town and village renewal scheme, on this occasion I am examining the scheme in the context of social distancing in public realms. In light of the rules around social distancing we need to introduce new rules and regulations. I have asked the local authorities to make provision for this when submitting their plans.
The Deputy raised the issue of the stability package. He is correct that some groups submitted a number of applications under different headings. Pobal is currently streamlining these applications. To ensure the system is fair and all applications are adjudicated fairly the guidelines must be applied to each application. Pobal will make its recommendations and I will make the decisions. I do not want this funding targeted at groups that have savings and other funding. I want it targeted at those groups that are in real need of funding, particularly front-line services such as, for example, meals on wheels which continued to operate throughout this crisis, took on additional clientele and worked very hard within already limited resources and has now had its funding curtailed. I am examining this area.
The Deputy spoke about safety outside schools and water safety, which issues I will respond to together. There is a scheme in place under the CLÁR programme to which schools can apply for funding to make school facilities safe. This is a scheme that I reintroduced and it is working well. The Deputy and I are well aware of the number of accidents that have happened outside of schools down through the years. I have provided funding for warning signs and the construction of safe car parks to ensure the safety of children entering and leaving school. This programme has worked very well. There have been more applications than funding but I propose to continue the programme this year because it is a very important programme.
Water safety also comes under the remit of my Department. The number of people who die each year from water accidents is almost as high as the number of people who die each year from road accidents. Irish Water Safety is now known as Water Safety Ireland. The title of the organisation had to be changed because it was inundated with calls from people who thought they were contacting Irish Water. The name change was made by statute. The organisation does a very good job. It has run a number of safety campaigns, including in the run up to the June bank holiday weekend. The local authorities have responsibility for lifeguard provision on our beaches. These lifeguards operate part-time from June to September. People must be careful and obey the warning signs in regard to water safety. Deputy Conway-Walsh referred earlier to the recent serious tragedy in County Mayo. I again offer my condolences to the family. Water Safety Ireland is doing a good job and I have allocated extra funding to it for various strategies. It is calling on people to be careful, to heed the signage and to do what they are told. It is certainly performing the role with which I tasked it. I know that it will be running a further warning campaign over the next number of weeks because when the weather is good people want to go to the beaches and use other facilities.
In terms of outdoor recreational infrastructure, I think the specific brief is around cycleways and walkways. I may be on the wrong track but I am also thinking of waterways. We had two initiatives in Waterford, one on a blueway and another on amalgamating old houses and river walks. This is an area for future tourism development throughout the country around which a separate initiative could be built. Perhaps someone in the Department could try to advance that.
The Deputy is referring to the outdoor recreational scheme. I have worked with Waterways Ireland and I must compliment it on fantastic projects in Leitrim and in the Border counties with which we have collaborated. That has worked out very well. This is a fantastic scheme. One thing that has worked very well in the past few months when people have been restricted to 2 km and 5 km is the walkways and other amenities throughout the country. I have received emails complimenting the Government on its schemes. There are some fantastic walks throughout the country and we have put significant funding into the outdoor recreational scheme. Some local authorities are drawing down funding all the time. We must remember these amenities are free and people can go out into the fresh air to enjoy them.
I acknowledge at the outset the launch of a €40 million support package for community and voluntary organisations, charities and social enterprises, which I wholeheartedly welcome. I also acknowledge this includes €35 million Covid-19 stability funding to qualifying organisations most in need which have seen their trading or fundraising income drop significantly during the crisis. I am aware applications for this funding closed on 21 May. How many applications were received and how much funding has been drawn down?
My concern is that like other Departments offering great schemes and initiatives, the uptake might be poor. Is that the case here? I highlighted last week that the approval rates for loans and supports under various Covid-19 support schemes appears to be very low. We need to assess why there are difficulties in local traders and SMEs accessing many of the necessary support schemes. For example, regarding Microfinance Ireland loans, the latest data available to Oireachtas Members indicates that only three businesses in Laois and four in Offaly have inquired about funding under this scheme. I would be worried there are barriers to funding.
On the Covid-19 business continuity voucher, 131 inquiries have come from Offaly but only 81 applications have been approved. In Laois, there were 63 inquiries with only 36 approvals. Is there a similar pattern here as elsewhere? I would like any problems to be rectified immediately so that it is easier for people to access the vital supports they need at this time.
Will the Minister put on record his view or the Department's view on the protests that took place over the weekend? I clearly state I condemn all racism and violence. I ask the question only in the context of the ongoing restrictions that remain actively in force in many parts of rural Ireland, in particular the restrictions around marts and small regional agricultural shows, which have been adversely affected and cancelled because of legitimate social distancing fears.
If a charity, community or voluntary organisation that was supported by Minister's Department were to hold such an event, where hundreds of people gathered, there would be condemnation on all sides and even the possibility of funding being withdrawn. This has been brought to my attention by many rural people who are very frustrated at what they are seeing and the double standards we are witnessing. Is there one rule for rural Ireland and another for urban Ireland? Is this fair?
As the Minister alluded to, there are many issues facing rural Ireland, from impending cuts to the Common Agricultural Policy, CAP, to accessing appropriate levels of LEADER funding, to ensuring a just transition occurs in the midlands, particularly in counties such as Offaly and Laois where the demise of Bord na Móna will result in the loss of up to 1,000 jobs by the end of this year. On that just transition, have the Minister or his Department engaged with the just transition commissioner in any capacity on the recommendations of his first internal report? If so, what role does the Minister envisage his Department playing in the roll-out of the just transition strategy?
First, I thank the Minister and the people working in the Department for the excellent work they have been doing. The Minister is a very strong advocate for rural Ireland and I appreciate that, as he knows. I have no problem in acknowledging that. I want to highlight the concerns I and many others have about rural businesses. The Minister knows of the difficulties we were having already, and the pandemic has now meant further complications for our rural way of life and our small businesses, publicans, hardware shops and grocery shops. I have concerns about the way all these traders are being affected and am trying to get as many of those businesses as possible up and running again. Sadly, I am genuinely worried and fearful that many of them may not be able to open. I want the Minister and the people in his Department to keep working with those businesses in mind and to try to loosen up the red tape in the best way possible when it comes to running a small business in a rural location. They must encourage people to do this awfully important thing, which is, first, to create the one job for themselves and then create the environment to expand and employ a neighbour, a friend or another family member. That is how business works and how businesses grow.
I compliment the community groups that have played such a vital role during this crisis. We are going to lose so much of the business of the summer, including our agricultural shows, the likes of Puck Fair and all the excellent events that go on during the year, especially during the summer time. All these events have been cancelled. That is going to be an awful and detrimental economic blow for rural Ireland in particular. I want the Minister to have that at the forefront of his mind at all times because it is so important to keep the local economy going.
I compliment our farming organisations and the farmers who have been there throughout every crisis going back to the last economic crisis and financial crash. The one group we could always rely on to keep the wheels rolling was our farming community. It is no harm to remind people of that. The Minister does not have to be reminded, but it is no harm to wake up some of the other people in the Government now and then and let them know that we are an agriculture-based economy.
We very much appreciate our tourism sector and how important it is, but at the end of the day, agriculture and fisheries are our backbone. They are what we have always had. That is where we came from and that is what we have to nurture and protect. It is so important, for this Government and the incoming one, that those things are recognised, and when a programme for Government is being drawn up, I want the new Government to remember rural Ireland and the important role it has to play.
I again thank the Minister for his particular interest in our local improvement schemes. As the Minister knows, I fought very hard to ensure they were contained in the previous programme for Government.
The Minister kicked the ball into the back of the net by ensuring he kept that going. He delivered every penny he could. He certainly was not found wanting when it came to County Kerry and I always acknowledged that. I ask that, in light of the current economic crisis, the Government recognises how important that funding is and continues to provide it because there are roads leading into a house or houses. A Minister once said the funding was not important because a road was the last road, but it is the first road for a person who needs to exit onto it no matter where he or she is going.
I know the Minister recognises that, but I ask him if he can to show commitment to protecting funding for local improvement schemes. Our local authority makes a great job of delivering funding in a very cost effective way and a timely fashion. The scheme provides employment for local authorities in terms of seasonal and part-time workers, especially at the end of the year. I ask that the funding be announced as early as possible because that helps us to get through the work. I do not want to eat into the Minister's time.
I will try to answer the Deputy's questions as quickly as I can. In regard to the stability fund, all I can say is that Pobal is dealing with the applications. Over 1,000 applications were received and it is going through them at the moment. These organisations are in difficulty and I want to try to get the funding out as quickly as possible. I have asked Pobal to prioritise this and deal with the applications. As soon as Pobal has assessed the applications, I will make the announcements. I will make sure that the funding is delivered to where it should be delivered. All I can do is make sure the funding is announced and the organisations that want it get it. Nothing will be held back. The Departments of Health and of Education and Skills and other Departments will also draw from that fund. I can assure the Deputy that, for my part, whatever funding I can get will be delivered as quickly as possible.
We now move to the Independent group.
The independent Independents.
The independent Independent group.
I will share time, five minutes and five minutes. I thank the Minister for his initiative and pay tribute to the work done by his Department. More particularly, I want to pay tribute to community and voluntary groups. As my time is limited, I will limit my gratitude to those few words. I fully appreciate the work being done.
Today I want to zone in on one particular scheme. I ask for an update on the town and village pilot residential occupancy scheme, which I have followed up assiduously for the past two years. I took the trouble of reading the debates of the Joint Committee on Rural and Community Development. Some fabulous words were used, just like in the Minister's speech. I could not argue with him about the words used. We can move towards a more inclusive, resilient and sustainable future for everyone. That is what we want. The committee published an extremely interesting report. Mr. Hynes, who recently retired as the chief executive of Mayo County Council, used fantastic words such as "sustainable", "inclusive", "prosperous" and "proud" in respect of rural communities. He talked about community engagement and empowerment.
Unfortunately, that is not what we have in rural Ireland. As the Minister knows, I come from Galway West. My constituency stretches from the Aran Islands to Inishbofin, all of Connemara, both Irish and English speaking regions, and right up to the Minister's county of Mayo including Kilmaine and Shrule. I am fully aware of the variation. One thing which struck me about the former chief executive of Mayo County Council was that he asked us to change the narrative around towns and villages and the decline. He was absolutely right. There is no getting away from the fact that they are in decline, but we need to change the narrative behind these lovely sweet words to actually mean what we say.
The Minister started that, and I pay tribute to him for that. One of his particularly good initiatives was to increase occupancy. He picked six towns for that, one of which, it turned out, was in his constituency. If we learn from that I do not mind. I and other Deputies have followed up on this because it is the bridge to the future. The data from six towns, how the scheme worked and what we learned from it can be used as the bridge to rolling out the scheme to every county, in particular counties with Gaeltacht regions which we should not forget.
In my remaining two and a half minutes, maybe we could have a little interchange. Where are we at? Replies to parliamentary questions tabled by me and other Deputies indicated the report was to be published at the end of last year or certainly by the beginning of this year. Have all the reports come in from the six local authorities? Is the report available? Has it been published and, if so, have I missed it? I want the Minister to reply either "Yes" or "No". We have done all our praising and I have heard the whole debate. I just want the replies to the specific questions.
On that report, as the Deputy knows six towns were picked. I looked for one in Galway and one in the Gaeltacht. We got an initial report back. We sent it back because we wanted them to find what they were actually seeking. I hope to have the report published in the next two weeks. I did not want to publish it; I was waiting for the new Government to come in and do so. I will publish it now because I commissioned it. The local authorities discussed it with the community groups and came back with their findings. I was a bit disappointed with the first report and I sent it back to clarify some of the detail in it.
Two big issues came up and the Deputy raised one of them, namely, the dereliction of properties in towns and villages. It is an issue we need to address. They want the local authorities to use their powers under the Derelict Sites Act to deal with it. The Deputy and many other Deputies have an opportunity now with the programme for Government. People can say what they like and do what they like. There is a lot of dereliction in towns and villages. Many owners of such properties do not have the resources to be able to do anything with them.
I agree with the Minister on that, but that is not my question. He has partially answered it: he is going to publish the report in the next two weeks, which I welcome because the report is vital. At the beginning there was a delay in rolling this out. This concept goes back to 2017 and we are now in 2020. I call on the Minister to publish the report. Let us all see it and let us all be part of it.
It might have been talked about, but nobody did anything. It was me who did it last year. I put the funding in place. I gave €100,000 each to the local authorities. A lot of people talk over there and over here, but I did it.
It is my first time to speak to the Minister on the floor of the House. Many people have congratulated him and I would like to add my voice. I did not always agree with him, but rural Ireland was at the heart of his policy and that suited me.
I have two questions. The €40 million package to community groups is really important and valuable. However, there are many community groups that run community centres. They may contain crèches, language schools and enterprise centres or they might just run card games, etc. However, they would not qualify for the Minister's new scheme. Those groups have no day-to-day income. They have increasing costs such as utility bills, insurance and so on. It is all run by volunteers meaning they have nothing to keep them going. They also know that when these centres start to open it will take time for whatever little businesses were there to get up on their feet again. Could the Minister give some direct help - some small grant aid - to keep these community groups on life support? As the Minister and I both know, with the closure of schools, post offices, etc. - I will not give a long list - very often the GAA pitch and the community centre are all that remain in rural Ireland and if they close, that is a disaster.
My second question relates to LEADER and the importance of transition funding. LEADER should be returned to community-led local development. As the Minister has said, that is for the incoming Minister. I ask for the Minister's support in allowing LEADER to increase its grant aid from 50% to 75% for the SME sector. As the Minister knows, some of the programmes were delayed. LEADER companies have money to spend and the Covid pandemic delayed the spending further.
Many SMEs cannot avail of 50% grant aid. It is not high enough with Covid-19. This money is there but it cannot be used by the SMEs that need it most. I know there can be issues concerning state aid, but the European Commission has said it is very flexible. Will the Minister, therefore, look at making changes to give higher levels of grant aid so that LEADER money is spent within the rules of state aid and the flexibility allowed by the European Commission?
I thank Deputy Harkin for her comments. I will make two points regarding community centres. We tried to fund them, where possible, through the Dormant Accounts Fund. That was not so much for the day-to-day running, because the community services programme does that where we pay for the manager and staffing. That is already there and we did not cut that back in any way. We have actually been very lenient concerning that scheme. Turning to repairs to community centres, a small fund exists. I came under pressure in this regard. It should not be me because it is the local authorities in some cases and voluntary groups in 90% of cases who own these centres. Some of these centres got into difficulty last year. I set up a small fund under dormant accounts where applications can be made for repairs but not for day-to-day running of the centres.
Regarding drawing down funding from the Covid-19 stability fund, I wanted to get an immediate reaction for groups in difficulty, particularly where their funding had been cut because they were not able to raise the funding as they did previously. That fund has now been set up and I am waiting for it to be adjudicated on. Regarding all of the other services, including the community enhancement programme, I gave €2.5 million to the local authorities so they could deal with local problems and especially with local services. There was one direction, and that was that any front-line services were to get priority. I let the local authorities make their own decisions regarding the community and I got that money out and delivered to them for that scheme and all the other schemes.
Regarding LEADER, the next Minister can make the decision as to how it will be administered. My concern now is that we get some funding, from Europe or central government, to cover the gap between the closing of this scheme and the opening of a new scheme. That is very important. Negotiations have been put on again for another year, and something has to be done in the meantime concerning getting some funding for those companies to continue. I will not get into the row. I think-----
I refer to grant aid moving from 50% to 75%.
I thank the Minister. We are over time, unfortunately.
I have to be honest.
The time has expired.
I ask the Acting Chairman for just one second. If one scheme has caused me nothing but trouble in my Department, it has been LEADER. I have done everything in my power to make it easier for the LEADER companies to operate. I have changed every rule they asked to have changed. If a change is within the rules and it can be made at central government, I would not be afraid to make it. I cannot break European rules, however.
That concludes the statement by the Minister for Rural and Community Development, Deputy Ring, on Covid-19 and questions and answers on Covid-19.