Léim ar aghaidh chuig an bpríomhábhar

Dáil Éireann díospóireacht -
Tuesday, 28 Jun 2022

Vol. 1024 No. 3

Saincheisteanna Tráthúla - Topical Issue Debate

Hospital Investigations

I want to continue to speak on the points I raised on 22 June with regard to the management of University Hospital Limerick. What is the true number of potential patient safety incidents and deaths that have occurred in the hospitals under the management of the University of Limerick Hospital Group? Serious safety incidents reported by conscientious professionals in University Hospital Limerick have not received attention. Patients have raised concerns and staff members have brought concerns to hospital management without officially reporting the incidents for fear of the impact it might have on their careers. These concerns are often ignored and buried without following protocol. Some of these incidents have led to serious injury and the deaths of patients. Families are not aware of how their loved ones were injured or died. This became very clear to me when a young 18-year-old girl, Jessica Sheedy, from my local area died in University Hospital Limerick following surgery. She would not have died if management had done its duty and reported previous serious incidents through the proper channels. This is how serious the situation is in the hospital.

Whistleblowers in University Hospital Limerick are silenced by management. They are worn down until they sign non-disclosure agreements. How many protected disclosures are investigated properly? If proper procedures had been followed by University Hospital Limerick management, it would not be in the catastrophic state it is in because the State authorities would have been alerted much earlier to the dangers to the public in the accident and emergency department and the six hospitals under the management of the hospital group. I am asking for a public inquiry into the number of incidents recorded in University Hospital Limerick that have not been reported nationally.

University Hospital Limerick management has a duty of care to the public. It should be made accountable, criminally accountable if necessary. A public inquiry should not be carried out by past or present HSE employees. This is always the case when families are informed that a so-called independent investigation will be carried out. So-called external investigations are often misleading and inaccurate. External organisations should investigate. Should University Hospital Limerick management be allowed to risk the safety of the public to hide dangers? It has tried to cover up incompetence and negligence through deceit and corruption. It has not been made accountable. What will the Minister for Health do to prevent future harm to the public in this hospital in the meantime? Will the Minister for Health ask the Garda to conduct a criminal investigation into the situation? The people of the mid-west have the right to attend a hospital where patient safety comes first.

Allegations of corruption are very serious.

I understand that. The death of an 18-year-old girl is also very serious.

I am not here to argue with the Deputy.

I understand that.

I have to point it out with regard to what the Deputy is saying.

I thank the Leas-Cheann Comhairle but I feel passionate about what has happened in the hospital. The first statement I made in the Dáil when I arrived here two and a half years ago was on the mismanagement of University Hospital Limerick. People have come to me in the meantime because of alleged incidents that have happened there. As a public representative, I want to protect the people of the country. I want to protect those who go into University Hospital Limerick. I also want to protect the staff there.

I thank the Deputy for raising this very important issue. I acknowledge his interest in University Hospital Limerick and the important role it plays in delivering healthcare in the mid-west region. We are all familiar with the difficulties faced by University Hospital Limerick. It was because of these difficulties the Minister for Health, Deputy Donnelly, visited the hospital in February. Following that visit he requested that a HSE expert team review the day-to-day functioning of the emergency department in University Hospital Limerick in a leadership, management, operational and clinical context. The report from the review will seek to identify what is required locally, regionally and nationally to support sustained improvement in the emergency department. The expert team will also continue to support and work closely with University of Limerick Hospital Group and the CHO in the mid-west to support improvements in unplanned emergency care and access to scheduled care.

In addition to the review requested by the Minister, Deputy Donnelly, University Hospital Limerick commissioned Deloitte to review and advised on unscheduled care and patient flow in the hospital.

The review is still in train. When available, the expert team will also consider the recommendations in its own report.

As the Deputy is aware, we recently saw the publication of HIQA's report of the unannounced inspection of the emergency department at University Hospital Limerick against the national standards for safer better healthcare. The Minister has welcomed the report and expressed his concern about the significant risk identified to service users in it.

On Wednesday last, the Minister met with senior officials from his Department and the HSE to discuss immediate responses to the pressures currently faced by emergency departments throughout the country. Those discussions included a specific engagement in respect of the emergency department at University Hospital Limerick, in the context of the specific pressures being experienced by the hospital, and the reports by both HIQA and the HSE expert team recently deployed to Limerick at the Minister's request.

As a result of the intervention requested by the Minister and the recent HIQA report, the chief operations officer of the HSE has written to the CEO of the University of Limerick Hospital Group and the chief officer of mid-west community healthcare to inform them that she has mandated the performance management improvement unit, PMIU, of the HSE to engage urgently with the hospital group and the CHO under the HSE's performance accountability framework. The PMIU will provide intensive support to both hospital and community teams to ensure that the safety issues identified in the recent assessment and the HIQA report, including chronic overcrowding, are addressed as a matter of urgency. A detailed plan will be developed as a matter of urgency in order to ensure that they do not reoccur. This plan will cover issues including admission avoidance, pre-admissions, community interventions and alternative pathways, as well as issues with regard to patient flow through the hospital and emergency department.

I assure the Deputy that the work under way to address the issues that University Hospital Limerick faces, including those highlighted by HIQA's report, will make a significant difference to patient experience at University Hospital Limerick. The Department of Health continues to work closely with the HSE to ensure University Hospital Limerick is fully supported and that the recommendations of the expert review team are actioned in a timely manner. The Deputy raised some very pertinent and disturbing issues that I will bring to the Minister's attention in the morning.

The Deputy made serious and specific allegations regarding corruption. There is a risk of individuals being identified with those allegations. I ask that the Deputy withdraw them. I understand his passion.

I will withdraw the allegation of corruption, but I will not withdraw the one relating to risk. I will tell the Leas-Cheann Comhairle why.

That is okay. The Deputy will withdraw the allegation.

I will withdraw the allegation relating to corruption at the Leas-Cheann Comhairle's request.

The question here is of how many risk assessments were reported to the national incident management system. If this risk assessment had been reported nationally, University Hospital Limerick would have been under investigation sooner. Many Deputies asked for University Hospital Limerick to be investigated. The Minister went down at the time and found nothing wrong. I spent nights in that hospital after having a serious accident in February. I saw first-hand all the people on trolleys. It was being denied in different places that people were on trolleys, but I saw it first-hand. I have spoken about this to the parents of the person I named. My issue is that if a risk assessment had been taken out on Jessica Sheedy's operation, she would be alive today. That is my concern regarding the hospital. I have always said that the staff of University Hospital Limerick are not the problem.

Some €76 million has been used in legal costs since 2018 to cover up illegalities within the hospital. That €76 million could have been spent on nursing care and healthcare within the hospital. That is how passionate I am about this matter. I will not apologise if I come across as too passionate, particularly when a person could have lived if a risk assessment had been carried out. There is not one person here tonight, or in the Dáil in general, who would not want a proper risk assessment done. If such an assessment had been done through the proper channels, this hospital would not be in the catastrophic state it is at present. On the day I arrived to this Dáil, my maiden speech was about University Hospital Limerick. I am sorry if I have to roar it out but, by God, it galls me that it took two and a half years for the Government to finally listen and for a report to be done in respect of the hospital.

The Deputy has raised issues with regard to risk assessment. I will bring them to the attention of the Minister. The Government and the Department of Health remain fully committed to improving services in Limerick and throughout the country. It is clear that after what has been a very difficult couple of years at University Hospital Limerick, significant efforts are now being made to ensure that issues such as overcrowding in the emergency department and delays for elective care are being considered and addressed as matters of priority.

The Minister has met and had discussions with senior officials from his Department and the HSE regarding the situation at University Hospital Limerick. As a result of the Minister's intervention, the PMIU of the HSE has been mandated to engage urgently with the hospital group and the CHO under the HSE's performance accountability framework. The PMIU will provide the intensive support needed to ensure that all necessary immediate steps are taken to address the safety issues identified, included chronic overcrowding. On foot of the PMIU's engagement, a detailed plan will be urgently developed to ensure that they do not reoccur.

I assure the Deputy that the Government is fully aware of the impact on patients, their families and the mid-west. Intensive efforts are under way to address difficulties currently facing University Hospital Limerick. I also thank the Deputy for the way he put this matter across. It has been very emotional and I will bring his views to the Minister. The Department of Health continues to work with the HSE to ensure support for the improvement of services for all patients attending the hospital.

Dental Services

I previously raised the case of a 13-year-old boy who was referred to an orthodontics department on 8 August 2019 and not offered an assessment until 3 March 2022. His family was also informed that if he needed treatment, he would have to wait five years for it. When I inquired about this, the HSE also confirmed that the consultant orthodontist for south-east community healthcare carries out all assessments in Clonmel clinic and that the consultant is available one day every fortnight. Leaving aside the fact that a child can be expected to be on a waiting list for five years, the fact that it took more than two and a half years for him to be assessed by a consultant who is available in Clonmel for one day every two weeks is a complete failure. I understand that Covid had an impact but that is no excuse for how long children have to wait, either for assessments or the procedures they need.

I was recently contacted by the parents of another 13-year-old in Tipperary. This girl was assessed by the consultant orthodontist on 23 December 2021 and was added to the waiting list for treatment. The family was told that she can expect to wait approximately 48 months before being offered an appointment. The family was then told that if their daughter was found to require surgery to correct jaw-size discrepancy and so on, she can expect to wait another 36 months for an initial assessment with a consultant oral and maxillofacial surgeon. This means that the girl could have to wait until she is 20 years of age. This young lady's father was told by the orthodontist that while she would have liked to deal with this immediately, her hands were tied because of understaffing and underfunding, and hence the length of the waiting list.

The orthodontist said that she would like to see the girl given a block brace. Doing this could avoid any need for surgery in the future. It will only be effective if the brace is administered in the very near future, while the girl is still young. If she has to wait until she is in her late teens or even in her early 20s, as she has been told, then surgery is more likely.

It is a problem because it would be more invasive and it would ultimately cost the HSE and the State even more.

There is another complication facing the family. If they went a private route now and got the brace that way, they are concerned that if their daughter needed some form of surgery in future, they would have to continue to rely on the private system. They cannot get the services they need in the required timeframe and if they go private, it would make things very tight for them, although it would address their daughter's needs. They would be disqualified from follow-up treatment, however. They are precluded from being able to avail of the treatment their daughter deserves from the State. They are in a lose-lose position.

This family has an immediate need. Is the Department going to fail this young lady or can something be done to ensure she gets the treatment she needs when she needs it?

I thank the Deputy for giving me the opportunity, on behalf of the Minister for Health, Deputy Stephen Donnelly, to address the question of waiting lists for orthodontic services. He mentioned the case of a young lady awaiting treatment and if he sends me the details, I will pass them to the Minister as well.

The HSE provides orthodontic treatment to those who have the greatest level of need and have been assessed and referred for treatment before their 16th birthday. An orthodontic assessment determines if the referral meets the criteria for the service and, if so, what priority the patient is given. Those with greatest clinical need are prioritised. Orthodontic services are generally provided by orthodontic consultants and specialist orthodontists, who are based in HSE orthodontic clinics throughout the country. In addition, orthodontic therapists assist in providing services in some areas.

The Minister accepts there are significant delays in accessing some services provided by the HSE, caused in part by the necessary concentration of resources at managing the Covid-19 pandemic, the cyberattack and challenges in recruitment of staff in some areas of the country. Waiting lists vary regionally and according to the complexity of the condition. There are generally longer waiting lists for the least complex care.

At the end of the first quarter of 2022, over 10,000 people were awaiting treatment. However, a further 12,000 children were in active treatment. The HSE has put in place a number of measures to address waiting times and these include the prioritisation of the filling of permanent vacancies. The HSE is prioritising the filling of these permanent vacancies and a consultant orthodontist has recently been recruited for community healthcare organisation, CHO, 6, in Loughlinstown, County Dublin. Competitions are ongoing to recruit additional consultant orthodontists in CHO 5 in the south east and in CHO 4 in Kerry.

In the third quarter of 2021, the HSE extended the orthodontic procurement programme that allows patients to have treatment with private specialist orthodontists. Under the updated framework, children and young people assessed as grade 4, whose care can be appropriately dealt with in a community practice setting and who have been waiting over four years, are offered treatment. To date, over 1,612 patients have accepted transfer and are currently in treatment. To support this procurement programme in 2022, the Minister made €4.1 million available for orthodontics as part of the waiting list action plan.

The HSE is also developing a standardised approach to assessment with consultant and specialist orthodontists and annual training for referring dentists. The purpose of this is to ensure that all referrals will receive an orthodontic assessment within six months and that the number of inappropriate referrals will be reduced. Access to orthodontic treatment in another EU jurisdiction is available under the EU cross-border healthcare directive for patients that are already on an orthodontic treatment waiting list. Many patients in Border areas have accessed care in Northern Ireland through this route pre-Brexit. This is being continued through the Northern Ireland planned healthcare scheme.

I reiterate that the Minister for Health fully acknowledges that the waiting lists for essential orthodontic treatment are unacceptable and the Minister wants to see real improvement this year with the significant funding that the Government has made available. I thank the Deputy for raising this matter. It is simply unacceptable that the waiting lists are far too long.

I accept the Minister of State's comments but the response does not even mention the four-year waiting list, which is shocking. This family does not need facts and figures and the girl needs treatment instead. That is the only thing that will help her. Her father has told us that this young girl is very good at sports and is a very bright child, with a good future ahead of her in school and college. The comments from others, however, are causing psychological harm and holding this girl back.

In 2015, the Department of Health approved the private treatment for waiting lists initiative, with an allocation of €1 million per year to target patients who had been waiting for over four years for treatment. The Department accepting that only those waiting for more than four years would have action taken is completely and desperately wrong, as the Minister of State would admit. It is my suspicion that delays being experienced across the country by children will result in two trends. The first is that the number of children waiting over four years will increase all the time, as we can see when they come to everybody's office. More children will have to be referred for private treatment as a result. The second issue is that some children are being forced to live with deterioration, so more will require more intensive surgery, adding to the number of children qualifying for the private treatment.

Children in this position need immediate treatment and not a fake promise of what will be done in years to come. Will the Minister of State ask the Minister, Deputy Stephen Donnelly, what is being done to improve access to treatment? Does he have plans to change criteria to allow more children to access private treatment in order to prevent their condition from getting worse? What can be done in this case and how can the family ensure the timely treatment of their child?

Towards the end of last year there were 1,123 patients waiting for HSE orthodontic service in my area of the south east, along with 506 in the mid west. I ask the Minister of State not to tell me this is all down to the pandemic because in 2019 the number of people waiting for four years or more for this service in the south east and mid-west had more than doubled from the previous year.

I have heard the Deputy's comments from across the Chamber and I assure him that the Minister and I appreciate the difficulties experienced by young people waiting for orthodontic care. As I outlined to the House, the Department and the HSE are undertaking a number of initiatives to address the question of waiting lists for orthodontic care. The Government is committed in the coming years to the transformation of oral healthcare services in accordance with the guiding principles set out in Smile agus Sláinte, the national oral health policy, which was published in 2019.

Under that policy, all children up to 16 years will receive eight oral healthcare packages, including examinations, assessments, advice, prevention interventions, emergency care and referrals as appropriate. The packages will be provided in a primary care setting by oral healthcare practitioners contracted by the HSE. With respect to orthodontic services, the policy supports the delivery of some orthodontic procedures in primary care dental practices, supported by clinical care pathways.

The policy recognises that in line with international evidence, some orthodontic care may be provided in different types of primary oral healthcare settings where the level of skill of the oral healthcare practitioner will match the complexity of care required. Orthodontic treatment involving inpatient surgical interventions and multi-specialty advanced care will be provided in advanced oral healthcare settings. Smile agus Sláinte provides the groundwork to transform oral health services and it embraces the same ideals as Sláintecare, with the needs of people at the core and the provision of services in the local community paramount.

Again, if the Deputy wishes to send the details of that young girl to me or the Minister, we will follow up with the HSE and see if there is any way the matter can be dealt with.

Local Authorities

I am here to address the very significant and gross underfunding of Galway County Council, which has been a factor in seriously diminishing the capacity of that local authority to be able to offer the service to people that it should seek to offer. This gross underfunding has been going on for many years and the history is quite complex, so I will not go into that. It is stark in terms of the figures presented to us right now, however, by the executive management team within Galway County Council.

Looking at the budget per capita allocated last year to local authorities with a similar demographic and similar make-up in terms of their rural-urban divide and of a similar size, Longford had a budget per capita of €1,500; Waterford had a budget per capita of €1,320; Tipperary had €1,200; Mayo, €1,250; and Kerry €1,200. Then we go to Galway, with a budget per capita of €800. That significant underfunding is seriously impacting on the recruitment and retention of staff within that local authority. In 2008 there were 1,006 people employed by Galway County Council. Just last year, that figure had reduced to 804. We contrast that staff figure of 804 for Galway County Council with a figure of 1,800 for Tipperary, 1,240 for Kerry and 1,025 for Mayo. Both the public representatives, the members of the local authority and indeed the management team there tell me that in order to address that gross underfunding, we are looking at a shortfall of roughly €20 million.

Whenever this case is raised with the respective Ministers responsible for the funding of all of our local authorities, we are told we must wait for the outcome of an ongoing review of our local property taxation system to see how we can use the proceeds of that local property tax to bring about an equalisation of all of the funding that is made available to local authorities across the country, and that we will then move forward collectively following that review. Before that review is finalised and before we set about carrying out its recommendations, Galway County Council in order to be brought to a level footing with all of those local authorities needs to have that immediate injection of €20 million.

Right now, the funding shortfall is impacting seriously on its capacity to deliver services, for example in the area of planning. Planning enforcement is now virtually non-existent within Galway County Council. Indeed, dealing with the massive additional number of planning applications that have arisen over the last 12 months has been very difficult indeed. In the area of housing grants for older people, what should be a very straightforward process of assessment of those grant applications is now taking up to nine months because there simply are not enough people working in that section to be able to adequately assess the grant applications and make the necessary grants. Particularly in the area of housing, every local authority in the country has been rightly charged with delivering on a major local authority housing programme. Again, in this area Galway County Council simply does not have the engineering or administrative staff to even go close to delivering on its commitment for local authority housing delivery over the next five to ten years.

This needs to be addressed. It has been going on for far too long. The underfunding of €20 million needs to be looked at in the immediate future and not in the long term after some ongoing review.

I thank the Deputy for giving me this opportunity, on behalf of the Minister for Housing, Local Government and Heritage, to outline the funding and Government support for local authorities with particular reference to County Galway. Local property tax, LPT, was introduced to provide a stable and sustainable funding base for the local authority sector, providing greater levels of connection between local revenue and associated expenditure decisions. The LPT broadens the tax base by reducing the level of Central Funding required by local government.

Local retention of local property tax began in 2015 and since then the overall principles and allocation methodology have broadly remained the same. Currently, 80% of LPT is retained in the area it is collected, with the other 20% supporting equalisation for local authorities with LPT bases lower than their funding baseline. LPT allocations to local authorities for 2022 amount to €523.9 million. These allocations include the Exchequer contribution to equalisation funding of €34.3 million. Galway County Council was allocated €14.5 million under this process for 2022.

In addition to the LPT allocation, the Department of Housing, Local Government and Heritage has also agreed a provisional allocation of €4.44 million for Galway County Council in respect of the additional costs that will arise in 2022 as a consequence of the national pay agreements. This allocation relates specifically to increases in rates of pay and public service pension reduction resulting from the unwinding of financial emergency measures in the public interest legislation, and increases in pay and pensions relating to Building Momentum - A New Public Service Agreement 2021-2022. The overall aim of the allocation is to ease the burden on local authorities of the increased payroll costs in 2022. As part of the budget process, the Department engaged with the Department of Public Expenditure and Reform concerning the financial impact on the sector and secured the allocation, which will assist local authorities to meet the costs arising.

Across all schemes and funding sources the Department provided €82.9 million in 2020 and €85.9 million in 2021 to Galway County Council. The payments in 2020 also included an allocation to Galway County Council of €1 million. This funding was linked to the operation of municipal districts and was subject to a small number of requirements, including that the funding be divided equally among the municipal districts. The payments in 2021 included an allocation of €600,000 for additional discretionary income. The programme for Government, Our Shared Future, commits to bringing forward LPT reforms including providing for all money collected locally to be retained within the county. The Government has signalled its intention that the move to 100% local retention of LPT will be introduced over the 2023 and 2024 budgetary cycles. It is expected that the LPT yield will change following revaluation last November and the distribution model will be reviewed when new yield per local authority is fully quantified; however final figures are not yet available. Given the need for timely information to be provided to local authorities for their budgetary process and the need for final LPT figures to inform that, it is not expected that baselines will be reviewed in advance of the 2023 local authority budget process.

Each local authority situation is complex and it is important that sufficient time is taken to analyse and assess potential options in that respect. Preliminary census data will also form an important input to that deliberation. The Department of Housing, Local Government and Heritage will, however, be considering, in consultation with the Department of Public Expenditure and Reform, the potential for a move towards 100% retention for 2023.

I am not laying any blame at the Minister of State’s door for that response. He is delivering a response that was provided to him by officials within the Department. However, I am saying to those officials right now that this is totally unacceptable. I made the point in my earlier contribution that there is an ongoing review of the local property tax and then we move forward collectively once that review is completed. That does not address the situation that Galway County Council, even after that review and after the allocation of additional LPT across all local authorities, would still be at a major disadvantage with the €20 million shortfall. What needs to happen right now is for that inequity to be addressed. Galway County Council needs to be brought into line with other local authorities of similar demographic make-up and similar size. It is not acceptable that a local authority in one part of the country has to cope with doing its work with 800 staff while another similarly sized local authority has 1,800 staff. That inequity has existed for a very long time. It needs to be addressed completely separately from this ongoing local property tax review. That is the message and I would be very grateful if the Minister of State could bring it back to the Ministers responsible for this budgetary allocation. The local authority members in Galway County Council are about to begin their own budgetary process, trying as best they can to allocate scarce resources across all of the provision within that local authority. They are doing so with one hand tied behind their back with that ongoing €20 million shortfall. It is not acceptable. It needs to be addressed now rather than later.

I hear the Deputy loud and clear. I will bring his suggestions and deliberations back to the Minister. LPT allocations for 2023 have yet to be decided. We acknowledge the current funding pressures on local authorities.

As such, the funding from Galway County Council and other local authorities will be kept under review as part of the normal Estimates process for 2023 in the context of the aforementioned LPT yield, following the re-evaluation process.

There was unprecedented support for local authorities during the Covid-19 pandemic. One of the earliest priorities of the Department of Housing, Local Government and Heritage was to secure funding to provide a waiver of commercial rates for businesses impacted by the pandemic, while simultaneously supporting local authorities. The cost of the waiver for the local authority sector for 2020 and 2021 was €1.2 billion, and €191 million was paid out in additional support towards lost incomes and expenditure for the same period. In addition, the limited quarter 4 rates waiver has been extended to the first quarter of this year at an estimated cost of €61 million. Over 2020 and 2021, Galway County Council has recouped a total of €17.5 million in respect of the rates waiver and €3.5 million towards Covid-related income losses and expenditure.

The funding position of Galway County Council will continue to be kept under review during the 2023 Estimates process. However, the Deputy has stated that there is a €20 million shortfall. It seems the issue is that the Deputy is looking to see if that €20 million can be addressed in some way or another. That is quite reasonable. Again, it is not my Department, but I will certainly bring it to the attention of the Minister.

Public Transport

It is the third time I have had to raise this issue in this House. I keep getting the same answers. I have also tabled parliamentary questions. The first thing we have to recognise is that transport costs take a disproportionate amount of islanders' incomes. In many cases, they need to keep two cars – one on the island and one on the mainland. Only two islands have roll-on roll-off, ro-ro, ferries. Every time they go to the mainland, they have to take public transport. The rest of us do not, but they do.

It was in recognition of this that back in 1997 I introduced subsidised ferry services over a very short number of years to virtually every island off the coast. Until then, there was a hodgepodge of subsidised services, but none of the non-Irish speaking, or non-Gaeltacht, islands had any subsidised service. The second thing I did later on was to introduce an islander rate. In other words, if the Minister of State or I takes the boat, we pay the ordinary commercial rate. However, on the subsidised services, there is an islander rate that is much lower. It was €8 for an adult but I think it is €10 now. However, it is still much lower than the commercial rate that a tourist or visitor would pay.

The Minister keeps telling me that she cannot do this because there are subsidised and non-subsidised services going to the islands. This is a mantra that is probably in the Minister of State’s script tonight as well. Two things arise from that. The non-subsidised services are not bound by this €10 fare. They do not have to give islanders a reduced rate and they do not. They have never complained that the subsidised services are subsidised to give this rate. The second thing is whether the Minister of State can tell me where all these islands are the Minister keeps telling me about, which I have not heard of, that have subsidised and non-subsidised services running in parallel. I do not want to hear that there is a service from Doolin to the Aran Islands in the summer and that the service from Ros an Mhíl is competing with it. The subsidised islander rate is only available in Ros an Mhíl.

This issue has dragged on. It is amazing that on the mainland you have subsidised and non-subsidised services. As the Minister of State knows, Expressway is not subsidised and is not subject to the reduction in fares and neither are many other private bus operators. This idea that there is some massive difference between the islands and the mainland is wrong. In fact, it is the other way around. The mainland has a mixture of services all over the place - some are subsidised and some are not, and all of them licensed by the National Transport Authority, NTA, as I understand.

In a reply to a parliamentary question last week, the Minister said that at last she had received the Attorney General’s advice that had been sought in March of this year. Remember, this scheme is only going to run from April to December. How this was such a massive legal issue that it took from March to the end of June to get an answer, I will never understand. If the Minister of State can tell me the matter has been considered and the Minister will drop the fare by 20%, we need not go any further and one sentence will do as a reply. We are all here late at night and it is unnecessary. I am told this is being considered by the officials. When will the Minister, not the officials, make a decision on this?

The Deputy outlined the various issues regarding contracts, transport costs, islander rates, the Attorney General giving legal advice and the ferries between Ros an Mhíl and Doolin. The sustainability of the communities on our offshore islands is a core objective of the Government, as the Deputy knows, and is set out in its Rural Development Policy 2021-2025, Our Rural Future. The policy acknowledges the importance for island communities of access to reliable, safe and affordable connectivity services to and from the mainland. I do not have to be telling the Deputy because he is very familiar due to the work he has done over the years.

Contracts for these services are procured by the Department of Rural and Community Development on the open market through the procurement process. This ensures that all potential providers are treated equally and the selection process is fair and transparent for all.

The fare reduction scheme recently introduced by the Department of Transport is managed by the NTA and only targets the PSO bus and train routes under its remit, as the Deputy outlined. The scheme covers public transport services operated by Iarnród Éireann, Bus Éireann, Dublin Bus, Luas, Go-Ahead Ireland and Transport for Ireland, TFI, Local Link. It does not, however, include other subsidised transport services managed by the Department of Transport, such as the PSO air service to Donegal and Kerry, nor does it include private commercially operated services licensed by the NTA. Furthermore, the scheme does not extend to transport services currently managed by the Department of Rural and Community Development.

In terms of supporting the island communities through reduced fares, the Deputy is aware that islanders already benefit from substantially reduced fare on the subsidised ferry and air services, representing a discount of up to 60% compared to the rate charged for visitors, which is where the €8 or €10 is. Many offshore islands have a mix of subsidised and non-subsidised transport services, and introducing a new fare reduction scheme for chosen suppliers could have the potential to undermine those procurement procedures and may also lead to reduced services to the islands, particularly with regard to non-subsidised services and other private operators who may be placed at a disadvantage.

The Department of Rural and Community Development has sought advice from the Attorney General on this matter, as the Deputy said. Officials have been engaging in this since March and I understand a response has been received and is currently being considered by officials in the Department of Rural and Community Development.

Ensuring that the island communities can continue to avail of reliable and affordable transport service remains a core objective for this Government. The Deputy can be assured that the Minister and her officials are aware of the impact that rising fuel costs is having on service operators and are examining ways to address the matter within the provisions of the existing contracts.

The next part of the Minister of State's reply will state that unlike the PSO route managed by the NTA, the Department of Rural and Community development does not subsidise all services on all routes. The NTA does not subsidise all services on all routes. Let us put that one to bed. Expressway and all sorts of private services are not subsidised.

They are not subject to the reduction in fares.

The second issue is that the Minister says many islands have subsidised and non-subsidised services. I would like him to outline the names of the islands that make up this “many”, given there are not that many islands around our coast.

The third issue is that the Minister of State has at last admitted - it is the only change in the reply I am getting ad nauseam - that there is a special islander rate but that it is confined to the subsidised services. That is how they can afford to give that rate. When someone wins the contract, they have advantages. Nobody is asking for the visitor fare to be reduced, just the islander fare, which is already 60% lower.

I will make a final point as I am running out of time. The Minister of State said they are not NTA services and they are not under the Department of Transport. I know that. However, these are Irish citizens who are availing of public transport. People do not take a bus from an island to the mainland and they certainly do not take a train. That part of the argument is totally false and is just throwing dust in the eyes, but not doing it very well. What we are saying to islanders is very simple, and it is that they should not benefit from the reduction in public transport costs that the rest of the people on the mainland are benefiting from. It is as simple as that. If that is the Government's attitude, I have to say I am ashamed to be in a party that is part of that Government.

I thank the Deputy for raising the matter. The Deputy certainly feels very strongly about this. I am aware of the many offshore islands but I do not have a list of what islands are involved, although I am sure the Deputy has a fair idea himself.

The problem is there are not many islands that have these services.

I have noted the Deputy’s comments and I will raise those points with the Minister and the Department. Careful consideration is being given to any change that could substantially alter the contracts and put private operators at a disadvantage. However, the Deputy has raised some pertinent points regarding the islands. There is also the fact of the logistical issues for people leaving the islands in that they often need to keep two cars and they also have to take public transport, which is a valid argument. Again, I have noted the Deputy’s comments and I will raise the points with the Minister and her Department.

Cuireadh an Dáil ar athló ar 11.44 p.m. go dtí 9.12 a.m., Dé Céadaoin, an 29 Meitheamh 2022.
The Dáil adjourned at 11.44 p.m. until 9.12 a.m. on Wednesday, 29 June 2022.