Léim ar aghaidh chuig an bpríomhábhar

Seanad Éireann díospóireacht -
Tuesday, 28 May 2013

Vol. 223 No. 9

Adjournment Matters

Voluntary Sector Funding

I welcome the Minister for the Environment, Community and Local Government, Deputy Phil Hogan. I am delighted that he is taking this matter. I also welcome to the Visitors Gallery Ms Mary O'Connor from CARI and Mr. Des McKiernan from Aspire. I will start by making a declaration of interest. I am a former chief executive of the Children's Rights Alliance, but it is not on its behalf that I am raising this matter, about which other organisations have contacted me.

As it stands, the current scheme to support national organisations which provides 30 months of core funding for 64 national community and voluntary organisations and some others is due to expire on 31 December this year. There is not a single name on the list of organisations in receipt of funding which will be unfamiliar to Members. I have often heard Members commend many of the groups which benefit from the scheme such as the Simon Communities of Ireland, the Alzheimer's Society of Ireland, Inclusion Ireland, Barnardos, the Carmicheal Centre and The Wheel. It is evident from this handful of names that the range of services they provide and the issues on which they provide advocacy services are diverse, but the outstanding contribution they make to the lives of those they represent, thanks, in part, to the funding they derive from the scheme, is not.

During my time as chief executive of the Children's Rights Alliance and president of the National Youth Council of Ireland, I have seen this money put to good use. I know how crucial it is to such organisations that they have clarity on the future of this essential funding. By denying them this clarity, we are not only placing vital services in danger, but we are also risking the very survival of some federations and networks which play a vital national co-ordinating role. I understand that, to date, there has been no official communication from the Department on the future of the scheme. Understandably, this is causing significant concern among the recipient organisations.

The 2011 iteration of the scheme talked about multi-annual funding for such national organisations towards the core costs associated with the provision of services. Originally, the scheme was designed for federations and network programmes, but several schemes were folded into the 2011 scheme. I have some concerns about the principles behind the 2011 scheme because they lack a clear aim and purpose of what they are about. Perhaps this is an opportunity for us to look at the scheme.

I also have concerns that some organisations receive significant funds from other arms of the State. In each iteration of the scheme these organisations seemed to be added on and I believe the scheme has lost its way. For example, I was surprised to see the Football Association of Ireland had received €45,000 under the scheme. According to the 2011 annual review of the FAI, it had received €3.4 million in grants from the Irish Sports Council and had €5.7 million in sponsorship revenue. Its chief executive earns €400,000; therefore, this scheme is paying a small percentage of the chief executive's salary. To an organisation of this size, operating at a surplus, the €45,000 per annum it receives under the current scheme is a paltry amount, yet to many other organisations in receipt of money under the scheme, it is absolutely transformative.

Will the Minister clarify his plans for the future of the 2014-16 scheme to support national organisations? Will he outline if, or when, a new scheme will be announced? What consultation process will take place with current and potential recipients? Will the Minister clarify the purpose of the scheme because there is a need for a scheme to support national federations and networks of charitable voluntary organisations which play a critical role in co-ordination? Funding does not come from other arms of the State. As in previous years, will the Minister put in place interim funds if he does not have a new successive scheme to put in place? How does he see the transition to the new scheme taking place?

I am pleased to have the opportunity to address the Seanad on the funding scheme to support national organisations and thank the Senator for raising the issue. It was interesting to hear her speak about groups which need money seven months in advance of any decision being made and in advance of the budget and ask me to clarify issues which have not even been considered in the context of any review to be carried out.

I inherited from my predecessor a three-year programme and the Senator has explained some of the problems with it. This scheme amalgamated and replaced schemes previously operating under the White Paper on supporting voluntary activity. The scheme's objective was to provide multi-annual funding to national organisations towards core costs associated with the provision of services. The scheme will end at the end of the year.

A review at the time made a series of recommendations for a future funding scheme including recommendations relating to: core funding; a focus on disadvantage and coalface services; the impact of the funding on the ground; an emphasis on adding value and avoiding duplication; and a focus on governance and cost controls. These recommendations were reflected in the current funding scheme which commenced on 1 July 2011.

Under the current scheme, 64 organisations are supported and some €3.588 million is allocated to the scheme this year. My Department will be carrying out a review of the scheme over the coming months. The terms of reference for the review will include an examination of the extent to which the objectives, rationale and approach of the scheme remain valid and will entail making recommendations regarding its future role and scope. The review of the scheme will be based on an examination of relevant documentation and consultation within the sector. It will take into account a number of policy considerations in formulating recommendations for the future. The policy considerations include economic conditions, principles contained within the White Paper and the role of the community and voluntary sector. I expect to receive the review by the autumn and on the basis of its findings, I will consider the options available to me.

Obviously the unique part of the scheme is its multi-annual funding. There will be an application process. While seven months is a long time, most organisations have statutory responsibility with regard to staff employment and would need to give staff notice. As an application process will take some months, seven months is a short time. I am happy to help in any way. I believe the scheme has lost its way and is a mixed bag considering the organisations. I have serious concerns about organisations such as the FAI receiving from this scheme which originally was to fund national organisations.

Rural Development Programme Funding

I ask the Minister to explain why funding to the West Cork Development Partnership has been cut by approximately €2.2 million - according to today's Irish Examiner, the cut is €2.4 million. In effect, there is a 14% cut in this budget whereas other partnership groups have had increases - in one instance, an increase of 58%. Projects in west County Cork, such as those in Goleen, Schull, Ballydehob, Beara, Clonakilty, and Bantry, which have gone through the process, are now left high and dry because of lack of funding. I am sure the Minister will agree that great community effort and energy went into these projects and in some instances a planning process was completed. If these projects were to proceed, it would result in a minimum of 50 to 60 jobs, which would be critical to an area such as west County Cork. Some of these projects are community based, some of them relate to e-commerce and others are tourism projects. As I am sure also applies in the Minister's county, Kilkenny, the Leader programme has delivered great benefit to communities. The money is very well used and the benefits far outweigh the costs.

The West Cork Development Partnership is obviously dismayed at the unilateral usurping and overturning of the money that had been promised and was believed to be in train. It throws a spanner into the works over the future of these partnership groups. In west County Cork, as in rural areas in general, we suffer from a major outflow of people affecting our communities, parishes and GAA clubs. They are emigrating to Australia, Canada, America, Britain or wherever they can get work. The schemes offer some employment and also hope to the communities involved.

There is absolute dismay and concern. Local community groups have contacted me and I have spoken to some of my colleagues, Deputies from west County Cork, who have also rightly come under pressure from these groups. It is not that they are moaning and groaning. Some communities have planned these projects for six, nine or 12 months and in some cases planning permission had been granted. Now with a swipe of a pen by the Minister or someone else in high office, the money has been swept away, leaving these projects high and dry. It is like the periwinkle when the tide goes out - it is left on the rock, dry. These projects are abandoned and I am deeply concerned over the impact and the message we are sending to rural communities. I hope the Minister will have very positive news for me. Knowing that he is a kindly gentleman, he may contact Mr. Ian Dempsey, the CEO of the West Cork Development Partnership, to tell him that the funding is available again so that it can proceed with these projects.

I welcome the opportunity to respond to the issue raised by Senator O'Donovan and to clear up considerable misinformation on the alignment process with local government as well as the funding arrangements for the rural development programme.

The Leader elements of the Rural Development Programme 2007 - 2013 finally commenced in February 2009 after a delay of more than two years, effectively reducing the programme period to less than five years. During 2010 it became evident that while on the one hand a significant number of local development companies were not committing funds at the level required to ensure that all the funding would be allocated by the end of this year, on the other hand a number of local development companies were more than capable of allocating funding.

In late 2011 the European Commission approved a change in the maximum co-funding rate from 55% to 85% for the Leader elements of Ireland's rural development programme. It is estimated that this change will reduce the available funding from €427 million to approximately €370 million, which is still a considerable amount of money.

In addition in late 2012 and early 2013, after repeated requests from many local development companies, I agreed to allow significant additional programme funds to be assigned to the basic services measure, which includes grant assistance for community centres and other projects, amounting to more than €19 million in total.

In the context of the situation as outlined, it became necessary fully to review the level of commitments and expenditure for the programme, and to adjust the individual local development company allocations in line with the reduced value of the programme taking into account the level of commitments already entered into.

My Department recently completed a comprehensive review of the programmes in every Leader area. As a first step I released €42 million worth of projects which had been approved by the boards of the LDCs asking them to confirm those projects that were in a position to proceed. If any of the projects the Senator mentioned are in the pipeline, they can be paid for out of this particular fund. If they have already gone through the system, as the Senator indicated, and had planning permission and co-funding, and met all the criteria, there is no difficulty and they will emerge, hopefully, through the Department in the coming weeks. Those projects that were in the queue have been prioritised to be released for funding.

When we did the trawl of the €42 million, we found that only €25.5 million in that category had all the necessary approvals. Perhaps some of the projects brought to the Senator's attention may be in the other €18 million that did not meet all the criteria. We are subject to serious audit by Deloitte on behalf of the European Commission so everything must be done properly.

Using an estimated final programme allocation of €370 million, the total spend to date and outstanding commitments under the programme were established and deducted from the €370 million. Some €6 million was ring-fenced for the former MFG, which as the Senator knows went into liquidation. New Gaeltacht projects and associated administration costs were transferred to contiguous local development companies.

The original percentage of the programme which was awarded to each local development company in 2009 was then applied to apportion the remaining funding among all local development companies. I ensured that nobody got less than the 80% of the original allocation. If that was applied to west County Cork, it would have gone lower. I have actually protected as much of the funding as I possibly can for the West Cork Development Partnership.

The Leader elements of the RDP have already provided significant financial resources to communities. I agree with the Senator on the good work already done. When I discovered that the momentum behind the programme was not as good as it should have been in 2011, I opened up to all Leader companies, including West Cork Development Partnership, the opportunity to apply for additional funding for additional projects.

The ones that came forward with additional proposals are being rewarded. Notwithstanding this, I ensured no company had less than 80% of the original allocation. I am glad to clarify the process. There is money in the system and available for projects in the queue and it will be paid in the coming weeks. It has to be spent between now and the end of the year. I will be returning to the West Cork Development Partnership and all other Leader companies by the end of August to clarify whether projects to which they committed in 2011 and 2012 will go ahead. If not, we will reallocate the money to companies in a position to draw it down. All of the money in the rural development programme must be committed by the end of the year.

I thank the Minister for coming to the Chamber and appreciate it when the line Minister responds. What he has outlined is substantially at variance with what I am hearing on the ground. Some 300 people turned up at a meeting in Skibbereen to discuss the alignment proposals, with which Cork County Council, like many other councils, is not happy. There is something radically wrong. Either the Leader company people are misleading us - I think not because their jobs and lives depend on it - or there is misinformation somewhere. It does not stack up. I hear about valuable projects on the Beara Peninsula, a remote area, the Mizen Peninsula, in Clonakilty and Bantry being stymied by a lack of funding. I must tease out this issue with the Minister on specific projects. My story is that they were ready to roll. There was a major announcement that they had lost €2.2 million, a substantial amount of money for any programme, because of which at least a dozen projects will be shelved.

There are sufficient moneys in the system in the Department of the Environment, Community and Local Government to pay for projects approved and in the queue for payment. If there is a difficulty in the evaluation of projects in the Department, we must obtain further information. That rarely happens and there should not be a difficulty if the projects have been submitted to the Department. The moneys will be paid from the €25.5 million I have allocated, which will be cleared by the end of the week. Further moneys are available to West Cork Development Partnership to bring forward new projects between now and the end of August. I will review the projects to which the development company has committed, as I will review all other Leader projects. This is to ensure all of the commitments made in 2011 and 2012 will be met. If projects are not going ahead, I will take back the money and reallocate it to companies around the country in a position to spend it. The ball is firmly in the Leader company's court. Cork County Council is very satisfied to work with local communities, as are all local authorities, to reduce the level of administration and duplication and prioritise funding for front-line services and projects.

Child Care Qualifications

I welcome the Minister. Leitrim County Childcare Committee, of which I am chairman on a pro bono basis, has completed a survey of 253 people who have completed FETAC training since 2004. We have found that, in the main, people are working in part-time or full-time jobs in the child care sector. I refer to that figure in the context of ongoing investigations into child care facilities being carried out by RTE and other agencies. In County Leitrim we have no problem sourcing qualified and skilled staff; in fact, we have a surplus. There has been considerable interest in furthering the qualifications of the 253 people concerned to third level. However, the common issue noted by all of them was the level of fees. These child care workers have to study part time as they are working. However, as salaries in the child care sector tend to be low, the fees are prohibitive. For example, to access the bachelor of arts degree course in Sligo in early childhood care and education part-time, it costs €12,000 over four years. This is beyond the means of the majority of those working in the early years sector.

What supports are available to potential part-time students who find themselves in this position? We have had a number of queries on the matter. In the light of the concerns expressed by the Minister's Cabinet colleague about the level of qualifications and the recent inspection of 15 child care facilities, which did not include any in County Leitrim, this is an opportunity for those who genuinely want to further their qualifications in the child care sector and they will then find they have work to do. In that context, I ask for the observations of the Minister.

I am responding to this matter on behalf of my colleague, the Minister for Education and Skills.

I thank the Senator for giving me the opportunity to outline the supports available to part-time students who have completed FETAC training in child care. The Department provides a range of further education programmes designed to cater for those who wish to upskill, including the back to education initiative, BTEI. The BTEI provides flexible part-time options across further education and is aimed at adults with less than upper second level education, including unemployed adults. The overall aim is to increase the participation of young people and adults with less than upper second level education in a range of part-time accredited learning opportunities leading to awards on the national framework of qualifications to facilitate their access, transfer and progression to other education or employment pathways. The BTEI enables providers to increase participation through a wider range of flexible options which are appropriate to the particular circumstances of learners, enabling them to combine family, work or personal responsibilities with learning opportunities.

In the current context, the BTEI enables providers to address the skills needs of unemployed persons, in particular the priority groups identified in the Government's activation agenda, and develop part-time education and training opportunities for low skilled people in employment to gain qualifications. Learners participating in the BTEI programme may continue to receive social protection payments subject to satisfying the conditions of the Department of Social Protection.

Students can apply for a place on a Springboard course. Springboard which was first introduced in 2011 is a specific initiative that provides free part-time flexible reskilling opportunities at higher education levels for unemployed and previously self-employed persons in areas with emerging skill needs such ICT, pharmchem and international financial services. It is targeted at graduates and non-graduates previously employed in sectors and jobs where employment levels are unlikely to return to pre-recession levels who will need to reskill for different types of employment. Approximately 10,000 places have been provided under the two rounds of the programme issued to date. A call for proposals for courses to be run under Springboard 2013 was issued by the Higher Education Authority in February and is expected to provide in excess of 5,000 new places this year. Details of the courses selected will be available in the coming weeks.

To be eligible for a place on a Springboard course, a person must be unemployed, actively seeking employment and in receipt of one of the qualifying social protection allowances or signing for credits or previously self-employed. Students who have completed FETAC training are eligible to apply for support under the scheme. In addition, tax relief is also available on fees for approved part-time courses. Full details of this relief are available from the Revenue Commissioners.

The Department of Education and Skills funds a student grants scheme for third level and further education students. Under the terms of the student grants scheme, grant assistance is awarded to students who meet the prescribed conditions of funding, including those which relate to nationality, residency, previous academic attainment and means. Under the scheme, an approved course is defined as a full-time undergraduate course of at least two years duration or a full-time postgraduate course of not less than one year duration pursued in an approved institution. A student who has completed FETAC training in child care and subsequently undertakes a full-time undergraduate course or postgraduate course may be eligible for support under the scheme. The scheme for the 2013-14 academic year was published on 16 May and is available on the student finance website. To determine eligibility for the 2013-14 academic year, a student may submit a fully completed online grant application to Student Universal Support Ireland, SUSI, via the SUSI or student finance websites.

The Minister will take the concerns of the Senator and those of students into consideration during the budgetary process and will endeavour to protect, to the greatest extent possible, the most disadvantaged students in further and higher education.

I appreciate that the Minister is responding to the debate on behalf of his colleague.

It is also an opportunity for the Government of the day to highlight what it believes to be its priorities rather than to address the specific issues that are raised in the question. In this instance, I must say I am somewhat disappointed with three quarters of the reply. It does not really address what I specifically asked. The final part of the reply makes reference to the fact that staff can undertake full-time FETAC training in child care, but I made it quite clear that the issue I am concerned with is part-time training. Many of the people in our survey who have undertaken FETAC training up to level 5 are working in the home and would not, therefore, be in a position to take up full-time study. All of these courses, with respect, apply to those who are completely unemployed and who want to get involved in full-time education or to upskill from another sector. The people to whom I refer do not want to reskill or upskill in some other area. They want to enhance their skills in the area they have already chosen, namely child care. The only glimmer of light at the end of the tunnel is provided by the final sentence, where the Minister says that he takes on board the concerns that have been raised in this motion and that they will be given consideration in the context of the budgetary process. I know it is completely outside the Minister's brief but I am sure that he is as concerned about the unemployed in his area as I am about those without work in my own. I hope that as he sits at the Cabinet table he will take account of the fact that there is a cohort of people who would like to continue in part-time education but who cannot do so because they cannot afford the fees. I thank the Minister for his reply.

Horse Racing Industry Development

I welcome the Minister to the House. I wish to acknowledge the importance of Irish-Chinese trade, which is currently worth €8 billion per annum. I compliment the Minister for Agriculture, Food and the Marine, who led a trade delegation to China of 127 representatives of the agrifood and equine industries. China has a population of 1.3 billion and we have successfully established a partnership in equine excellence with China. An equine centre has been set up in Tianjin, the third largest city in the country, with a population of 12 million, at a cost of €2 billion to the Chinese authorities. We hope to export up to €40 million worth of animals and animal feed to China as a result of this over the next three years. Coolmore Stud in Tipperary has been set up as the partner for this equine centre, which is a very good news story. However, I wish to draw attention to the issue of the half-bred sports horse, three-day eventing and pony trade, which does not seem to be included as part of this Irish-Chinese initiative. I would like the Minister to provide some information as to the feasibility of examining this trade with China to determine if there is an opportunity for further exports and an opening up of trade in this area.

Currently there are 300 professional horse clubs in China, of which 16 are full-time professional clubs. These clubs currently use warm-blood horses mainly imported from the Netherlands which, incidentally, has quarantine rights for the entire world for export into China. There is an opportunity here for the Irish equine industry to open up trade with China and rebuild this particular industry nationally. In the past five years, as the Minister knows, this industry has taken a severe hammering. Prices have dropped by over 100% in some cases. Generally speaking, the people in this industry are mainstream farmers who keep a number of horses, brood mares and so forth for breeding purposes. This helps them to increase their incomes on an annual basis but in recent times this trade has completely collapsed. The Connemara pony trade has also collapsed, as has the three-day eventing trade. There is an opportunity here and I ask the Minister to respond to my request that funding for a feasibility study be made available, either through the Department of Agriculture, Food and the Marine or through Leader companies. I look forward to the Minister's response.

I thank Senator Landy for raising this issue, which I am taking on behalf of my colleague, the Minister for Agriculture, Food and the Marine, Deputy Coveney. The equine industry in Ireland is comprised of two elements, the thoroughbred sector and the sport horse sector. Horse Racing Ireland is responsible for the development of the thoroughbred sector, while Horse Sport Ireland is responsible for the sport horse sector. The horse racing and breeding sector, as Senator Landy has said, contributes enormously to the Irish economy. It is estimated that in excess of 17,350 people are employed directly in the industry in Ireland, mostly in rural areas. The industry generated exports worth €174 million in 2012 and 7,500 thoroughbred foals were registered that year. The industry is dispersed throughout the country with breeders located in every county. It is interesting to note that 83% of thoroughbred breeders own only one or two mares.

Horse Racing Ireland is a State body established under the Horse and Greyhound Act of 2001 which represents key sectors of the thoroughbred industry. It is responsible for the overall administration, promotion and development of the industry. Irish Thoroughbred Marketing, ITM, is a division of Horse Racing Ireland, funded by that body and by the Irish bloodstock industry. It is responsible for the promotion of the thoroughbred horse and provides support to overseas visitors who are interested in the racing and breeding industry. ITM has representatives overseas, including one based in China.

Regarding the sport horse industry, it is estimated that there are 124,000 sport horses in the country, with 13,477 non-thoroughbred foals registered last year. These would include Irish sport horses, Irish draught horses and Connemara ponies, together with other breeds. There are an estimated 30,000 non-thoroughbred brood mares in the country, which 50% of mare owners having one or two mares. A report entitled, "Economic Contribution of the Sport Horse Industry to the Irish Economy 2012", concluded the contribution of the Irish sport horse industry to the economy to be in the region of €708 million per annum, employing 12,512 full-time equivalents, with an estimated 47,096 people involved in the sport horse sector. The report estimated that approximately 6,600 sport horses were exported in 2011 to the value of €26.1 million. Horse Sport Ireland is responsible for devising and implementing strategies for the development and promotion of an internationally competitive Irish sport horse industry. Horse Sport Ireland is developing new marketing strategies and the Department of Agriculture, Food and the Marine has, in this regard, approved funding to assist Horse Sport Ireland in developing a website, the Irish Horse Gateway, which is commissioned as a platform primarily for the sale of Irish sport horses and ponies in other countries, including China. The website will allow the promotion of the Irish horse and pony internationally and build on our worldwide reputation for excellence. The Irish Horse Gateway aims to increase buyer confidence in the Irish market through the addition of a quality programme for sellers.

In 2012 the Department of Agriculture, Food and the Marine provided €45 million to Horse Racing Ireland and €1.8 million to Sport Horse Ireland. The Department is making every effort to assist enterprises in both the thoroughbred and sport horse sectors to access overseas markets, including China. Together with the Department of Foreign Affairs and Trade, the Department of Agriculture, Food and the Marine is engaged in ongoing contact with the Chinese authorities, which is aimed at concluding an agreement on animal health certification which would underpin the direct export of horses from Ireland to China. Since May 2011, Irish horses being exported to China have had to undergo a 30-day quarantine period in the Netherlands. In the interim, an animal health protocol has been agreed between the Department and the Chinese authorities. The protocol was signed on 15 June last by the Minister, Deputy Coveney and the Vice Minister of the general administration of quality supervision, inspection and quarantine of the People's Republic of China. The protocol covers quarantine and health requirements for horses that are born and raised in Ireland to be exported to China and is the basis for the veterinary animal health certification, the text of which the Department is seeking to conclude with its Chinese counterparts. An agreed animal health certificate will facilitate the direct export of Irish horses to China.

I welcome the response from the Minister and am glad that some progress is being made. However, I would ask the Minister, in the context of his responsibility for Leader funding, to be open to the suggestion that some of this can be done at a local level. A massive opportunity exists and we must examine the feasibility of direct trade with China for the sport horse sector. I ask the Minister to be open to the idea because it could create employment and sustain existing employment.

As has been said already, generally the people involved in this industry keep one or two mares as part of an add-on to their overall income. I thank the Minister for his reply.

The Seanad adjourned at 7.30 p.m. until 10.30 a.m. on Wednesday, 29 May 2013.