Léim ar aghaidh chuig an bpríomhábhar

Seanad Éireann díospóireacht -
Tuesday, 12 May 2015

Vol. 240 No. 1

Commencement Matters

Regeneration Projects Funding

I welcome the Minister of State, Deputy Ann Phelan.

I welcome the Minister of State and thank her for taking this matter. My concern relates to Knocknaheeny and what is now known as the north-west regeneration project in Cork city. I represented that area of the city for 12 years on Cork City Council. When I left the city council in 2007, the project was being planned but progress has since been extremely slow. I am particularly concerned that funding allocated last year has not all been taken up. The plan was changed in that it was initially called the Knocknaheeny regeneration plan but it then became known as the north-west regeneration plan because other areas were included.

I will describe the area for the Minister of State. There are 1,150 local authority houses in it, about one third of which are occupied by lone parents. There is quite a large number of young families in the area which needs to be given priority. I am concerned that because all the funding was not used in 2014, funding may be reduced for 2015. I am asking that adequate funding be provided in 2015 for the regeneration project to progress in a speedy manner. The project needs to be expedited and we need to see far more results than we have seen in the past four to five years.

I am delighted to be able to respond on behalf of the Minister for the Environment, Community and Local Government, Deputy Alan Kelly. The Senator has raised an extremely important issue for Cork city. My Department's regeneration programme targets the country's most disadvantaged communities - those defined by social exclusion, unemployment and anti-social behaviour. My Department supports an ambitious programme of regeneration projects in various locations which seek to address the causes of disadvantage in the estates concerned through an holistic programme of physical, social and economic regeneration. The value placed on the regeneration programme is explicitly recognised in the programme for Government. It is the stated objective of the Department to ensure this important programme will continue to be supported.

As part of this work, my Department has been supporting Cork City Council's implementation strategy for the regeneration of Cork city north west. In the past six years €45 million has been invested in this area and this investment has supported a number of valuable construction projects, including Knocknaheeny Block D, The Glen, phase two, and the purchase of 53 new houses and apartments at Ard Sionnach.

These new units provided replacement social housing stock for units to be demolished as part of the regeneration programme. Other projects that have been advanced under the regeneration programme include public realm works at Boyce's Street and at Dunnycove estate, where green areas have been restored to provide sport and recreational space for local residents. A community garden has also been provided as part of the overall regeneration of the area.

The revised Cork city north-west regeneration master plan was produced in 2011 and now includes a wider area, including Hollyhill, than it originally covered.

In respect of upcoming work, construction of 23 new social houses under phase 1A of the programme commenced in 2014 and has progressed well, with ten units expected to be completed by July 2015 and the remaining 13 units also delivered later this year. Planning approval was sought for phase 1B in late 2014 and it is anticipated that construction will commence later in 2015. In respect of phase 2 of the programme, plans for the design, tenure mix and decanting of social housing units are progressing well.

Cork City Council submitted its 2015 regeneration work programme to my Department last week. It details the estimated expenditure across the range of projects within the overall regeneration programme for the year. My Department is examining that submission. Given the continued support for the regeneration of Cork city north west, this is a matter of examining the proposed projects and associated budgets and ensuring appropriate allocations can be made to advance the work involved. My Department will be responding to the local authority shortly on this submission and I look forward to continued implementation of the programme for the regeneration of this important part of Cork city.

I have two concerns. First, I have no details on the amount of money allocated for 2014 and what was subsequently drawn down. That is the reason I raise this issue. The project is progressing extremely slowly. As I stated, there are 1,150 local authority houses in this area. For 2015, a total of 23 will be completed. I am not saying all 1,150 houses will be affected by the changes but we seem to be making very slow progress.

Second, I am concerned that it is only in the fifth month of the year that we have received the submission for 2015 from the local authority. Can we have an explanation of the reason there was such a delay in submitting it?

I will ask the officials to revert to the Senator on the amount of moneys drawn down as they can give him the detail. In my reply I did not have the answer to the question about the pace of progress, but I will convey the Senator's concerns to the Minister.

Can I ask about the amount allocated in 2014 also?

I will ask the officials to give that information to the Senator.

Pyrite Remediation Programme Implementation

Gabhaim mo bhuíochas leis an gCathaoirleach as ucht an deis a thabhairt dom an t-ábhar tábhachtach seo a ardú ar an Tosú inniu. I am grateful to be allowed raise in the Seanad this critical issue for many people. Since the Government took office it is fair to say it has taken steps to rectify the issue of pyrite. Many people will benefit from the pyrite remediation scheme and some have benefited already in terms of having work done on their houses but similar to many Government announcements there is a good deal of spin on top of the reality, which is a pity. As far as I am aware, the pyrite scheme has so far has accepted 300 applications. We are not even clear whether the pyrite board is funded to do all of the work it has approved, given that thousands of homes suffer from pyrite damage.

We know that there are thousands of people whose homes have pyrite damage, some of whom cannot afford the test because it costs between €1,000 and €2,000 or more. Some do not have sufficient damage to be covered by the scheme. Another category has been tested and we know that there is a significant amount of pyrite in the foundations, but no damage is yet apparent. The damage can take many years to appear. It has happened in north county Dublin that the damage appeared 12 years after the homes were built. There are people in limbo where there is less damage or no damage and those who cannot have their houses tested to be covered by the scheme.

I have met members of the pyrite equality group. They want a comprehensive response from the Government and all parties as we approach an election year on what is proposed. I have welcomed what has happened up to now and highlighted its flaws, but we have to give the people concerned an answer, saying what the overall plan will be for the next ten years.

There is also a difficulty with the exemption from property tax which requires a test that costs thousands of euro. Many people cannot afford the test. The application of the rules, which the Revenue Commissioners apply, is very strict. Very few get the exemption for which the Oireachtas legislated.

We want more funding for this necessary scheme. In the interests of justice, more people should be allowed enter it. There should be an overall plan for the future for houses that have pyrite and that are in estates where there is pyrite and as yet no damage but which will almost inevitably occur. We need to give the people concerned certainty, as they feel they are in limbo.

I thank the Senatorfor raising this very important matter. There was a significant debate in the Dáil on the issue of pyrite. The Pyrite Resolution Act 2013 provides for the making of a pyrite remediation scheme by the Pyrite Resolution Board for certain dwellings affected by pyrite damage. The full conditions for eligibility under the scheme are set down in the scheme which is available on the board’s website at www.pyriteboard.ie. One of the eligibility criteria requires an application to be accompanied by a building condition assessment carried out by a competent person in accordance with I.S. 398-1:2013 reactive pyrite in sub-floor hardcore material - Part 1: testing and categorisation protocol, with a damage condition rating of 2. There are no proposals to amend this eligibility criterion.

In broad terms, the report of the pyrite panel in July 2012 recommended that only dwellings with substantial damage which was confirmed by testing to be pyrite related should be remediated. Pyrite remediation is invasive and expensive. In this regard, the report recommended that properties which had minor damage should be monitored and only remediated if substantial damage developed in due course. In this context, it should be noted that there is no sunset provision in the Act. Nevertheless, while dwellings with damage condition ratings of 1, or 1 with progression, do not qualify under the scheme, some may be considered in accordance with the exceptional circumstance provisions set out in section 17 of the Act. In broad terms, section 17 provides that exceptional circumstances may apply where failure to include a dwelling with a damage rating of 1 in the scheme may result in damage to a dwelling which is being remediated under the scheme or pyrite remediation work is causing or may cause damage to the dwelling with the damage rating of 1.

I understand that in a number of cases the board has signalled that dwellings that have had a damaged condition rating of 1 when their building condition assessments were first completed have now progressed to a damaged condition rating of 2. These dwellings have been included in the pyrite remediation scheme.

I confirm that an allocation of €10 million has been provided in my Department's Vote to fund the operation of the scheme this year. I am satisfied that the board will have the resources required to meet the level of activity anticipated for the year. The post-2015 funding requirement will be considered in the context of the 2016 Estimates later this year and will have regard to developments under the scheme in the next few months, as well as the level of activity anticipated by the board in 2016.

As matters stand, more than 700 applications have been received under the pyrite remediation scheme, the vast majority of which have a damage condition rating of 2. Of the 700 applications, 342 dwellings have been accepted into the scheme, with technical expertise assigned to them and the necessary preparatory work, tendering or remediation either under way or imminent. It is anticipated that approximately 200 homes will be remediated under the scheme in 2015.

Will the Minister of State raise with the Department the concerns that are starting to bubble up regarding the pyrite remediation scheme It is important we hold the Government to account in respect of the commitments it has given in this matter. As I stated, the funding allocated to addressing the pyrite problem is insufficient.

I am pleased to note the Minister of State's comment that the Act does not provide for a sunset clause as some of the householders affected by pyrite were not aware of this. It is possible, however, that the people affected may wish for improvements to the overall plan until the sun sets on this issue many years from now. All of us in politics owe a great deal to the individuals in question who are experiencing severe stress because their houses are falling down around them.

While we welcomed the scheme proposed by the Government, the broader issue of the Statute of Limitations needs to be revisited. Senators Darragh O'Brien, Averil Power and I introduced a Bill on this issue. It is not fair that State resources are being used for the pyrite mediation scheme as it was individual private builders and suppliers rather than the Government of the day who were at fault. In many cases, insurance companies have got away scot-free. I hope the Minister of State will take on board my comments and recognise the concerns surrounding this issue. I hope by raising this issue, I will help to maintain pressure on the Government to have the necessary works finalised.

I acknowledge the Senator's comments. We must all keep a close eye on this matter. I reiterate that the post-2015 funding requirement will be considered in the context of the 2016 Estimates later this year and will have regard to developments in the pyrite remediation scheme.

Disability Services Provision

I welcome the Minister of State at the Department of Social Protection, Deputy Kevin Humphreys.

Cuirim fáilte roimh an Aire Stáit. Will the Minister of State at the Department of Health with special responsibility for disability and mental health services and older people, Deputy Kathleen Lynch, make a statement on when the long-promised mobility allowance scheme will be made available for people with disabilities I propose to outline some of the hardships being suffered by people with disabilities who are socially excluded and hurt as a result of Government inaction on the new scheme. The scheme has been promised since November 2013 - in other words, for two and a half years. How long does it take to devise a new scheme?

I have a copy of a letter dated 13 January 2015 from Mr. Adrian McLaughlin, private secretary to the Minister of State, in which he assured me that the new scheme was in process. Four months later, the scheme has still not been introduced. In his letter, Mr. McLaughlin states work is ongoing on the policy proposals to be brought to the government for the drafting of primary legislation for a new scheme. Where is the legislation?

This issue affects some of the most severely disadvantaged and socially excluded people in the country. I will outline the circumstances of a couple who did not avail of the previous mobility scheme.

In this case the wife is in a motorised wheelchair due to hip and back problems and the husband has severe epilepsy with severe memory effects. Sometimes they have to go to the neurology department in Beaumont Hospital for procedures involving a nerve stimulator for the husband. They do not even have an allowance to get a taxi from the train station to Beaumont Hospital. That is what they want the mobility allowance for. As it happens, when they are in Galway, if they have an emergency they can call an ambulance and get straight to Galway University Hospital or into ICU, but they have no support for the regular appointments. They must get two buses to go to Galway University Hospital or call the Galway Centre for Independent Living, which obviously has to be paid. It is a €10 trip. They say they cannot afford the taxi and the wife cannot sit into an ordinary car because she needs a hoist. They are looking for a basic allowance for essential transport costs to cover essential hospital and medical needs. Where is the dignity in not providing this?

From what has been said by the Minister for Public Expenditure and Reform, Deputy Brendan Howlin, and the Minister for Finance, Deputy Michael Noonan, we know that there is extra money in the Exchequer. Everyone will get extra pay. We are talking about basic essentials in this case. The couple have a carer who comes in occasionally, but sometimes they cannot go out due to the nature of their disabilities. One person cannot go out while the carer is looking after the other. The cost implications are being examined. Disabled people are being further disadvantaged and kept dependent because the Government has not approved the promised mobility allowance. The goal for people who are dependent is to make them independent in so far as they can be. When the weather gets bad the people in question cannot travel by bus because they cannot get out to the gate. It is just too dangerous and too risky and at such times they need the personal attention of someone with an appropriate taxi. The mobility allowance would service that need.

As the Minister of State is aware, the mobility allowance is closed to new applicants. In effect, the treatment of people with disabilities is divisive and unequal because those who were previously awarded the mobility allowance are, thankfully, still getting it. That makes it difficult for disability organisations to advocate for the people who are not in the scheme because they are afraid it could affect those who are benefiting from the scheme. The Government's treatment of people with disabilities amounts to apartheid. When will it treat all disabled people equally? When will the new mobility scheme start? Will the Minister of State, please, provide a date? I am sick and tired of the number of calls I have received from people with disabilities in Galway who feel that I am ignoring them. I have raised this issue on many occasions. It is absolutely appalling that people with disabilities are being excluded from the scheme. Essentially, they are being kept prisoner in their own home and they cannot even get a basic allowance to meet their regular medical and social appointments.

I am responding to this matter today on behalf of my colleague, the Minister of State, Deputy Kathleen Lynch, who sends her apologies.

The motorised transport grant and mobility allowance were established some decades ago on an administrative basis, in good faith and with the intention of contributing towards mobility and transport needs for a group of people with severe physical difficulties. At the time of their establishment, transport infrastructure was very different from the more accessible facilities available today. Conscious of the reports of the Ombudsman on the legal status of both the mobility allowance and the motorised transport grants scheme, in the context of the Equal Status Acts, the Government decided to close both administrative schemes in February 2013. It is important to emphasise that the Government accepts the position taken by the Ombudsman. However, the Ombudsman's recommendations have raised significant issues of a legal, financial and practical nature, particularly as regards extending eligibility to a wider cohort.

The Government came to the conclusion that such an extension of either scheme would create serious financial pressure on the health budget and would be unsustainable. This consideration is therefore at the centre of the Government's efforts to find a solution which is financially affordable and legally sound. Since the schemes were closed, a significant amount of work has been undertaken. A review group on transport supports for people with disabilities was established which involves a range of representatives of people with disabilities and a public consultation process.

Following receipt of the review group's recommendation, the Government established an interdepartmental group to consider further the complex issues involved in developing an appropriate scheme, including how it should be administered. In November 2013 the Government decided that the preparation work required for a new transport support scheme and associated statutory provisions should be progressed by the Minister for Health. Work is ongoing on a policy process to be brought to the Government for the drafting of primary legislation for a new transport scheme. Once policy proposals have been finalised and approved by the Government, the timeframe for the introduction of a new scheme will become clearer. The health (transport support) Bill is included in the Government's legislative programme for 2050. Aware of the needs of people with disabilities who have relied on individual payments, the HSE has continued to make monthly payments to 4,700 people who were in receipt of the mobility allowance at the time the scheme was closed. This has prevented hardship and has alleviated stress, anxiety and uncertainty among a vulnerable group in society. There are undoubtedly legal and financial challenges involved in establishing a new scheme that takes cognisance of the needs and expectations of the aforementioned 4,700 people currently in receipt of payment. The Government has committed that whatever new scheme is developed will be affordable and legally robust and will take account of the findings of the Ombudsman's report. I assure the Senator that the Government will take all this into consideration when making the decision on future arrangements.

Does the Senator have a question?

While I think the Minister of State for his reply, it was no better than the answer I received from the private secretary last January. The Minister of State is really stating that four and a half months later there has been no movement. That is not good enough. The Minister of State is now telling me that the health (transport support) Bill will be brought to the House some time, but actually he did not say when. He stated it was in the Government's legislative programme for 2015 but when? That does not mean it will happen in 2015. I believe the Minister of State's Department and the Government are using the Ombudsman's careful reply as a means of slowing this down. The Minister of State is obviously concerned about the 4,700 people in the scheme.

A question, please.

That is great, but has he concern for those who are not in receipt of payments under any scheme? I seek the exact date and wish to ascertain what concern the Minister of State has for those who are not in any scheme. I am cross about this and fed up with it.

As the Senator is aware, I am taking this matter on behalf of the Minister of State, Deputy Kathleen Lynch, to whom I will bring her points. The Senator is quite correct that the Bill is included in the legislative programme for 2015 and that there is a commitment to the 4,700 people in the scheme, but I certainly will bring her concerns-----

They are getting something. What about those who are not getting anything?

The Minister of State to continue, without interruption.

I will bring the Senator's comments and concerns to the Minister of State with responsibility for the issue.

It is a little late. That was my question.

Health Promotion

I thank the Cathaoirleach and welcome to the Visitors Gallery Ms Siobhán Creaton from the Royal College of Physicians of Ireland and Ms Suzanne Costello from Alcohol Action Ireland. The issue I have raised with the Minister for Education and Skills pertains to the role the drinks industry is trying to develop in the education of children. I will begin by applauding the Government on the public health (alcohol) Bill. As a member of the Joint Committee on Health and Children, I have been very much involved in the consultations and the process. If anything, I would like it to go further, but I certainly will do everything I can to ensure it comes into law. However, as part of these consultations, the first red flag went up for me when I saw, for example, the Alcohol Beverage Federation of Ireland stating how the industry had decided in 2014 to refocus its initiatives in the education space and concentrate activity on drinkaware.ie. It is establishing Drinkaware as an organisation the work of which will be modelled on the influential UK Drinkaware Trust. Unfortunately, if one looks at independent evaluations of Drinkaware in the United Kingdom, one concludes that it is not a model we wish to see in schools here. It has not come out well from an evaluation. Not surprisingly, the drinks industry believes it is excellent, which makes me even more worried about it.

The second flag for me was the Stop Out-of-Control Drinking campaign, rolemodels.ie, which is due to produce its report shortly. I can nearly see what this report will indicate. It will state we need to educate children, because this is the constant mantra of the drinks industry, namely, that education is needed and that, were everyone educated, it would reduce the risk of alcohol-related harm.

All of the evidence shows that education informs our behaviour but that it does not change or influence it. That is why we introduce laws in respect of, for example, speeding. We all know what is good or bad for us, but legislation is often necessary in order to ensure we do what is right. A recent drinkaware.ie advertisement relating to the post of education programme manager refers to the successful applicant working directly with schools. This is despite the fact that a spokesperson for drinkaware.ie indicated that this is not intended to be the case. If that is so, the advertisement to which I refer misrepresents the position, because it refers to working with teachers, unions, principals, the Professional Development Service for Teachers, the Department of Education and Skills and the National Council for Curriculum and Assessment. It is obvious that those responsible for drinkaware.ie want it to become embedded within the education system. I know someone who applied for the position of education programme manager but whose application was unsuccessful. The person in question was informed about the rolemodels.ie campaign, which is going to lead to what I have just outlined. There are no surprises here.

The HSE is not often applauded, but I want to take the opportunity to applaud it most heartily. On 23 April the executive issued a statement to the effect that it is no longer prepared to take any money from the drinks industry and that it will not be associated with said industry, particularly in the context of public health advice or any form of partnership. The statement in question was quite unequivocal in terms of public health advocacy. It reflects what the World Health Organization has stated, namely, that public health policies concerning alcohol need to be formulated by public health interests without interference from commercial interests. I am seeking an assurance from the Minister of State that the drinks industry will play no role in schools. The HSE has worked on the SPHE model with schools. I am concerned by the fact that the National Parents' Council Primary has put its name to the rolemodels.ie campaign, and I really hope it will withdraw its support. The National Parents' Council Post-Primary has distanced itself from the campaign and indicated that it would question the motive behind any campaign funded by the drinks industry and aimed at educating children.

I tabled this matter because I believed the time was right to do so. What I have stated reflects Government policy. We cannot just leave matters stand and wait to discover what people think. The majority do not know that drinkaware.ie equals the drinks industry. The idea of representatives from the tobacco industry going into schools and telling children about anti-cessation measures relating to smoking is abhorrent. We should also abhor the fact that those in the drinks industry even think it is acceptable for their representatives to go into our schools. It will be reprehensible if the Department of Education and Skills states it is sorry but that there is nothing it can do about the matter. It is not acceptable for those in the drinks industry, regardless of whatever costume they may choose to wear, to have any hand, act or part in the education of the children of Ireland.

I am taking this matter on behalf of my colleague, the Minister for Education and Skills, Deputy Jan O'Sullivan, who sends her apologies.

The Department of Education and Skills is working very closely with the Department of Health on the overall Healthy Ireland agenda. This encompasses co-operation in a range of areas including physical activity, healthy eating and student well-being, as well as substance misuse. At national level, the Department of Education and Skills is represented on key Government structures that provide a co-ordinated approach to addressing substance misuse. These include the national co-ordinating committee for drug and alcohol task forces. The Minister does not believe it appropriate for her to write to schools to prohibit particular materials or resources that may be developed by certain organisations, including the drinks industry. This could form a dangerous precedent for the future. However, officials at the Department of Education and Skills will continue to co-operate with the HSE and the Department of Health to ensure a co-ordinated and partnership approach to alcohol misuse and the range of other areas that are encompassed by the Healthy Ireland agenda. One recent example of such co-operation is the development of healthy lifestyle guidance that is currently being finalised. This guidance is intended to encourage schools to promote physical activity and healthy eating. It is also designed to encourage their participation in the health-promoting schools initiative, which is supported by the Department of Health and the HSE.

It is important to recognise that while education has a role to play in addressing the problem of alcohol misuse, behavioural change will not happen without the support and co-operation of parents, industry and society as a whole. Parents have a responsibility to help children and young people to adopt sensible and responsible attitudes and behaviours regarding alcohol and drug abuse. The education sector is supporting national policy on substance misuse. In particular, schools are equipping students with the key skills and knowledge to enable them to make informed choices when faced with a range of difficult issues.

This includes providing students with age appropriate information on the issue of alcohol abuse through aspects of the curriculum such as the social, personal and health education, SPHE, programme. This programme is mandatory in all primary schools. It will also form part of the new mandatory Wellbeing component of junior cycle, with physical education and civic, social and political education, CSPE. Schools are also encouraged to deliver the SPHE programme in senior cycle. The substance use module of the SPHE curriculum focuses on the issues relating to the use and misuse of a range of substances. It actively seeks to promote healthy and responsible choices by students in a range of areas, including alcohol.

The latest data taken from Department of Education and Skills' Lifeskills survey 2012 indicate that 90% of primary and 100% of post-primary schools provide their students with information on alcohol abuse through SPHE and other means. These results were almost identical to the position reported by schools through the 2009 Lifeskills survey. The 2015 Lifeskills survey is being completed by schools and the Minister hopes to publish the results before the end of the year. This will allow for the measurement of schools' progress in this area since 2012.

Schools have access to a number of programmes and resources that support the delivery of SPHE and increase students' awareness of well-being, including drug and alcohol issues. Examples include the Walk Tall programme for primary pupils and a post-primary resource available from the Professional Development Service for Teachers, called On My Own Two Feet. It is a matter for schools and teachers in the first instance to determine what resources and supports they will use to support their implementation of the curriculum. Teachers are equipped to make such decisions as a result of their initial teacher education and the ongoing support provided by the Professional Development Service for Teachers. I am confident that teachers are best placed to identify the most suitable resources to assist them in delivering the SPHE curriculum in their classrooms.

I listened carefully to the Senator's contribution. She has raised red flags in respect of alcohol awareness and the industry. She has been strong and logical about it. She also referred to education, behaviour and role models and expressed concern about the involvement of the drinks industry in both primary and post-primary schools. She made some good points and I will ensure they are highlighted to the Minister. I will ask her to consider the important issues the Senator has raised.

I thank the Minister of State and appreciate that he was not in a position to answer my questions but perhaps he might also relay these questions to the Minister. The drinkaware.ie job advertisement for education programme manager states: "To manage relationships with relevant stakeholders, including the Department of Education, the National Council for Curriculum and Assessment and the Professional Development Service for Teachers". These are all within the Minister's remit. I cannot see any reason for the drinks industry to have a relationship with the Department or the NCCA. I seek the Minister's assurance that they will not have a relationship with the industry.

I appreciate the Minister cannot write to schools to say they cannot do this, but, at the very least, will she write to them to advise them that drinkaware.ie equals the drinks industry? It is nothing else. drinkaware.ie is the costume the industry chooses to wear today. It will come up with something else when drinkaware.ie is exposed to people. Schools need to be warned and a warning bell is needed in this regard.

I thank the Senator. I will raise these points. I have a meeting with the Minister later this afternoon at which I will ask her to look at the Senator's contribution and reply to her directly.

I thank the Minister of State.

Sitting suspended at 3.15 p.m. and resumed at 3.30 p.m.