Estimates for Public Services, 2002.

Vote 44 - Flood Relief (Supplementary).

The purpose of today's meeting is to consider the supplementary Estimate falling within the remit of the Office of Public Works, Vote 44 - flood relief. There will be an opening statement by the Minister of State, after which Opposition spokespersons will have an opportunity to respond.

I thank the select committee for agreeing to meet this morning to consider the supplementary Estimate, Vote 44 - flood relief - for 2002. The main element of the Vote is the provision of humanitarian aid for the victims of the severe flooding which occurred throughout the country over 1 and 2 February 2002. Deputies will recall that the Government acted quickly to deal with this situation and decided on 5 February to put in place a scheme of humanitarian assistance to be administered by the Irish Red Cross Society. The last date for receipt of applications by the Red Cross was 1 March 2002.

The initial expectation was that a sum of €5 million would be sufficient to cover the cost of the scheme. As the Government was anxious to ensure the Red Cross could begin making payments as quickly as possible after the deadline of 1 March, I sought and received approval for an amount of €5 million. This allowed the initial, most urgent, payments to be made at the beginning of this month. Since then, however, the Red Cross has completed its detailed assessment of and approved 700 applications countrywide. The society has advised the Office of Public Works that the total funding required for the scheme is €8.5 million, an increase of €3.5 million.

All applications received under the humanitarian aid scheme are dealt with on a strictly confidential basis in accordance with the Red Cross fundamental principle of impartiality and its experience in disaster relief, both nationally and internationally. Each claim is processed and assessed individually. Approximately 93% of applications were from households and 7% from small businesses; 81% of households were in the Dublin area and 19% in the rest of the country. It is important to remind Deputies that the scheme provides for relief of hardship, not compensation for losses.

The Red Cross has to date paid approximately €5 million in assistance to those worst affected by the flooding and I am anxious to ensure remaining payments are made at the earliest possible date. I want to see all cases of extreme hardship cleared up without undue delay. I expect all payments to have been made within the next two weeks or so. I am glad the Government has once again been able to respond quickly and sympathetically to assist the unfortunate victims of the flooding and hope the humanitarian assistance provided will help to restore their lives to normality. When the Red Cross submits its report, I intend to place a copy in the Oireachtas Library.

The supplementary Estimate of €3.5 million will bring the total requirement for Vote 44 in 2002 to €8.564 million. I take the opportunity to express my personal appreciation to Deputy David Andrews and the staff of the Red Cross, to thank them on the Government's behalf and commend them for their professionalism and speed in dealing with a difficult situation. I also thank the Taoiseach and the Minister for Finance for their support in the initiation and implementation of the scheme.

The Government is committed to supporting and improving the programme of flood relief schemes being implemented by the Office of Public Works. In this regard, I can announce that a number of additional engineering posts have been approved for the Office of Public Works by my colleague, the Minister for Finance. I thank him for this support. I commend the supplementary Estimate to the committee.

With regard to the areas which were flooded, has the Office of Public Works taken action to prevent a recurrence or will there be a recurrence of flooding in these areas? A total of 7% of the applications for Red Cross support came from small businesses. Did they not have insurance? With regard to the other 93% of applications, did any of these households have insurance or was there a problem with the insurance companies not paying?

All personal details remain confidential between the Irish Red Cross Society and the individual clients. There are cases where individuals had some level of insurance, but it was not sufficient to meet the absolute disaster that had occurred to them. I did not automatically rule out people if they had some level of insurance. The Red Cross examined each case and if it felt the level of insurance cover was not sufficient to meet the severe hardship involved, it topped it up to ensure we could restore normality to people's lives. That was the right approach. To my knowledge, a huge proportion of the 91% did not have insurance, although some people did. However, it was not sufficient. We were anxious to assist the people in terrible distress.

Could this problem be repeated? I asked the Minister of State about alleviating future flooding problems. Have any steps been taken in that regard?

My office is always at the disposal of the local authorities to advise them in any way we can. A number of local authorities have contacted us and discussions have taken place between my officials, including a senior engineer who is here with me, Tony Smith, and the project head, Jim Blighe. There is not an instant solution in many cases. We are looking at the overall impact and at whether schemes can be implemented. That may involve long-term planning. The Deputy may be aware that a number of schemes have either been completed or are in progress around the country. A number of schemes have already gone to public exhibition and we are waiting for confirmation of those. Some schemes are at the drawing stage and more will come on stream, not only as a result of the recent flooding, but the flooding that took place 18 months or two years ago. We will provide all the necessary assistance and implement substantial schemes.

Since 1994 the value of schemes which have been implemented or those currently under way is €240 million. That is an incredible commitment by the Government and we expect it to roll out. Those schemes are of economic value in the areas where they have been implemented. Independent reports confirm that the value of the drainage schemes managed by the Office of Public Works around the country is significant. It is also interesting to note that where drainage schemes have been completed, we have severely limited or eradicated the effects of flooding. We have been seeking to employ more senior people in the Department because we have a volume of work in this area. The Department of Finance accepted the facts and today it approved a number of additional engineering posts to help us. That is a clear demonstration of the continuing roll out of these schemes.

Many of the problems could be alleviated or solved if local authorities exercised their functions in terms of maintaining drains, etc. That is a vital part of flood prevention. It is not good enough that such works are not carried out. We can all recall when gullies along country roads were clear and flood waters had a way out. It is not all about money but about good practice and good works. The local authorities have many powers under various Acts to carry out such works. Local authorities must exercise those powers and operate a constant maintenance programme within their areas as that would help enormously.

On behalf of my party, I support the increased allocation of €3.5 million. I hope that will deal with most of the outstanding legitimate applications with the Department and the Red Cross. I echo the comments made by the Minister of State. I know from practical experience of recent flooding that it could jeopardise the development work on the N1 motorway. A farmer will not allow access to the local authority, which is prepared to carry out drainage work. We must send the message that we will bring people to court if that is required. The people who used to walk along the road with spades and shovels did invaluable work. They saved the Department and the local authorities hundreds of thousands of pounds. We think we are making progress now by taking these people off the roads. Perhaps we should reconsider that. I welcome the increased allocation and I hope it will solve the problems.

We have been in written contact with the local authorities and the NRA in the past 18 months. We have made the point that they have obligations in designing schemes which must take account of the potential for flooding where new works are carried out. They are obliged to get in contact with the Office of Public Works which will advise them on the impact certain schemes may have and on how to avoid and overcome potential flooding in the future. That is a key element. It will take some years to complete the flood risk mapping of the entire country. The first stage of that is under way where we are trying to establish the historical data. We want to put together historical information for every local authority so that they will be aware of the dangers or otherwise when granting planning permission. That will be followed by projections and assessments of what may occur in the future. My office and my officials are available to ensure information is in the system.

The Minister of State referred to flooding. There is substantial flooding in the Cashen area of north Kerry. That matter was communicated to the Minister's office some time ago and an assessment was carried out 18 months ago.

I do not have the details of individual cases with me, but the director of engineering services has confirmed to me that the first stage of that has taken place. The pumping station will be installed. We will continue to build up the scheme. However, we must deal with environmental matters which are not solely within my remit. We cannot do works without clearing all the elements. The Cashen scheme is in progress.

The Minister of State mentioned a pumping station.

It will be done in the summer.

I thank the Minister of State.

I thank the Minister of State and his officials for attending today's meeting.