Thursday, 15 February 2018

Ceisteanna (7, 18, 22, 83)

Pat Deering

Ceist:

7. Deputy Pat Deering asked the Minister for Transport, Tourism and Sport the status of the re-evaluation process of the applications for sport capital funding that were unsuccessful in 2017; and the timeframes involved. [7506/18]

Amharc ar fhreagra

Martin Heydon

Ceist:

18. Deputy Martin Heydon asked the Minister for Transport, Tourism and Sport his position regarding appeals and decisions with respect to the 2017 sports capital programme; and if he will make a statement on the matter. [7529/18]

Amharc ar fhreagra

Maria Bailey

Ceist:

22. Deputy Maria Bailey asked the Minister for Transport, Tourism and Sport when the results on appeals with respect to the 2017 sports capital programme will issue. [7724/18]

Amharc ar fhreagra

Tom Neville

Ceist:

83. Deputy Tom Neville asked the Minister for Transport, Tourism and Sport the position regarding appeals and decisions with respect to the 2017 sports capital programme. [7538/18]

Amharc ar fhreagra

Freagraí ó Béal (16 píosaí cainte) (Ceist ar Transport)

At the outset, I apologise for my interruption earlier. It is no slight on the Acting Chairman.

That is okay. The Deputy is usually very good.

I know, but I was very frustrated. I am sorry about that.

I thank the Minister for the very encouraging words. Extra funding was put into the sports capital programme last year which was very welcome. Unfortunately, several groups and clubs around the country have been unsuccessful for one reason or another. I thank the Minister for introducing a system this year whereby there is an appeal process. Will the Minister say what stage this process is at and will there be extra funding for 2018?

I propose to Questions Nos. 7, 18, 22 and 83 together.

I commend Deputies Deering, Neville, and Heydon for their interest in the sports capital programme, SPC, not only regarding the appeals process but throughout the process. I have had constant engagement with them. They are clearly very interested in the programme. I am glad to say we have an appeals process for the first time. The Minister, Deputy Ross, and I want it to be as flexible and accommodating as possible for those whose applications were found to be invalid following the allocation of the programme's funding.

In November and December last, we were very glad to be able to announce €60 million in funding to a record 1,800 clubs and organisations nationwide. A record number of applications was also received at 2,320. Unfortunately, around 20% of applications were invalid in 2017. However, that was substantially less than the rate of invalid applications in 2014 and 2015, which was around one third, and in 2012 when it was 48%. This was achieved following various attempts to reduce the rate of invalidation, including a streamlining of the online application process to make it simpler for applicants, and several workshops were held throughout the country prior to the scheme opening to advise applicants on the process and give them the optimum opportunity to make a valid application. We also tried to improve the validation process and the confirmation process for recipients.

Unfortunately, 20% of applications were still invalid. For the first time, we have opened an appeals process, notwithstanding there being the lowest rate of invalidation since the sports capital programme began in 1998. We have opened an appeals process to applicants who feel they were wrongly invalidated by the Department. By the closing date, 20 December 2017, we had received 148 appeals from the local programme. The deadline for the regional programme was 19 January 2018 and we are currently assessing those appeals. We hope we can announce the outcomes of those appeals in the next couple of weeks. The officials in the Department in Killarney and those here in the Department of Transport, Tourism and Sport have been working hard on this and are doing their best to bring the results as quickly as possible to those who have made appeals.

The Minister and I wish to be as flexible and accommodating as possible to applicants to the sports capital programme whose applications have been found to be invalid. We know that the vast majority of applicants are volunteers in their local communities who are trying to do the best they can for them in providing vital facilities for participation in sport by people of all ages, backgrounds, genders and ability levels. We very much value their work and are trying to assist them and serve them as much as we can, which is why we have introduced this appeals system. The reality is that it is unlikely that we can give everyone a successful outcome, but we are continually monitoring the situation to see how we can best address the issue.

We are also looking to the future. We hope to open up a new scheme in the not-too-distant future too in order to assist those who were unsuccessful here.

To clarify, in the regional application process, the top two thirds of all valid applicants received funding but for the local scheme, every valid applicant received funding, which was also a first. It is something the Minister, Deputy Ross, and myself were very keen to achieve. It was a very positive outcome. We had €26 million for the local scheme.

We were able to increase that to €60 million in the budget and that enabled to us to fund every valid application. That was a good day's work. The impact of the sports capital programme is felt in every community. Since 1998, €967 million has been allocated under the programme along with €4 million under the regional programme, giving a total of €971 million for clubs and organisations. That has had a profound impact on the State's sporting infrastructure and the footprint is there for all to see. When I visit small rural communities, disadvantaged urban communities or large and small towns, I see that the sporting infrastructure has improved no end over the past 20 years and we want to build on that into the future because, apart from the immediate, direct impact this infrastructure has on the provision of sports in communities, it also has a huge role to play in the long-term health of the nation. We want to build on and advance that.

I thank the Minister of State for his worthwhile reply. I am a former chairman of Carlow GAA county board and the importance of the SCP cannot be underestimated. My county has received more than €2.5 million in grants since the programme was reintroduced a few years ago following its abandonment by Fianna Fáil. Was there a consistent reason for clubs being declared ineligible for funding in 2017? What criteria will be used in the re-evaluation process? The third question is the most important and I put it to both Ministers. Has a budget been set aside to fund those who will be successful on appeal?

I thank the Minister of State for his response. I acknowledge the role of both Ministers in what has been a successful round of the SCP. We are focused on the small number of clubs that were unsuccessful as opposed to the large number that were successful. However, all that information came out on the same day. We work closely with these clubs and organisations and we are aware of their hopes and ambitions. Sometimes a stroke of pen or an issue with title deeds invalidates an application and it is welcome that an appeals mechanism is being put in place, which was never available previously. It is galling for the clubs whose application has been rejected to find out on the same day as all their neighbouring clubs will get a large allocation. That puts huge pressure on local politicians and, in particular, on the volunteers in the clubs who have taken the time and effort to fill out the forms and make the application. The appeals mechanism is important and I would like detail on the criteria on which the appeals will be judged.

I echo the sentiments of my colleagues. As a soccer player and someone who played GAA, I can see that something tangible has been given to rural Ireland. The allocations do not just go to clubs in small towns and villages. Clubs in small rural parishes benefit from allocations. Small rural clubs in the area I come from are struggling to survive but they have received funding. They do not have a town or village base to draw from. The effect of the SCP is tangible and can be seen in rural Ireland. The Government is giving back as the economy generates funding.

I welcome the appeals process. It is great that feedback will be given to the applicants to show them where they may have gone wrong. What will the assessment criteria be?

I thank the Deputy for revealing his GAA past.

I am still playing soccer.

I understand the Deputy is quite the legend in the local soccer scene in Limerick. In reply to Deputy Deering's queries, the key issue regarding invalidations is title. Generally, the largest number of invalidations result from the title documents not being in order. They have to be to protect public moneys. That is why we require such stringent adherence to the title requirements. Supporting documentation such as bank statements needs to be in date and the names need to correspond with those on the application.

The appeals process will examine whether the Department was at fault in the invalidation of applications and whether there was an overinterpretation of our rules. They will be the primary reasons for adjudicating the outcomes of the appeals.

With regard to Deputy Neville's comments on the rural aspect of the SCP, the programme reaches into every community in the country, regardless of where it is, and it is one of the most pro-rural programmes administered by the State. I acknowledge the role the Minister played in the budget negotiations because, without the additional €30 million for the local programme, a cut-off point would have been necessary and we would have been unable to give funding to every valid applicant. I reiterate that this is the first time ever that every valid applicant under the SCP local scheme has received funding. That has been allocated to communities the length and breadth of the country. The programme is an important source of funding for sports organisations.

I thank the Minister of State for outlining the communication process, particularly for small rural organisations, because there was frustration when an application was invalidated in the past that there was no feedback which would allow applicants to know what way to go the next time. Every time people apply, they are educating themselves about the process. Feedback is imperative and we need to continue to have more synergy and more integrated communication between the Department and the organisations that are applying. As the Minister of State said, the people making the applications are volunteers. They do this while running their own lives, organising underage matches on a Saturday morning, raising funds, running table quizzes and so on. It is difficult and it is always the same three or four people involved in running the organisation. I welcome the appeals process.

I worked closely with a couple of clubs that lost out. In one case, it related to the title deeds. The solicitor advising the club advised that the trustees should be named in the title instead of the club. That is arbitrary. Everything else was in order. In another case, a date was left off one of the quotes for a tender. I wonder whether that is a proper ground to invalidate an application. The appeals process is, therefore, important to give clubs and the Department an opportunity to review whether there should be some flexibility. Although it is not the case anymore, during previous rounds of the programme, there was a sense that these reasons were used as a system to weed out clubs. I welcome the Minister of State's comment that it is hoped to have a future round. Will he introduce an early bird system in order that where clubs are missing something simple but vital to the application, it is flagged with them early in the process and they have the opportunity to rectify that within a month or be informed that they are out? The expectation that is generated when the process goes on for a year with clubs thinking they are included in the programme when they are not is damaging.

I thank the Minister for State for his reply. It is interesting that the two main issues relate to title and banking, but it is encouraging that there will be flexibility on them. I was dealing with an application where a technical point relating to a bank statement ruled the club out under the programme. Will the Minister of State introduce a system to educate unsuccessful clubs on how to go about this process successfully, particularly where it relates to banking or title issues? Has funding been put in place for successful appeals? If so, how much?

What is the timeframe for the appeals process? When will clubs know whether they are successful? Is a budget in place? Kinnegad GAA club applied last year. It previously received a grant, which meant its title deed was in order because the Department has a registered interest in the club. However, the application was invalidated, yet the Department's interest is clearly stipulated on the title.

We are confident that we will be able to fund the successful applicants in the appeals process from within our existing budget. I would like to reduce the number of invalid applications by ensuring we avoid the submission of as many such applications as possible. This can be done by giving people an opportunity to submit further information if their applications are found to be invalid when they are first checked. It would be fair and right to give people a chance to rectify what needs to be rectified. In many cases, one page can be the difference between invalidation and validation. The current appeals process examines whether the Department was at fault by reference to the published terms, conditions and criteria. It does not give applicants an opportunity to provide further information to validate their applications. We hope to provide the outcomes of appeals within two weeks.

I am embarking on a nationwide tour of constituencies to meet front-line volunteers in sports clubs and organisations who have previously submitted applications under the sports capital programme or intend to submit applications in the future. I want to hear their views on the programme and their feedback on what we are doing right, what we are doing wrong and what we need to build on and improve. So far, the tour has proved to be an invaluable exercise. It is an excellent way to meet volunteers and hear from them exactly what we need to be doing. I am glad to say I will be in Limerick, Carlow and Kildare the week after next. I was in Longford-Westmeath on Tuesday night and Galway the previous week. So far, the information evenings have been very well attended. We expect to hold workshops well in advance of the application date for any future programme.

The avenue that will allow further information to be provided will reduce the number of invalid applications by the maximum amount possible. There will always be some invalid applications that simply do not fit the criteria of the scheme. In cases in which not enough information or incorrect information has been provided, people should be given a second chance. That is what we intend to do in the future.

I thank the Minister of State and the Deputies for their co-operation in dealing with this group of questions.