Dáil debates

Thursday, 14 April 2011

4:00 pm

Photo of Seán Ó FearghaílSeán Ó Fearghaíl (Kildare South, Fianna Fail)
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Question 9: To ask the Minister for Community; Equality and Gaeltacht Affairs if she will confirm that the Leader programme will continue and that local development companies will continue to play a key role in the development of the Leader programme. [7984/11]

Photo of Seán Ó FearghaílSeán Ó Fearghaíl (Kildare South, Fianna Fail)
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Question 15: To ask the Minister for Community; Equality and Gaeltacht Affairs the total envisaged expenditure on the Leader programme in 2011; and if all groups to receive funding have been identified and notified. [7985/11]

Photo of Denis NaughtenDenis Naughten (Roscommon-South Leitrim, Fine Gael)
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Question 21: To ask the Minister for Community; Equality and Gaeltacht Affairs the steps he will take to address problems with Leader funds being allocated to food business; and if she will make a statement on the matter. [7844/11]

Photo of Frances FitzgeraldFrances Fitzgerald (Minister, Department of Children; Dublin Mid West, Fine Gael)
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I propose to take Questions Nos. 9, 15 and 21 together.

Axes 3 and 4, Leader, of the Rural Development Programme 2007-13 envisage funding of €427 million being made available for allocation to qualified projects up to the end of 2013, with expenditure under the programme potentially continuing for a further two years up to the end of 2015. In the current programming round, 36 local action groups are contracted, on my Department’s behalf, to deliver the programme throughout the country and, as Deputies are aware, those groups are the principal decision-makers on the allocation of project funding. Such decisions are made in the context of the local development strategy of the individual groups and in line with departmental operating rules and EU regulations. The overall nature of the bottom-up approach here ensures that such groups are an integral part of the framework for the implementation of Leader-type activities under the programme. At this time there are no plans to change the implementation framework in the current programming round.

As Deputies are aware, the main objectives of the programme are to improve the quality of life in rural areas and facilitate diversification of the rural economy. The individual measures and indicative allocations are as follows. The amount provided for diversification into non-agricultural activities for farm familiesis €16.66 million. A total of €48.26 million has been allocated as support for business creation and development. A fund of €45.4 million has been allocated to encourage tourism activities. Basic services for the economy and rural population is to get €49.61 million. Village renewal and development has been allocated €54.2 million. The conservation and upgrading of the rural heritage has an allocation of €51.7 million. Training and information on adapted and new skills has received €29.45 million. A total of €10.7 million has been allocated to the implementation of co-operation projects

The programme currently has registered project activity of approximately €102 million, which includes €31 million in firm contractual commitments. A significant portion of these are expected to mature during 2011. Expenditure to date amounts to more than €67 million, which includes funding for a diverse range of projects from support for micro-enterprise in rural areas to the building and maintenance of community infrastructure and the provision of training in a variety of disciplines for rural dwellers. The programme has been allocated €62 million in total for 2011 and, notwithstanding current challenging economic circumstances, project activity is accelerating. I am confident that full spend will be achieved in 2011.

I am pleased with the progress to date under the programme, which continues to facilitate access to significant financial resources for rural communities. This has resulted in the proliferation of innovative and sustainable development projects all over the country, which are providing invaluable support to rural communities in these difficult times.

On the continued provision of funding to the food business, the European Commission recently clarified that projects that involve processing of agrifood products listed on Annex 1 to the Treaty of Rome may only be eligible for support under Axis 1 of the rural development programme, which facilitates funding to improve the competitiveness of the agricultural sector. A significant part of enterprise activity in rural areas focuses on food and food-related businesses and the continued provision of support for these businesses is critical as we look to ways to generate employment in rural areas. My Department is aware of the seriousness of the issue and is proactively working with the European Commission and the Department of Agriculture, Fisheries and Food with a view to ensuring that the matter is resolved in the shortest possible timeframe, thereby allowing for continued support and development of the agrifood sector through the rural development programme.

Photo of Éamon Ó CuívÉamon Ó Cuív (Galway West, Fianna Fail)
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I thank the Minister for her comprehensive reply. Would it be possible to get a breakdown of the spend in each company in the Leader programme between administration and activities such as grants sanctioned to third parties and the actual spend to date? Perhaps the Minister could organise for it to be sent to us. I am concerned that we have still approved only €102 million out of €425 million. No doubt the Minister will expedite that issue.

Is it intended to transfer ministerial responsibility for the Leader partnership companies, including the Leader programme to the Department of the Environment, Heritage and Local Government? Does that presage that from 2014 on the Leader programme will be the responsibility of local authorities rather than the current independent companies? Will the Minister clarify the issue? Is that the two-step plan involved? Many people would consider that to be the wrong direction to take.

On the food issue, given that consultation with the European Union could go on for a long time and that it could be reluctant to change an existing ruling, surely the easy answer to the question is to get the Department of Agriculture, Fisheries and Food to put money aside now under Axis 1 for food companies? Has the Minister discussed the matter with her colleague, the Minister for Agriculture, Fisheries and Food, Deputy Coveney, and has he given an affirmative answer that food will be funded under Axis 1 immediately? That would get around the possibility of protracted negotiations with the European Union that might go on for ever and reach a negative conclusion at the end of the process. People who can create jobs are waiting for the money now not in the future.

Photo of Frances FitzgeraldFrances Fitzgerald (Minister, Department of Children; Dublin Mid West, Fine Gael)
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I realise the seriousness of the issue and its importance, as well as the importance of the enterprises and the fact that funding would be available. It is an urgent issue that requires action. I have discussed the matter with the Minister for the Environment, Heritage and Local Government who will deal with it shortly. It is not envisaged at this stage that the funding to the Department of Agriculture, Fisheries and Food will change as the Deputy describes. We would endeavour to resolve the issue with the Commission before that step would be taken. I realise, however, that the issue is urgent and we certainly do not want to delay the vital work of various food enterprises throughout the country.

I do not have a breakdown available today on funding. I will determine whether it is available. The Deputy’s heart is very close to these projects and he may well have the answer already.

Photo of Éamon Ó CuívÉamon Ó Cuív (Galway West, Fianna Fail)
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I used to give the other side of the House all the answers.

Photo of Frances FitzgeraldFrances Fitzgerald (Minister, Department of Children; Dublin Mid West, Fine Gael)
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I will certainly check whether the breakdown is available.

Photo of Éamon Ó CuívÉamon Ó Cuív (Galway West, Fianna Fail)
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It is available because I used to give it.

Photo of Frances FitzgeraldFrances Fitzgerald (Minister, Department of Children; Dublin Mid West, Fine Gael)
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All right. The Deputy knows the answer. I will get the information and find out the up-to-date position. The point the Deputy makes on the breakdown of costs between administration and the actual projects is important.

With regard to the transfer of functions, it is intended that the functions would be transferred to the Department of the Environment, Heritage and Local Government. A further transfer, as described by the Deputy, is not envisaged.

Photo of Seán BarrettSeán Barrett (Ceann Comhairle; Dún Laoghaire, Ceann Comhairle)
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If Deputies have mobile phones, they should switch them off totally. I received a note from the RTE broadcasting unit stating this morning’s proceedings on the Order of Business were totally wiped out because of interference from mobile phones, particularly text messages coming through. Members should kindly switch off their phones entirely when they enter the Chamber. I will be writing to each Deputy in this regard.

Photo of Denis NaughtenDenis Naughten (Roscommon-South Leitrim, Fine Gael)
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I hope that comment was not directed at me in particular.

Photo of Seán BarrettSeán Barrett (Ceann Comhairle; Dún Laoghaire, Ceann Comhairle)
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No.

Photo of Denis NaughtenDenis Naughten (Roscommon-South Leitrim, Fine Gael)
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When the Minister’s officials are writing to Deputy Ó Cuív, might they also sent a copy of the figures to me?

On Question No. 21, one of the core objectives of Food Harvest 2020 and the new Government is to develop the food industry. There is great potential for growth among small indigenous food companies. Not only have they the potential to create jobs, they also have the potential to support economic stability in rural areas. This comes under Axis 3. Is it not the case that there is plenty of funding available under Axis 3 and that, if we can avail of those funds to support indigenous food companies, we should do so? Does the Minister not agree that we need to prioritise food production businesses, obtain clarification quickly from the Commission in this regard, access funding under Axis 3 or Axis 1 and have it released to small businesses as soon as possible?

At present, there are very good, novel food ideas that people want to get off the ground. Those responsible have put their proposals to Leader, which is prepared to get the businesses off the ground. However, because of the bureaucracy that exists, Leader cannot approve the funding. It is crucial that a business that wants to create jobs be supported and encouraged and not tied up with bureaucracy.

Photo of Éamon Ó CuívÉamon Ó Cuív (Galway West, Fianna Fail)
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Hear, hear.

Photo of Frances FitzgeraldFrances Fitzgerald (Minister, Department of Children; Dublin Mid West, Fine Gael)
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I thank Deputy Naughten, who has taken a particular interest in this issue and food enterprises. I agree with him. I saw a quotation recently stating if one asks any of the Leader partnership companies to name their flagship projects, many of them will identify food projects as among their big successes. This is an important issue and it is very unfortunate that it has become tied up in a bureaucratic wrangle with serious consequences for the businesses in question. This needs to be addressed immediately so the initiative and job creation potential of the companies will not be interrupted or stopped. I reassure the House that this issue is a priority. I have spoken to the Minister for the Environment, Heritage and Local Government in respect thereof. The Department is pursuing discussions with the Commission in regard to it and I hope there will be an outcome in the short term.

Photo of Pearse DohertyPearse Doherty (Donegal South West, Sinn Fein)
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Táimid ag rith amach as am so cuirfidh mé an cheist seo go sciobtha. Baineann sé leis an Ghaeltacht, leis an chlár Leader. agus le ceann de na heagraíochtaí atá ag plé leis sin, Meitheal Forbartha na Gaeltachta. An bhfuil sé ar intinn ag an Aire, mar go bhfuil aighneas ag dul ar aghaidh i Meitheal Forbartha na Gaeltachta, fiosrúchán a dhéanamh faoin eagraíocht agus faoin mhéid a thit amach le cúpla mí anuas ó thaobh an aighnis sin.

Photo of Frances FitzgeraldFrances Fitzgerald (Minister, Department of Children; Dublin Mid West, Fine Gael)
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Which organisation did the Deputy mention?

Photo of Pearse DohertyPearse Doherty (Donegal South West, Sinn Fein)
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My question pertains to the Leader programme and Meitheal Forbartha na Gaeltachta. There have been ongoing difficulties with Meitheal Forbartha na Gaeltachta, particularly in regard to the ongoing strike. Does the Minister intend to carry out an investigation into what occurred in that company?

Photo of Éamon Ó CuívÉamon Ó Cuív (Galway West, Fianna Fail)
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I set up an inquiry into the company and tabled a parliamentary question recently asking whether it was concluded. The answer stated it was ongoing. Is it possible to find out when it is intended to bring the inquiry to a conclusion?

Photo of Seán BarrettSeán Barrett (Ceann Comhairle; Dún Laoghaire, Ceann Comhairle)
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It is a separate question.

Photo of Éamon Ó CuívÉamon Ó Cuív (Galway West, Fianna Fail)
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It is the same question. The matter is very urgent.

Photo of Pearse DohertyPearse Doherty (Donegal South West, Sinn Fein)
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It concerns the Leader programme.

Photo of Seán BarrettSeán Barrett (Ceann Comhairle; Dún Laoghaire, Ceann Comhairle)
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It is for the Minister to answer.

Photo of Éamon Ó CuívÉamon Ó Cuív (Galway West, Fianna Fail)
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It is the same question.

Photo of Frances FitzgeraldFrances Fitzgerald (Minister, Department of Children; Dublin Mid West, Fine Gael)
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I do not have details on that investigation but when I have I will certainly convey them to the Deputies.

Photo of Denis NaughtenDenis Naughten (Roscommon-South Leitrim, Fine Gael)
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Will the Minister indicate the timescale for progressing the food issue? She may not have it to hand. Will it be weeks or a couple of months before there is clarification? The issue is important and jobs are at stake. It will have a huge impact in rural communities.

Photo of Éamon Ó CuívÉamon Ó Cuív (Galway West, Fianna Fail)
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I support the Deputy, who is dead right. We need a deadline. There is more than bipartisan support in regard to this matter. We need a deadline as to when, if it is not possible to change the Union’s mind, we can proceed under Axis 1. We will not hear any dispute among rural Deputies in the House if that is the approach taken. The Minister will have our support. The matter requires urgent attention.

Photo of Frances FitzgeraldFrances Fitzgerald (Minister, Department of Children; Dublin Mid West, Fine Gael)
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It is good to see agreement on the importance of this issue. This is not surprising. We are in discussions with the Commission at present and it is taking a particular line. We must examine this and determine whether an agreement can be reached as soon as possible. I agree with the Deputy that there should be no delay because the consequences of a delay would be too serious. If agreement cannot be reached, perhaps other avenues ought to be investigated, as the Deputies are suggesting. In the first instance, we want to have agreement through the mechanism we are currently pursuing. That is the focus of the discussions at present.