Oireachtas Joint and Select Committees
Wednesday, 14 October 2020
Select Committee on Social Protection
Estimates for Public Services 2020
Vote 42 – Rural and Community Development, and the Islands (Further Revised)
I welcome the Minister and Minister of State. I remind members, officials and those in the Gallery to please ensure their mobile phones are switched off for the duration of the meeting as they interfere with the broadcasting equipment even when on silent mode. I also remind members of the importance of cleaning and sanitising their desks and chairs when leaving the meeting in the interest of the health and safety of colleagues.
This meeting has been convened to consider the Further Revised Estimates for Vote 42 - rural and community development, and the islands, which was referred to this committee by Dáil Éireann. I welcome the Minister, Deputy Heather Humphreys, and the Minister of State, Deputy Joe O'Brien, to the meeting. I thank the Minister and her officials for the briefing document that has been provided in advance of the meeting.
As the Minister and Minister of State are present, officials should not speak in public session. Members are reminded of the long-standing parliamentary practice to the effect that they should not comment on, criticise or make charges against a person outside the Houses or an official, either by name or in such a way as to make him or her identifiable. I also wish to advise speakers that the opening statements and any other documents they have submitted to the committee may be published on the committee website after this meeting.
The Minister is under pressure for time so, with the agreement of members, we will take her initial contribution as being read and move on to questions and answers. Do members have specific questions on Programme A of the Vote for rural development, regional affairs and the islands?
Does it include the LEADER programme? Yes. Clearly, the next Common Agricultural Policy, CAP, will not come into place until 2023 so in the interim we need certainty and clarity. The programme for Government contains a commitment to deliver a national rural development plan to bridge the gap to 2023 but we need to know on what basis the LEADER programme will be delivered during the transition phase. The budget provided funding for LEADER for 2021 but to date there is no clarity on the delivery model. Is the €44 million for new allocations or commitments that have already been entered into? If there is an underspend can it be spent? I am interested in learning more about the model regarding the commitment in the programme for Government and the two year space between now and the new CAP.
Will there be full project approval by the end of this year? My understanding is that under the EU programme all of the project moneys must be approved by the end of the year. In fact, one would really need 110% approval because some projects will never get finished.
I agree with the questions posed by Deputy Carey. Can the Minister tell us will they then be given national moneys to start approving stuff next year? Not only is it going to be two years before the LEADER programme is operational, if CAP is two years behind then it will be three years before it is operational if experience is anything to go by.
My question is related and I tabled a parliamentary question on the issue. There are very significant staffing resources now that will become available within LEADER. There is a huge plethora of schemes, particularly in the last number of months, that support small business and the self-employed. Can we redeploy some of the LEADER staff to work with those businesses to assist them to apply for restart grants, trading online vouchers and so forth? If we did we could maximise the drawdown of the funding by local businesses that sometimes are the last people to know about support or the last to draw it down.
Finally, I wish to acknowledge the presence of Ms Sheenagh Rooney, Assistant Secretary, Department of Rural and Community Development who is assisting us here today.
I thank the Chairman and the Deputies for the question on LEADER. I am sorry that I must leave a bit earlier than expected but, as members will know, there is a meeting of the Cabinet.
In terms of the LEADER programme, more than 3,400 projects were approved by the end of September that are worth €135 million. By the end of this year I expect the local action groups, LAGS, to have approved the full €169 million available for project funding. In 2019, the outturn was €45 million with an allocation of €40 million for 2020. Activity on LEADER continued throughout the Covid-19 crisis and there is a spend of €32 million to the end of September. I expect that the outturn may again hit €45 million. I will deal with extra demand placed on the fund from savings under the rural regeneration and development fund, RRDF, programme. Some projects, under the RRDF programme, have been delayed most likely due to the Covid-19 pandemic.
Almost €100 million in project payments will remain to be made over the 2021 to 2023 period. The project approvals under the current LEADER programme will finish at the end of this year. The next programme will not commence until January 2022 at the earliest, due to delays in agreeing the overall EU budget. However, project funding under the current programme will continue.
While the final announcements will be at the end of this year, it will take some time for the funding to be drawn down and the different projects to be delivered. The staff in the LEADER companies will work with the promoters of these projects to ensure they are delivered.
The transitional regulations are still under negotiation but I am aware of the need to ensure smooth transition between programmes. When I had the honour of being in this office previously, we had the exact same transition programme. I accept there is uncertainty among the staff in the LEADER companies wondering whether they will have a job.
The Chairman is correct that it is important that the LEADER companies and their staff be fully utilised. I expect they will be in finishing off this programme. I am expanding the local employment services in the Department of Employment Affairs and Social Protection. I hope LEADER companies will take the opportunity to deliver some of those programmes. The Deputy referred to restart grants and trading online vouchers. The local enterprise offices, LEOs, have been doing amazing work across the country. They have additional resources. Businesses should go to their LEO if they are wondering what they should do about Brexit or Covid supports. They will certainly give them the help they might need.
The LEADER staff will be quite busy rolling out remaining programmes. I secured an additional €4 million in the budget for the LEADER budget. The total allocation for next year will be €44 million.
The interim money up until now has always been purely administrative money to keep the staff in place. There was a certain expectation this time that Exchequer moneys would be provided to ensure projects could be approved in the two years. It will be two years before LEADER gets going. Even if the CAP is theoretically ready to rock and roll in 2022, it will not be the case with LEADER.
If one looks at the pattern of LEADER expenditure, it will be at a peak now and for the next year. Then, when the new programme starts in 2023, there will be little expenditure until two or three years into the programme. As the Minister knows, €40 million a year will be given to it, there will be underspends, and surpluses will be used for better purposes.
Some people had hoped that the Department of Public Expenditure and Reform would accept that we should just level off the money by providing Exchequer funding for the interim period. If one were sanctioning programmes in 2021 and 2022, they would not become due until 2023 and 2024, which is a fallow period for money demands in the Department. In other words, one takes the European money when it comes but when it is not there, one provides Exchequer funding. That is what most people expect should happen from now on, particularly because of the massive hit rural Ireland has taken during the pandemic.
The Minister will recall I asked about the Clare Local Development Company. It came eleventh when it should have come tenth. Those fortunate companies that came in the first ten received an allocation of €500,000 each. Will the Minister be in a position to give further finances to the Clare Local Development Company?
As I said at the time, we looked at them all. I cannot give the Deputy a commitment now. I would love to be able to say "Yes". We will keep it under review and we will see what appears towards the end of the year. Sometimes projects do not go ahead as quickly as possible. All the time we want to get the money spent and where it is needed in the communities. Obviously, we will keep it under review.
There is a commitment in the programme for Government to a transition programme for LEADER. It will have to continue to deliver the remainder of the programme. I expect that it will be next year that we will need to look at that specific commitment in the programme for Government to provide a transition programme.
Two meanings can be taken out of a transition programme. One is about keeping the staff in play. That is fair enough as the staff must have jobs. The other is about being able to do work and approve projects. When the Minister refers to a transition programme, it is about what always happens, namely keeping the staff in place. She is not talking, however, about them having any money to approve new projects.
I know what the Deputy is saying. We are looking at it because we have committed to it. There are other things the LEADER companies can also look at. They provide serval different services in other areas, not just under this programme alone. For example, there are the local employment services. I am expanding that and I hope the LEADER companies will put in their proposals on how they can deliver other projects on behalf of the Government.
I just want to clarify that there is another €40 million for projects. There will be an extra €4 million next year. I apologise for misrepresenting that earlier. There is another €4 million in this year's budget to cover that transition.
Is that for new projects? We need clarity about that €40 million. My understanding is that is to pay for projects that will be approved by 31 December 2020. It is not for approving new projects that will only come to spend in 2022 or 2023.
The rural regeneration and development fund, RRDF, has been a wonderful initiative with significant work done through it across the country. It gives communities a chance to get the big money they need to turn a derelict building, say, into an opportunity. We saw that in Ennistymon with the development of a digital hub there. Several business are operating out of a facility that was lying idle in the middle of the town. It was the first project to be funded under the first round of rural regeneration funding.
It is a wonderful scheme and welcome the fact that more money had been committed to it in the budget, along with the town and village renewal and outdoor recreational schemes. The latter scheme provided for the development of a wonderful river walk by Paddy Clarke and his committee in Ennistymon. It has been a success for visitors and locals alike. The €70,000 provided by the Department unlocked the potential of this walk.
I encourage the Minister and her officials to drive on with that programme and continue her work with the local authorities. Clare County Council is very proactive. We have a rural directorate under the management of Leonard Cleary and his staff. They do wonderful work. I encourage her to keep going.
There was a specific Covid provision to increase the population limits for the RRDF above 10,000. I can see the Minister shaking her head. Will that be continued? I have a question on the town and village renewal scheme. The programme for Government commits to a town centre first policy. I know it will probably come under the remit of the Department of Housing, Planning and Local Government. How do we envision the interaction between the two Departments working to bring that policy to the fore in the most coherent manner possible?
The Estimate for capital spending under that was €88 million. I ask the Minister to outline the spend to date. I know it is unusual when dealing with the Estimates to talk about the spend to date, but we are nearly at the end of the year with two months left. Will the €88 million be spent?
In 2019, the spend on RRDF was €31 million and the 2020 allocation was €53 million. That €53 million allocation in 2020 is to fund category 1 and category 2 projects. Category 1 relates to projects with a minimum funding of €500,000. Category 2 is aimed at giving the seed money so that organisations are ready to apply for category 1. To date, 63 category 1 projects have been approved for funding of €131 million. These projects will see total investment of €187 million in rural areas and 76 category 2 projects have been approved for funding of €35 million. The third call for category 1 projects launched in June is closing on 31 December.
Funding through the RRDF has been transformational for rural areas with some strong good projects. When the applications come in, the projects are thoroughly assessed by an independent panel meaning that some good stuff comes through there. It will take time to deliver those projects and Covid has led to delays on a number of fronts. The RRDF has a key role in social and economic recovery. We expect to ramp up the spending at the end of this year. Normally many requests come into the Department at the end of the year. Claims totalling €4 million came in last week. We prepay where it is warranted. If we have good evidence that they will spend the money and they need it to help them avoid having to draw down overdraft facilities, etc., we try to work with the project promoters and help them insofar as we can.
The latest tranche of the town and village renewal scheme was announced earlier this week. That was focused on measures to make towns and villages more Covid accessible and Covid-friendly. Some great projects came in, including outdoor cinemas, outdoor seating and other imaginative stuff. In this call we decided to include the towns with populations of more than 10,000, which had been left out. Normally we do not include them because towns with a population of more than 10,000 can apply to the urban regeneration and development fund and we keep the town and village renewal scheme for the smaller towns and villages.
The Deputy asked about the town centre first policy. My Department is committed to developing the centre of towns. We can make a real difference in the area of remote working. The budget allocated an additional €5 million to the town and village renewal scheme, specifically aimed at centre-of-town hubs and working spaces. That will revitalise towns which have plenty of buildings that can easily be adapted for co-working spaces with high-speed good broadband. I want to work with the Minister, Deputy Eamon Ryan, on the broadband issue. Based on my experience in my previous Department I want to see more remote working and more investment in the regions and smaller towns. I will also work with the Tánaiste and the Department of Business, Enterprise and Innovation. We need joined-up thinking involving IDA Ireland and Enterprise Ireland, my Department and the Department of Housing, Planning and Local Government all working together to ensure we can revitalise town centres.
We had a pilot scheme with six towns from various parts of the country. We have the report from those towns. Most towns throughout the country have similar challenges and problems. One of the big problems in the centres of towns is with the old buildings. We need to find ways to incentivise people to renovate those buildings. Sometimes when they renovate them, they find the commercial value considerably less than the cost of getting them back into shape again. We need to work with the Department of Housing, Planning and Local Government on that. My local town of Clones had a major investment of €5 million through the Department to regenerate some buildings and turn them into top-quality social housing. It is about bringing people back into the towns either to live or to work there.
Deputies will hear me talking about remote or connected working and I hope to work with them on that because it is a game changer. It was a dream or an aspiration this time last year and now it is a reality. We need to grasp that for rural areas, run with it and make it happen. Many people are working from home in their own communities. We want them to stay in those communities. I think it is a no-brainer.
On those broadband connection points, there is an error in the briefing documentation provided to us. It states that the 150 Mbps high-speed broadband being delivered to these broadband connection points is high-quality fibre broadband. At 150 Mbps, it is wireless broadband. Vodafone is the contractor delivering that. I just wanted to clarify that it is not fibre.
I commend the Minister on the €5 million for remote working, which is very welcome. How will that be utilised in the context of Covid-19? Until March of this year, co-working hubs were a great idea. Co-working hubs now have the added challenge of Covid-19. How will that be incorporated into it?
Does anybody else have anything to say about A7?
Following the pilot for the six towns, will a specific scheme be introduced to bring old buildings back into use? I agree it is cross-departmental, involving the Departments of Business, Enterprise and Innovation, Housing, Planning and Local Government, and Rural and Community Development. Will the Minister’s new Department lead that and introduce a specific scheme to bring those derelict and dilapidated buildings back into use? It needs a tailor-made scheme on the back of the pilot the Department has completed.
According to the Revised Estimate, the amount for regional economic development is €88 million. It was €78 million.
It was €52 million last year. Are we going to see that money spent in full?
Working hubs have a place and there will be some demand for them into the distant future but for a lot of people they will be secondary to working from home. There seems to be an absolute passion, a fervent belief that is almost religious, among the great and good of this country that we must ignore the 30% of people who have the audacity to live outside of towns and villages, as the planners see them. Where I live in Connemara, everyone lives in a baile, which is a town or townland. They think it is a real town, even though it does not have shops, pubs and churches in it. They see nothing wrong with living in these bailte fearainn where their people have been living for 2,000 years. If one looks at the names, one will find that these are very old settlements and are not some creation of the Celtic tiger. Are we really interested in rural Ireland or only in the towns of rural Ireland? When we are talking about Estimates, these are the fundamental issues we must decide.
We are talking about rural regeneration but I have never yet gone to a meeting in rural Ireland where roads were not number one on the agenda. Number two on the agenda in more recent years has been fibre broadband in the home. I know this is not the direct responsibility of the Minister but when we are talking about rural development, we must know what her priorities are for all of rural Ireland, including the 30% of the total population that lives outside rural towns and villages. What are the priorities for those people? Is it the policy of the Government to drive them out of the countryside?
Finally, I got a chilling answer on the Flemish decree case, a planning ruling of the European Court which holds that states should either permit virtually no housing in rural areas or else have an absolute free-for-all, which we all oppose. How does that fit with the Minister's overall responsibility for rural areas? What interaction is she having with the Department with responsibility for planning? There is no point in her saying that she is going to develop rural Ireland when other Departments are totally taking the legs from under her. There is no point if the Department of Transport is not providing money for roads, if funding for water for people who are dependent on wells is not provided and broadband is not being rolled out fast enough. Finally, what is the point if people can have all of those things but cannot get planning permission for housing so that they can settle down next door to their parents?
I thank the Deputy and would point out that 37% of people live outside rural towns and villages, on 96% of the landmass of the country. I know that because I was involved in the delivery of broadband in rural Ireland. Deputy Paul Donnelly is next.
I am a townie and I am coming at this from a different perspective. I am from the inner city of Dublin originally and now live in Blanchardstown, which has a small rural hinterland in The Ward. We are talking here about connectivity but only in terms of broadband and not in terms of how people get from A to B. Deputy Ó Cuiv referenced roads and I am interested in public transport in particular. There seems to be a fascination with broadband and an assumption that it will solve so many problems. There will be a sea change following Covid-19 in terms of people working from home but they will also need to be connected to where they work and we will need a combination of both. In terms of supporting and enhancing rural Ireland, these elements will all have to come together. We cannot just deal with broadband with no connection made to public transport or to roads. We must have a coherent plan. Cross-departmental development plans are essential in this context. There is a piece missing in many of the conversations on connectivity.
I will start by providing clarity on the funding. There is €88 million in total, with €53 million for the RRDF, €25 million for the town and village renewal scheme and €10 million for the outdoor recreation infrastructure scheme. I agree with Deputy Ó Cuiv's point. I understand the needs of people who do not live in villages or towns, the needs of somebody who lives in the heart of a parish in Aghabog, for example, on a farm. I am delighted that my daughter is now building a house on the family farm and will continue that tradition and I want to protect people who want to do that. It is only fair that such people get the services they need including broadband, water and electricity. We have to help them and do so through a number of different schemes, particularly the local improvement scheme, LIS. There is €10 million in the LIS and I have secured an additional €500,000 for next year. That might not sound like a lot but it will assist with those lanes that badly need to be done. I accept what the Deputy said about transport but we do have the Local Link service which helps to connect rural Ireland. We have some very good local services in that regard. I know my own constituency best where a service runs from Cavan to Monaghan five times a day, over and back. It brings young people to institutes of further education and is a fantastic service. We need more of that and we must fund more local public transport services.
I visited Glenasmole with the Minister for the Environment, Climate and Communications, Deputy Ryan, recently for the launch of the broadband connection points initiative. There will be 300 such points right across the country. Glenasmole is at the foot of the Dublin mountains. I thought that people living in Dublin had all the broadband they wanted but I discovered that they do not have it out in Glenasmole. When I got there I saw so many similarities to where I live. Sometimes we have the wrong idea in rural Ireland; we think that everyone in Dublin is connected but that is not the case. I take Deputy Paul Donnelly's point about a blend of working from home and from hubs or offices. People need connectivity to link in with their employers but it is also important for their mental health to get out of the house. When people are working from home all day they have a starting time but it can be hard to find a finishing time. It is better for people to be in a work environment that has the right furniture at the right level, the correct lighting and so on. I am concerned that some people who are working from home are sitting on chairs that may cause back injuries or other problems. Companies will be able to come together in these connection point buildings, enabling their employees to work remotely. We must support that, manage it and provide that service because it will make a difference. We have also invested a great deal of money in cycleways and walkways in rural Ireland so even if people live in the countryside they will be able to get on their bicycle and go into the local village to work. This is something to which we should all aspire, namely, people not always needing to use their cars. Often in rural Ireland, people need not one but two cars. The objective is to bring work to communities and by doing so, we will revitalise towns and villages.
The additional €500,000 for the LIS is welcome but there is a massive backlog there and we need once-off funding to clear it. On fibre, there are 80,000 urban premises that do not have access to decent broadband, some of which are not too far away from where we are sitting today. Deputy Carey has a brief question.
I also welcome the additional money for the LIS but agree with the Chairman that there is a massive backlog, including in County Clare. I ask the Minister to ensure that the allocations are made in the early part of the year, in spring.
Sometimes they are left to the end and it creates a difficulty. The previous committee, which I chaired, looked at this issue and recommended that the then Department of Transport, Tourism and Sport would also come to the table and, perhaps, provide matched funding of an additional €10 million. The local authorities should also come to the table and put money upfront. There could be a more comprehensive scheme and a great deal more could be done with that allocation. Perhaps it is something the Minister could raise again. Chairman, I ask that the committee correspond with the Minister for Transport, Deputy Eamon Ryan, in that regard.
I am returning to the local improvement scheme. There is a rule regarding eligibility for the LIS that if there are four or five houses on the boreen, as we call it and the Minister called them lanes-----
Boreen is literally a small road. They are small roads that were never taken in charge. If one lives in a village with a small road like that - what I define as a village is a townland - it states that to be eligible for the scheme two of the houses have to be engaged in agricultural activities. That is like saying that to be eligible for a scheme in the city two of the workers would have to be involved in the high-tech industry. The vast majority of people living in rural Ireland today are not involved in agriculture. It is unnecessarily restrictive. I would say "yes" if it stated that they had to be permanent dwellings, not holiday homes. That is fine, but I do not see why the scheme is specifying a particular occupation just because it was the dominant occupation 50 to 70 years ago.
Thankfully, we have retained our population where I live. There is the same number of teachers in the area as there was in 1974, which is good for a very rural area. There is plenty of employment and many young people have built houses. One person in a family might have the farm and the other two or three do not, but they have stayed in the area which is great. However, that is an unnecessary condition in the scheme and I ask that it be removed.
Obviously, those criteria exist for the LIS. I am an advocate for the scheme because I know many people who have benefited from it. It made travelling to and from their houses a great deal easier. The cost would have been prohibitive, and they could not afford to do it themselves. I accept the point made by the Deputy about the scheme. It is something we will examine.
I also take Deputy Carey's point that we need to work more closely with the Department of Transport to have a more joined-up approach and ultimately get more lanes done.
It will have to be announced shortly because it is for this year. I do not have the date, but it will be shortly. I only announced round 3 on Monday so it will be another few weeks before we get to the next tranche.
It is €0.5 million for next year. There is €0.5 million more next year in the baseline budget, which is increasing from €10 million to €10.5 million. I think it was topped up last year. I know the importance of the LIS and should some money become available, I will know there is a handy home for it in local improvement schemes. The one thing about them is that they will deliver and spend the money. They get it spent straight away and do not waste time.
We only got enough money for ten this year. If there is any money hanging around, we can spend it. We need it because the roads are in a desperate state. I have often said in the committee that the people in Kerry are as entitled to a good road as the people in Dublin 4. They are entitled to a good road to their doors.
There is a great deal more we could mention. On the islands, I refer to the piers in Inis Meáin and Inis Oírr. The planning permission for the pier in Inis Oírr was received in 2008, amazingly. It is now 2020 and the pier has not yet started. Money was apparently a problem in 2012 and 2013, but at the end of 2015 the Minister for Finance at the time provided all the money. However, nothing has been spent except on preparation. There was talk about doing a business plan. Is the business plan presented to, and agreed by, the Department for Public Expenditure and Reform? This is the longest saga. I cannot believe how long it takes to go from planning permission for a pier to building it. It blows my mind that it is 12 years later. I wish to stress to the Minister that she should go out to Inis Oírr on a winter's day when the wind and the waves are hitting the back of the pier. One stands on that pier at one's peril. Somebody is going to be swept into the sea and killed. It happened twice on Inis Meáin before a new pier was built, which also needs an upgrade. Can the Minister give an update on the piers in Inis Oírr and Inis Meáin? Has the business plan for Inis Oírr been approved?
It is near enough. The good news is that I am increasing the allowance for people living on islands who qualify for certain social welfare payments. That has increased from €12.50 to €20. That is a little good news.
Returning to the pier in Inis Oírr, I am aware this has been ongoing for a long time. The planning is in place, as the Deputy said, and the business case is nearing completion for submission to the Department of Public Expenditure and Reform. The business case must be approved prior to going to tender. The tender will be for the design and build, meaning the majority of the cost will fall towards the end of the contract period. That will be a couple of years hence. That is the current position, and I realise the Deputy has raised this with me on a number of occasions.
Regarding the upgrade of the pier in Inis Meáin, it is at an early stage. There are others as well.
It is out on Magheraroarty. When I was in Donegal in August I went to see that pier because I had been talking to one of the boatmen and he said that many of the problems with the pier are due to the tide coming in and out. I am not an expert on this, but I had a look at it. It is at a very early stage and it is something we have to give more consideration to because there are differing opinions on it. The one that is furthest along, believe it or not, is Inis Oírr. I look forward to visiting Inis Oírr and the islands off the Galway coast. I have been to Clare Island and Arranmore so I have to visit a few more. That is the plan.
"Soon" and "in the near future" and other euphemisms wear off after a while when one hears them for a few years. Everything is nearly, nearly. It is like the horror stories that children get in which they never actually get there.
There is also the issue of a boat for Tory Island.
Yes, there is, the Tory boat. These are four major projects that have been identified in the national development plan, Project Ireland 2040. We are very aware of that and we continue to work on all of them.
There are four significant projects, at Inis Oírr, Inis Meáin, Magheraroarty and Tory Island.
On matters relating to islands, the world has gone stark mad and I will give the Minister the perfect example of just how ridiculous it has become. I asked the Minister for Transport a question about the provision of a Coast Guard facility at the airstrip in Cleggan in Connemara. It already has a temporary facility there but there is a need for a temporary Coast Guard facility and Cleggan is the ideal place. It should be remembered that the airstrip there means Sikorsky helicopters have no problem landing. They can land on the apron, never mind landing on the airstrip. What are all these codes and arrangements? It would drive anyone crazy. The answer from the Department of Transport states: "Under the Public Spending Code, OPW have to evaluate all potential sites in the Cleggan area." The Minister's Department owns this site. It is an airstrip and the Coast Guard uses a Sikorsky helicopter. The boat is a rigid inflatable boat, RIB, on the back of a jeep. It is fine where it is. It is within one mile of the sea and the Coast Guard could have to travel ten or 15 miles by road before getting to the pier nearest to an incident. It already has a temporary facility but now we are told that there has to be a big study to prove that no other site is available. It is time the State caught on to itself and common sense took over from procedure so that we can start to get things done. I am sure the Chair will agree with me.
I appeal to the Minister to make sure that it will be ready to be opened for the new season in April and May, which we are a while away from. I ask for everything to be ready for it to be opened because it is a significant attraction and the people of that side of the world, at Ballinskelligs and Portmagee, depend on visitors coming there. I appeal to the Minister to ensure it will be open for the new season.
As I said to the Chairman, Skellig Michael is a treasure. I believe it is a UNESCO site. I was there when "Star Wars" was being filmed, which brought plenty of excitement and economic activity to Portmagee and the surrounding area. It is wonderful. While I would like to be able to give the Deputy an affirmative answer, Skellig Michael falls under the remit of the OPW and the National Parks and Wildlife Service. It is not in this Department but a Department that I was previously in. The OPW maintains and upgrades the site and does a good job with the many steps to get to the top of it. The Deputy should raise the matter with either of the Ministers of State, Deputies O'Donovan or Noonan, one of whom has responsibility for the island now. We will pass on his query.
When the Minister is talking with the OPW, she might raise Cleggan too. What Deputy Ó Cuív has raised highlights bureaucracy gone mad. Are members happy enough with programme A? Before the Minister goes, there is another matter she might address. It is something close to her heart and to mine. She is aware of the Beara-Breifne Way, from Beara to Blacklion. About 67% of that is part of the walks scheme. We want to get up to 80% of the route being on the walks scheme. In light of the announcement regarding the shared island initiative, I would also like to see the Ulster Way completed, so that it is linked to the Beara-Breifne Way and we can walk from Beara, though the middle of the country and on along the Ulster Way to the Glens of Antrim. We should then do as we are doing in Deputy Ó Cuív's and Deputy Carey's neck of the woods, by marketing it just like the Wild Atlantic Way, as Ireland's answer to the Camino. I hope the Minister can prioritise the walks scheme along that route.
There is no way like the Ulster Way. I will be happy to support that. I welcome the announcement of €500 million in funding. There are some wonderful cross-Border projects. I know Deputy Ó Cuív is familiar with the one I am about to mention, the Ulster Canal. We have progressed it and the project has been started, so it is just a matter of getting it finished now. We also have the greenway from Sligo to Enniskillen. The Chairman is right that it is about joined-up thinking. We need to join up all these treasures that we have. When one takes in the waterways and walkways, we have a great offering in the country. This funding is for cross-Border projects. It is an important signal that we want to work with our colleagues across the Border in developing projects that will add prosperity to both sides of the Border.
Before we move on to programme B, I thank the Minister. I know she is going to the Cabinet meeting and that the Minister of State, Deputy Joe O'Brien, will stay with us to go through the rest of the Vote.
The community services programme is essential. It was capped and one does not hear of any new programmes being announced. Has the Minister of State any view on that? Would he consider expanding the programme? Work was done on it last year but I want to get the Minister of State's view on it. More communities could benefit from it through social enterprise. We have a wonderful example in County Clare, Obair in Newmarket on Fergus. It has provided wonderful meals on wheels services during the Covid crisis. It cooks and delivers meals. If that social enterprise could be replicated in other parts of County Clare, though not necessarily meals on wheels, it would give other communities a chance to have that type of activity.
That is no problem. I have raised projects under subhead B12, the community services programme, on several occasions with regard to my area but it will be relevant to others. Many of these social enterprises are under real pressure.
Their income has been decimated over the past seven months. Now, after being closed for months, they are operating at 30% or 40% capacity. The funding that is coming in would help to bring them up to a level where they are at least able to offer the minimum wage, if not the living wage, but it will be a massive challenge over the coming year. I am really concerned, as are the organisations themselves, about how they are going to do that, bearing in mind that we are at level 3 and the infection rate numbers are not great. I hope we do not go any higher than level 3 but there is a possibility that we will. The organisations in question are worried about that and will have to take it into account when making their projections.
My second point relates to the overall programme. We should be looking at bringing it up to minimum wage and then allowing any the excess profits that are made by particular projects to be pumped back into bringing people up to the living wage. Not all of the programmes are at the living wage level but it is the minimum we should expect.
I have several points to make regarding subhead B12. First, until a few years ago, participants in the schemes under the community services programme, CSP, were paid the full minimum wage by the Department and the latter also paid the employer's PRSI. In what I thought was a very mean cutback, that was changed and now there is a contribution from the companies to the participants' wages. Second, the companies also used to get a grant for general overhead costs, which was not needed by some of them but was needed by others. The grant funding was tailored to prevent surpluses building up in some companies. In the context of the Covid crisis, it is extremely important that money be made available for overhead costs.
My third point concerns the CSP companies that have suffered a severe income loss or had to close because of level 3 restrictions. A lot of these organisations are either community centres or heritage sites. Many heritage sites throughout the country are in community ownership, including, for example, the Dunbrody visitor centre, several sites in Donegal and Athenry Castle in County Galway. Will those organisations be entitled to apply for the new scheme announced yesterday by the Department of Business, Enterprise and Innovation? Has there been any discussion with the Tánaiste as to whether they will get a grant if they have to close because of the level 3 restrictions, which many have had to do already?
In regard to the fourth issue I wish to raise, it would have been helpful if the Minister for Employment Affairs and Social Protection, Deputy Humphreys, were still here to respond to it. Departments tend to organise their affairs as if they were all competing football teams, not part of the same Government. Any of us who have had the privilege of serving know that they look after their money and will always try to prevent it going to another Department. I got into big trouble as a Minister when I helped another Department by moving people from community employment, CE, schemes onto a scheme operating in my Department, thereby freeing up CE places. The Minister of State, Deputy Joe O'Brien, should put it to the Minister, Deputy Humphreys, that the net cost of creating more jobs under the CSP would be quite small given the huge savings it would bring in jobseeker's allowance and other payments, depending on which scheme people are on. It is much easier to ask a Minister to take money out of his or her left pocket if one is going to put it back into his or her right pocket, although the departmental officials will still fight over it. Even though there are two different Departments involved, at least it is the same head.
The State has invested big money to keep some community centres open from 8 o'clock in the morning until late at night post Covid and every one of them needs that money. A lot of good new community heritage projects have been set up that will not be economic in themselves but will operate as loss leaders in their communities to attract people into all the other businesses in those communities, including bed and breakfast accommodation, restaurants and so on. Does the Minister of State have plans to persuade the Department of Business, Enterprise and Innovation to support these enterprises rather than having people paid to do nothing, which is very bad in terms of their morbidity? People who are long-term unemployed tend to die younger, go to the doctor more often and take more medicine. That is a scientific fact and it is nothing about the people themselves but simply because humans were not built for being idle. Giving such people a meaning in their lives will bring them significant benefits. The most frequent queries we got during my time in the Department were not about people being put on schemes but about people being put off schemes or trying to get on them.
Will the Minister of State undertake to have a discussion with his colleague, the Minister, Deputy Humphreys, and ask that she achieve a little saving out of welfare by transferring, say, 500 people to some of the new projects operating under the CSP? We need to ensure that every large community centre in the country has the wherewithal to sweat its assets by being able to open all day. Every heritage centre, including the new ones being developed, and other facilities, such as those for Travellers, should automatically be eligible for the fantastic programme that is the CSP. The reality is that most of the people on these schemes will not get commercial jobs.
I will try to answer all of the questions but members might let me know if I miss any of the specifics. The CSP is a bit of a hotchpotch made up of a whole variety of different types of organisations throughout the country. There are loosely three strands to the programme. The largest strand, and the one members are probably most familiar with, includes a large number of community centres and heritage sites but also some organisations, like FoodCloud, which are quite different in their function. The second strand is focused on social inclusion services. The smaller third strand is specifically about creating employment for people who are the furthest from the labour market. That is a very loose description of the three strands and there is a wide variety of organisations within the CSP. As Deputy Ó Cuív knows, the genesis of the programme was in an effort of pulling together different strands from different places. Some organisations are general social enterprises and others not so much. A lot of the work was started in the former Department of Enterprise, Trade and Employment many years ago.
In the context of defining the current operation of the programme and its purpose, we asked Indecon to conduct a review of the CSP. I signed off on that report and it was published a couple of weeks ago. We are now starting a process of reforming the CSP for a variety of reasons, one of which is to ensure it fits into our five-year community and voluntary strategy. The CSP, as it has been operating, was not very strategic and it was not very clear what exactly it was for. It was, broadly speaking, about making sure that certain organisations, all of which were doing good work, got funding. The Indecon review identified a need to be more strategic about the purpose of the programme. To that end, one of the things we are likely to do is seek to tailor the funding and application processes for the different organisations and make the application process easier. That work has already started and we are setting up a consultative group, which will include managers from the CSP organisations, community centres, the Irish Local Development Network and The Wheel, to discuss how we can reform the programme. This Friday, I am meeting a number of managers from a variety of CSP organisations to ensure I stay in touch with what is happening in communities and the range of activity in this area.
I will try to address some of the specific questions that were put to me. Some 20 or 30 organisations are in the pipeline to join the CSP. One of the reasons we want to reform the programme is that there are lots of organisations that want to be included in it. The idea is that for at least some of the participating organisations, they would be in the programme for a period of time and would then move on to function as social enterprises in their own right. That has not tended to happen because of the way the scheme is currently set up. Organisations get the funding and want to hang on to it and stay in the programme. That approach is suitable for some organisations because it what they need and what we need to do for them.
There are approximately 20 or 30 in the pipeline. Currently, we have stopped new entrants because we will be restructuring next year.
As the Deputy spoke about meals on wheels, an interesting point occurred to me. Through my Department, Rethink Ireland had a €5 million social innovation fund for Covid-specific responses. As part of that, it has given a small grant to Irish Rural Link to co-ordinate meals on wheels at a national level. It is a small grant but it is a big job to co-ordinate that process at a national level but it is something that might be of interest to the Deputy as the programme was mentioned.
To respond to Deputy Paul Donnelly, our view on funding is that we contribute a portion of the salaries of people who work in the programme he mentioned. This was born out of an initial contribution some years back of what was the minimum wage. It has not increased since and the Deputy has made a fair argument that it should be increased. With regard to funding priorities, I am very concerned, like the Deputy, that some of these will not be able to stay open next year.
I can tell the Deputy in a straight and honest way that my priority in the budget negotiations was this as well. The last thing I want to do is see any of these organisations that are so crucial in what they provide to communities around the country shutting next year. It is in that context that we fought for more funding and we got €2 million specifically to help organisations like that get through next year. It will be difficult and many of these organisations depend on traded income, hall and room rental, which is just not happening now but overheads are still mounting. We had a €1 million support fund this year as well to help organisations get by.
I mentioned before that there is a bit of a natural rate of attrition as well and some organisations just do not fit the model we have. Some fall out of the scheme and some decide to leave to go in a different direct. We certainly do not want any organisations closing because of Covid-19.
I am trying to cover everything mentioned by Deputies as best I can.
I assure the Deputy that is not what it is about. It is about making funding lines and application processes fit with what we want to achieve. The report has been published and it is not about streamlining or reduction of services. It is about putting a shape on a variety of organisations that were thrown into the pot to ensure they were funded.
Deputy Ó Cuív will probably be glad to know that I have delegated certain functions in the Department and one of those relates is overseeing community employment schemes. I take his suggestion on board and I will go back to the officials in the Department to see what we can do with community employment workers and the community services programme to see if there is something we can look at. I will not even venture to an answer right now but I am in a good position.
When I was growing up in Dublin, I did not, unfortunately, come across people in my daily life who were on welfare. When I went working in Connemara as a co-op manager, I found out about the vagaries of the dole or jobseeker's allowance, as it is now called, along with the penalties applied if a person did anything. I could not get my head around it at all.
I do not know how many people we are severely damaging by forcing them to be available for work or actively seeking work but unable to get work. For all sorts of reasons, there are people who are unlikely to ever get a commercial job. Any of us on the ground with their people knows this. I ran a community co-op that had a commercial side and a scheme side. There were people happy on the schemes but not on the commercial side and vice versa. That is just life. I cannot understand how we do so much damage to people by forcing them into idleness when there is so much to be done. There is much work and people are anxious to do it.
We talk about community employment schemes, a community services programme, rural social schemes and the rest. Every Deputy and Senator I know has a stream of people coming to them telling them they have been put off a scheme and must go back on the dole despite not wanting to do so and preferring to stay where they are. Earlier, somebody rang me to say that names of people could not be got from the Department to fill a scheme which is short of workers. We have applications in our office all the time from people who want to stay on schemes. It does not make sense. We are doing damage on one hand and on the other we are depriving our communities of services.
One of the most fascinating aspects of driving on rural roads is seeing all the manicured sports fields. They are kept like Croke Park. I remember a time when these fields would be cut for a championship match once or twice a year. The schemes do this work to the same standard as the lawns on Leinster House or in Herbert Park, the Phoenix Park or St. Stephen's Green. People are happy to do that work on schemes but we seem to think there is something wrong with this. I am sorry for the lecture but it blows my mind.
Billions of euro are being wasted on enforced idleness that damages people when a little bit extra could change their world, giving them self-worth and helping them get up in the morning. I remember when I set up the rural social scheme, people came to me with tears in their eyes because they had somewhere to go, they could take pride in their work and they had a few extra bob.
Perhaps it is something we can thrash out more next week when we will return with a social protection focus. Is the Deputy advocating an expansion of the community employment scheme in terms of places?
I do not believe in what is termed "workfare". I am absolutely opposed to it because some people just cannot work, despite the fact that they might be getting jobseeker's allowance. When people are on the dole, if there is something useful for them to do, they should be given the opportunity of making a contribution because they want to do so. Anybody who wants to go on a scheme and stay on it should be facilitated. This is radical. There is anomaly in that a person in receipt of jobseeker's allowance should be available for or seeking work but we know a percentage of these people will not get commercial work. We still block them when they try to do something useful. I am radical about this because I know what people want.
There are couple of issues I would like to highlight. I have mentioned subhead B11, the community enhancement programme, on several occasions. A grant of €2 million has been made. I know of two community centres in my own community that are in need of 40% of that. One is at risk of closing because it is in such poor condition. It is one of those community centres and parish halls that are not local authority-run. If a facility is run by a local authority it can get funding there, but a substantial number of groups must apply for community enhancement programme funding. Perhaps other members know how many groups are in that position. They get it in dribs and drabs.
Hartstown Community Centre sent me an absolutely brilliant business plan outlining operations in the next year, three years and five years. The problem is that the centre has no guaranteed funding other than its own. The Wheel and other organisations have raised the issue of multi-annual funding. Multi-annual funding provides assurance. If an organisation goes to a bank or credit union with a business plan, it can point to a facilities fund sponsored by the community enhancement programme that guarantees a certain income for the next three years. It can then use that assurance to take on some risk.
As Deputy Ó Cuív said, these community centres open in the morning and stay open as long as they can. They try to open seven days a week to facilitate local dance groups, musicians and sports groups. It is vital for the fabric of our communities that we keep all of these centres open so that the community can use them. I am concerned because there is significant pent-up demand for funding. Many of these facilities were built 20, 30 or 40 years ago. A crèche might offer a community centre a certain amount per year to rent the premises. That is brilliant income, but Tusla is likely to rule that children cannot be cared for there under any circumstances because there are no proper fire doors, fire alarms or whatever. Either the improvements have to be made, which costs an astonishing amount, or the centre must turn the business away. In some cases, crèches have been there for years, but Tusla applies new rules demanding that massive changes be made or operations stop. That rent is a big chunk of guaranteed income that enables community centres to subsidise dance clubs, football clubs, singing groups, karate clubs, etc., without charging commercial rates, which many clubs cannot afford. I am very passionate about this issue because I know the effect it could have if centres cannot operate without that work being done and those managing the centres decide they cannot take on €200,000 loans as personal risks.
Before the Minister of State responds to these points, I note that the community enhancement programme was also used to install defibrillators, which have been of great benefit to communities. However, there is a lack of joined-up thinking in this regard. The Department has provided capital funding for these defibrillators, but these units are of no use without the proper heated boxes to keep them in and trained community responders. I know of a social enterprise in my constituency that would be prepared to assist with training and the capital cost of boxes for defibrillators throughout the country. This enterprise could work with the Minister of State's Department for approximately the same amount that is being spent at the moment. All we are doing at the moment is buying the defibrillators. They are of no use If they are locked in a building between 6 p.m. and 8 a.m. or if the staff are not trained. Joined-up thinking is needed.
I will come back to the Chair on that point.
Regarding Deputy Donnelly's point on funding for community centres, I reiterate that in January we provided Fingal County Council with €40,000 from the Dormant Accounts Fund to allow remedial work on Hartstown Community Centre and Huntstown Community Centre. Huntstown Community Centre also received €45,000 under the Covid-19 stability fund for community and voluntary, charity and social enterprises. The community enhancement programme is similar to the local improvement scheme in that it is not an enormous fund but there is huge need out there for it. Funding is allocated to local authorities, which each receive a certain amount. When that is divided up again, the amounts are smaller still. The local development companies within local authorities make decisions on the funding.
I take the Deputy's point on multi-annual funding. Coming from the community and voluntary sector myself, I know it is the golden ticket that enables organisations to plan. It does happen on some occasions. One of the main objectives of the five-year community and voluntary sector strategy I am overseeing is to facilitate more multi-annual funding for organisations across the community and voluntary sector. That is a big job. If we achieved some of it over the next few years, it would be a big win. The Deputy's point that community centres have major needs for upgrading, structural works, etc., is well made. We will continue to look at options, but the community enhancement programme is the most obvious one.
If I may wear one of my previous hats, I note that substantial funding is available from the Department of Communications, Climate Action and Environment through the Sustainable Energy Authority of Ireland. We are looking at broadband connection points in public buildings. There is not much point in having a big building if it is freezing inside. A bit of co-ordination from the Minister of State's Department would enable us to use the energy efficiency upgrade supports along with the funding for the broadband connection points and perhaps some of the urban and rural regeneration and development funds. We could carry out some of the work these facilities require in a more co-ordinated and comprehensive way.
I would like to ask the Minister of State about volunteering supports. Attracting volunteers has been an issue in recent years. This may be largely to do with work-life balance issues. Perhaps remote working will give people more time to give back to their communities. The Revised Estimates show that a big chunk of funding is going towards volunteering supports. Yesterday's budget also increased funding from €3.5 to €5.1 million to encourage additional volunteering within our communities. Would the Minister of State like to comment on how he plans to spend that money, how that spending will be structured and what outcomes are sought from concrete measures in that area?
I was community volunteering co-ordinator for St. Peregrines GAA. Volunteering was structured and organised fantastically through Fingal County Council.
We overcame one issue, which always has puzzled me. I worked previously for Tusla, and in one year I was Garda vetted on five occasions. I was smiling in respect of the volunteer list. I wondered how we were going to get those people vetted, including some in our club who had been Garda vetted, albeit for GAA activities, and others who had not been Garda vetted at all because they were parents. Then, miraculously, it happened. While I know this is not the Department responsible, Garda vetting is very important in the context of volunteering. I hope it will be possible to have a conversation with the relevant Department regarding the creation of just one certificate. In other words, when being Garda vetting for 2021, I refer to the ability to bring evidence of that vetting around to other organisations so that it is not necessary to repeat the process continuously. Having to do that puts people off. It frustrates them, slows down the process greatly and is a major issue in respect of volunteering. We have a wonderful history of volunteering and that really was on display during the Covid-19 crisis through the numbers of people who were willing to help. I had nearly 90 people on a list, who were willing to go out every day to shop, to collect medicines from pharmacies or to cut grass or whatever was required by older and vulnerable citizens. I would welcome some co-ordination in the system about volunteering and how it might be possible to get one certificate and to avoid wasting Garda time with vetting.
I will start with a straightforward and simple question. Is the Covid-19 stability fund exhausted or will there be further approvals of allocations? My second question is also straightforward. Does the Minister of State have responsibility for dormant accounts and can he tell me the total amount of money in the fund, net of the statutory reserve that must be kept and of any money kept aside for projects that already have been allocated funding?
My third question refers to something not in the Estimate and which I regret disappeared from it in 2012, namely, the RAPID programme. It was set up to deal with what are, scientifically and sociologically, based on census data, the most deprived communities in the country. Every one of those communities was an urban one. I never buy the argument that any rural communities are as deprived - and I take the whole meaning of the word "deprived" - as are some of the urban communities in this country.
The idea was that we would build a big wall around those communities in respect of funding but not anything else. This was because, as we have seen in the past, more affluent areas are much better able to grab the money. All sorts of people, outside of the relevant areas, get money for community development within deprived areas but sometimes that can be queried. The RAPID programme had some interesting characteristics in that regard. There was an area implementation team, AIT, on which people who actually lived in local authority housing had guaranteed representation. The Garda and the VECs were also included, as were other organisations.
Money was given by the Department. That meant that if community representatives, who actually lived the reality of life in an area, did not sign off on proposed projects, such as playgrounds, for example, those projects would not happen and the Department would not pay. In any co-funded scheme, therefore, the local representatives were the people with the ultimate choice as to whether a project would go ahead. The counter veto was with the local authority in respect of its half of the funding. It was necessary, therefore, to get both sides to agree for a project to go ahead. That type of set-up, however, stopped the domineering effect of people from the outside always telling people in more disadvantaged communities what was good for them.
Moreover, dormant accounts money totalling €100,000 was also being given every year for small things. It went through the AIT and it spent the money. There was again specific ring-fencing in respect of the power of the community representatives. For the first time in their lives, they were part of the decision-making process. That meant that it was not always somebody else making their decisions for them. For whatever mad reasons, which I have never understood because these are, scientifically, the most deprived communities, this focused and targeted scheme was abolished. All I got in reply to parliamentary questions as to why that happened was a load of raiméis.
It seemed to me that some interests got at this programme because they did not like it. Local authority managers did not like it either and that was because somebody else could ensure that the money was spent. Places like the Oliver Bond Street flats complex, which was in the news recently, saw great friendships created. For the first time, people in places like that had a real say in what was happening. They were at the table as equals and they had their share of the money. Other people did not then always have control of the money, because the local people had their veto as well.
It is not the Minister of State's fault that the programme does not now exist because he is new in the Department. I am glad that he comes from the voluntary sector. It seems that three of us here come from a background in that sector, or perhaps the five of us present do. I ask the Minister of State to look at the RAPID programme as it was in its heyday, taking into account the psychological empowerment that came with that programme. We are always talking about empowerment and we were giving real control to people in that programme. Will the Minister of State look at that model and consider whether it should be reinstated? I have never believed there was a valid reason to get rid of it.
I thank Deputy Ó Cuív. While we are on subhead B3, the senior alert scheme has been very successful. I see this year that €5.3 million has been allocated for it. Again, however, no more than in the case of the defibrillators, we could do much more with that money regarding the types of devices we are providing to older people. When we are connecting people to the Internet, we could provide them with a laptop or a smartphone, and combine monitoring and communication in the senior alert scheme.
I refer to providing mobility in this context, because, thankfully, older people today are not physically confined to the home. They are at the moment, sadly, because of Covid-19, but otherwise many older people are often outside. Having a device connected to a mobile network, in respect of an alarm or a fall, means that an alert can be triggered by someone in a field in the middle of nowhere, out in a park or out for a walk on the street, instead of the fixed scheme existing now. We could achieve much more by using the technology that exists, rather than using what is now old technology.
I will address that issue briefly. To my knowledge, there are plans for higher technology devices to come on stream. I need to confirm that but I recall that there were plans in that regard. The lot option for the forthcoming scheme in 2021 has been confirmed, along with the technical specifications for the telecoms equipment to be included. Work is ongoing at interdepartmental level to explore the potential amalgamation, in the medium term, of the senior alert scheme into broader assistive technology schemes operated by the Department of Health and the Department of Housing, Planning and Local Government. There has, therefore, been some thinking on this issue, and it looks like there will be some sort of product at the end of it. There is definitely great potential in linking up with other technologies and other needs.
If the committee does not mind, I will go backwards and address the questions from Deputy Ó Cuív. I have been thinking about how to empower communities and give them a voice at a grassroots level and how that was done in the past. That was one of the first things I started thinking about when I got the job. I have also been talking to organisations about this matter and how it might be done.
We got new funding, albeit a small amount, of €1 million yesterday to start some pilot schemes next year with a view to growing this kind of approach again. I come from the sector and know how valued that approach was. I acknowledge that it has dissipated or diminished over time and in the past ten to 15 years especially. This is, therefore, a small measure being undertaken to try to restart that approach in a small way. Many good things have also happened in the same period, however, particularly concerning the social inclusion and community activation programme, SICAP. As I know it is not perfect, this is about finding spaces for it to develop.
I have been thinking about it and there will be something happening on it next year.
On the question relating to the Dormant Accounts Fund, I do not have all the figures that the Deputy asked for, but the 2020 action plan was approved with more than €45 million worth of measures included, €12.6 million of which rests with the Department of Rural and Community Development, and the remaining €32.4 million is spread across eight other Departments. I will look into getting other figures for the Deputy.
We obviously dipped into the Dormant Accounts Fund substantially this year for the stability fund, which I can talk about because I have some figures with me. The majority of the moneys have been disbursed. Approximately 560 organisations received grants from the fund. There is not a lot left and some applications are still under appeal. However, the good news on the stability fund is that an additional €10 million has been allocated to the fund in the budget, which is to be used before the end of this year. We are in the process of figuring out how best to use it, because we have to do it quickly and use it by the end of the year.
On the issue of Garda vetting raised by Deputy Donnelly, it goes into the broader issue of volunteering. I am pushing to bump up where volunteering sits in the national psyche and in the community voluntary sector. There is huge potential and a significant volume of good work is being done, but it needs a framework, direction and proper funding. Those things are happening, and I am glad that we will publish the first national volunteering strategy before the end of the year. Without revealing too much of its contents, there is an action included in respect of Garda vetting. The issue of Garda vetting is a problem not only for the volunteering sector. I know that it is also an issue for sporting organisations, and it can be frustrating to have to repeat the process of vetting, so there are wider issues to consider. However, in respect of volunteering, Garda vetting is on the list of issues that we need to address. The policy on volunteering will be coming out and there has been a significant increase in funding from €3.5 million to €5.1 million next year. This will allow us to finally open a volunteering centre in every local authority area. Currently eight areas do not have a centre. At the end of next year we should have a full national network of volunteering centres, which is crucial for many reasons. The evidence is that if people want to volunteer and can talk to a professional about it, they are much more likely to follow through rather than just send an email and hope something happens. If people sit down with someone in a volunteering centre to discuss the options and the support framework, they will be more likely to volunteer. It was one of the big positives that came out of yesterday's budget that I was glad to see. We will be able to put volunteering on a much more solid level and will ultimately develop a national volunteering corps.
Covid-19 really has shown the value of volunteering. Committee members will be well aware of this but people are still helping at Covid testing centres through volunteering, both informally and through volunteer centres. The ESRI is engaged in research which seeks to measure the value, reach and scope of the community call initiative, which continues at local authority level. All the local authorities are meeting this week because the country has moved to level 3. That research is trying to measure the value of community call and I will be interested to see what value we can take from it and what can continue, and how we can support that engagement from local organisations and volunteers to help people in their communities that need it most. I think that broadly covers most of the questions asked.
Before we go any further, we have 16 minutes left. I am not going to guillotine an Estimate debate, but we will have to come back here in 16 minutes if we have not dealt with programme C, and it will be a slot that we will lose for the joint committee. I am happy to adjourn and resume the debate again, but we will lose a slot as a result of it.
In response to what Deputy Ó Cuív said, I have been involved in community development all my life. A strategic decision made somewhere to take community development out of the community and put it into local authorities and partnerships. That was fine, and some of them have worked very well but, in some ways, it has removed that link with the community. I will provide the example of the Dublin 15 area. We had community development workers in community centres working on the ground, and the then decision was made to withdraw them to office work, and a connection was then lost. It coincided with the diminution of RAPID and AIM.
The question I wish to ask relates to the Mulvey report on the regeneration of the Dublin north inner city, for which €6.5 million has been allocated. It goes some way back to RAPID, because the north inner city is a very disadvantaged area. I read a recent report on Darndale, written by Jack Nolan, who is a retired assistant Garda Commissioner. It is a very similar situation to the north inner city where there have been serious issues with gangland murders. Darndale is close to my heart because I worked in Coolock for almost 19 years, I know the place really well, and I knew some of the young people who were killed last year. I am wondering how the funding was allocated to implement the recommendations of the Nolan report. When I read the report on Darndale, I did not see a reference to a co-ordinating group. There are many tasks for different agencies, but I could not see one group to oversee the work. However, there is a co-ordinating group in respect of the Mulvey report, and €6.5 million has been allocated to it. How does that happen? How does one group get €6.5 million and another not?
Has the emphasis on where the funding should go moved to plugging holes for State services, or is it still going to community projects? The intention with the Dormant Accounts Fund was that it would used for community projects, and not allocated to State agencies who were able to demonstrate that they a lovely plan if they were allocated the money. I am wondering about the various programmes right across the Department because it has a central role in this and draws up the plan, approves it and brings it to Government, if I understand correctly. If the current plan was made available to the committee, we could discuss the focus of the funding. Has it just become like lottery funding or alternative Exchequer funding? There is always that temptation.
I will answer Deputy Ó Cuív's question first. There are legislative criteria relating to the focus on the Dormant Accounts Fund in respect of disadvantaged groups. I cannot recall the specific wording, but it is relatively focused. All the other Departments that get funding through the Dormant Accounts Fund have relationships with community and voluntary groups, and they are usually the groups that get funding. I agree that we should take care that we are not plugging holes for something. I am very conscious of that we should not plug holes where Departments should get their own voted money to tackle issues. I will try to be as quick as I can so that we can proceed.
On the issue of the Dublin north inner city project, it involves significant money, which is allocated annually. To answer the Deputy Paul Donnelly's question on how the Mulvey report got implemented, my understanding is that there was major political imperative and the then Taoiseach prioritised pulling out all the stops to do this because of the variety of dangers present. People were being killed, so all the stops were pulled out at a senior political level. That is why it got the funding that it has.
That would be my understanding, to give members a very brief answer.
I thank the Minister of State. Are we happy enough with programme B? Agreed.
We will move on to programme C, the Charities Regulatory Authority. Are there any brief questions on that or are people happy enough?
On the charities sector, I have looked at some of the feedback coming in on the budget. There is a concern that their fundraising has fallen off a cliff. We can see where, for example, the Darkness into Light event did not happen, and millions of euro are being lost. I am concerned that many of these services provide important and vital services for and in the community. Some of these services should be provided by the State and the charities fill that gap. I raise this as a very serious concern for us in the next year.
That is a lot of the logic of the stability fund and why we were looking for that extra €10 million we got yesterday. That is one of the core reasons for the stability fund. It is a huge problem for the sector. There are also other funds out there the charity sector can tap into. I have spoken to the Minister, Deputy Harris, about this with regard to his remit. We are willing to support training in the community voluntary sector for online fundraising. That is an untapped area where there is huge potential for the sector. Many have lost funding because they have not been able to get out and about in the same way they would have done previously. There is still money out there for charities to access, and especially in the online side. We are trying to encourage that also. I take Deputy Donnelly's point absolutely.
That would be very useful. Many sporting organisations would have held community lotteries and they have the same problem also.
Are we happy with programme C? Agreed. I thank members. That concludes consideration of Revised Estimates for Public Services - Vote 42 (Community and Rural Development).
I thank the Minister, Deputy Humphreys and the Minister of State, Deputy Joe O'Brien, and their officials for their assistance before the committee. I allowed a lot of leniency today. I will not do this for the social protection Estimate. We will not be talking about any communities in Monaghan or Cavan or any other part of the country when it comes to the social protection Estimate because there is a very tight timeline for that. I thank colleagues.