Wednesday, 3 February 2021
Finance Act 2004 (section 91) (Deferred Surrender to the Central Fund) Order 2020: Motion
I thank the Minister for the opportunity to raise a number of issues in this debate. An underspend of €709 million is a substantial sum of money. It also raises the issue of how we assess projects and why it takes so long for them to be assessed and approved. I especially want to address the projects identified by the Office of Public Works, OPW. It appears to be quite a slow process in the context of dealing with projects coming through. How can we fast-track some of those projects?
I welcome the Minister's approval of funding for the Glashaboy flood relief scheme some weeks ago, but the need for that scheme was identified more than eight years ago. It was only recently approved. More than €2 million has been spent on that project in environmental impact studies, which must be done. However, €2 million spent without a sod yet turned raises very serious questions about the process. The Blackpool flood relief scheme is awaiting approval and I hope it will be approved very soon. Again, however, it is a case of waiting eight or ten years for approval. There must be a faster way of dealing with these projects, assessing them to determine whether funding should be made available and ensuring it is made available in timely manner. These are important projects. These are just two projects, but there are projects right around the country where the OPW requires new infrastructure to be put in place.
I will also raise the issue of elective hospitals. Ireland has a serious shortage of hospital beds and we need to tackle this. Covid-19 has emphasised more than ever the need to deal urgently with the issue. We have identified the need, and a clear plan is set out, to build three new elective hospitals around the country and yet we seem to have made very little progress on simple things such as identifying sites and even on consultation. A recent report in theIrish Examiner from a group identified a site for the new elective hospital for Cork. There has been very little consultation, however, with the current voluntary or private hospitals in Cork, including the Mercy University Hospital and the South Infirmary Victoria University Hospital. There must be consultation but these three building projects must now be prioritised. They should not be delayed further. The consultation has gone on for the past three years and now we need to prioritise it. It should not be another three years before we even start to apply for planning permission. Even if we decided the sites in the morning it would still take 12 months to come up with designs and a plan, and 12 to 18 months to come forward with full planning permissions. Then it would take another three to four years before we would have them built. We are talking about five years down the road before any of these projects will be delivered. I ask the Minister that these three projects would now be given priority because we need them.
We also need to address the whole issue of elderly care. The Joint Committee on Health yesterday had a report from the Department of Health and the HSE showing that 81% of people who are in nursing homes are in private nursing homes. We have community hospitals and HSE nursing homes, but many of these require major refurbishment. Can we fast-track those projects? The population over the age of 65 is currently 720,000 but by 2030 it will be 1 million. There will be an increase in demand for nursing home care, as well as trying to roll out additional home care support.
We need to look at how we progress the building of schools. I recently had to deal with some issues in the context of a school building project. I ended up dealing with six different authorities, including the OPW, the Department of Education, the county council and the ESB. I could not get a straight answer because it appears there was no one person co-ordinating the project in real terms, even though the boards of management in the schools were working very hard to get the boxes ticked and the decisions made.
In projects such as that, there must be somebody who is able to co-ordinate all the State agencies so there is no undue delay. We are discussing €709 million that has not been spent. Part of the reason for that is the lack of co-ordination between different State agencies, local authorities and other people involved. It is something we must examine.
I wish to return to the health sector, particularly mental health facilities. I recently spoke to somebody who is working in a mental health facility in which nine of the 27 people in the facility died. The facility had six residents per room. When Covid-19 arrived it was not possible for the facility to control it. A number of mental health facilities have not received adequate funding over the last number of years. They have to be refurbished and upgraded to ensure they can provide the proper standard of care that people deserve. These are some of the issues we must focus on and ensure that with any project that is identified, be it in Cork, Dublin, Galway or Donegal, there is not the delay that appears to be occurring in many projects. These projects have been identified and deemed urgent yet, two years later, we find there is very little progress made. We must review that. Due to the various issues that Covid has revealed, the prioritisation of healthcare facilities more than any other facilities is necessary to ensure we can deliver a healthcare service and that we have the facilities in which to do so.
Those are my thoughts on this issue. It is important to look at the mistakes that have been made in the last number of years and to plan for the future. We must also plan to ensure we can deliver in a timely manner. I acknowledge the Minister's work and the work of all departmental officials. They work extremely hard within the rules, but sometimes we need to change the rules in order to deliver on time and within budget.