Thursday, 1 April 2021
Saincheisteanna Tráthúla - Topical Issue Debate
Covid-19 Pandemic Supports
I and the other Deputies raising this issue are making a plea to the Government. The issue was raised by Deputy Joan Collins during Questions on Promised Legislation earlier. We are seeking a change to the regulations in respect of groups such as the Ballyfermot Sports Complex, which is located on Gurteen Avenue. It is a wonderful sports complex that has been open since 1985. It has had to change its modus operandi over the years but, basically, it is used by an impressive number of community associations, groups, youth clubs, schools and local projects. Even prison officers from Wheatfield Prison benefit from the use of its squash courts. There are soccer, GAA, boxing, martial arts and indoor handball clubs that use the complex. You name it and the Ballyfermot Sports Complex can cater for it. In normal times, it does so in a very efficient manner. However, we are living in abnormal times. The complex has lost income during the Covid restrictions and is finding it very difficult to manage financially. We need measures to be brought in to give the complex access to the supports of which other companies and associations can avail. I will let the other Deputies elaborate in that regard.
As Deputy Bríd Smith stated, Deputy Joan Collins raised this issue earlier today with the Tánaiste, Deputy Varadkar, who indicated that there is an anomaly whereby a facility such as this cannot access the grants that other facilities can. For instance, the Pobal grant is available for community sports facilities with a swimming pool. The Ballyfermot complex does not have a swimming pool but it caters for the more than 80,000 people who go through its doors each year. There is a shortfall because those people have not come through its doors in the past year as the hall has been closed due to Covid restrictions. It complied fully in that regard yet it has outlays, such as insurance and upkeep of the building, which cannot be met without income from the many clubs and schools that use it.
The school next door to the complex is more than 60 years old and does not have a sports hall yet it is a DEIS band 2 school which caters for 300 children. It uses the hall for sports and recreation activities. There is an urgent need to ensure that this facility and similar facilities and halls around the country which cannot avail of the current schemes because they are not-for-profit organisations, are not registered for VAT or do not have swimming pools can access some type of grant aid.
I echo the strong words of my constituency colleagues. Ballyfermot Sports Centre is at the heart of the community. When its representatives met me and the other Deputies, they stressed its importance to the community and the significant number of schools, community groups, clubs and associations that use its facilities. It has a significant impact on the community at large as it provide alternatives to the antisocial behaviour that is often discussed in the House. It is a real success story and it needs to be supported.
The anomaly whereby the complex does not qualify for Covid support schemes or any of the grants really needs to be corrected. As Deputy Ó Snodaigh noted, it is unlikely to be the only organisation in this boat. We need to find ways to support such organisations not just to keep the jobs going and facilities open, but also to recognise their valuable contribution to the communities in which they are based.
I thank the Deputies for raising this matter. We know that Covid-19 has imposed a severe economic shock which poses many challenges across the economy and society more broadly. Its impacts are particularly strongly felt in the sporting and community and voluntary sectors. While level 5 restrictions include the closure of many business premises in non-essential retail, personal and business services and construction, the restrictions have also impacted on the services provided by the community and voluntary sector across the country. As a result of the sacrifices of all parts of the economy and society, we now have a roadmap for moving to a reopening of the country, as announced on Tuesday by the Taoiseach. That will benefit the community sector as well as the catering, wholesale, distribution, hospitality and tourism sectors.
As the Deputies are aware, the Covid restrictions support scheme, CRSS, benefits the many premises that are consumer-facing and to which public access is now restricted. Although the CRSS has provided significant and welcome aid for a large number of businesses, the Government is aware that some classes of business fall outside its legislative remit. Although the Department of Enterprise, Trade and Employment does not have policy responsibility for the community and voluntary sector, which is the responsibility of my colleague, the Minister for Rural and Community Development, Deputy Humphreys, we are endeavouring to help those parts of the community sector that are trading through our €60 million small business assistance scheme for Covid, SBASC. These businesses in the community sector include charity shops, which are not eligible for the CRSS. We are also helping businesses in sports clubs that operate from those rateable premises, such as caterers and other service providers.
The community business restrictions support scheme which the Deputies are seeking is a matter for my colleague, the Minister for Rural and Community Development. As the Deputies will be aware, the Department of Rural and Community Development has already introduced assistance for the sector through schemes including the €10 million Covid-19 stability fund for community and voluntary organisations, charities and social enterprises. My colleague, the Minister of State, Deputy Joe O'Brien, announced the scheme on 11 December last, under which €45 million is available to the sector. I understand that the Department of Rural and Community Development also ran two rounds of a Covid-19 emergency fund during 2020. The second round, comprising €1.7 million, was focused on providing small grants towards adapting premises and assisting with the Government's Keep Well campaign, but also provided small grants towards operational costs of community groups where needed. The fund closed in February.
We are providing assistance through the wage subsidy scheme, of which I am sure community groups and enterprises such as the one in question are availing. However, I am listening to the Deputies. It is clear that if the grants to which I have referred were of benefit to the fantastic community facility in question, they would not be in here making a case for it to be provided financial assistance. I do not have the jurisdiction or authority to state that I can open a new scheme this evening. The matter does not even come under the remit of my Department. However, I will give a commitment to bring the matter back to the relevant Ministers at the Department with responsibility for the community business in question, that is, the Minister and the Minister of State, and relay to them the points the Deputies have raised. As Deputies Ó Snodaigh and Costello noted, this issue is not exclusive to the Ballyfermot complex. It is having an impact on other community facilities around the country. To be fair, when my Department has seen businesses falling through the cracks and unable to avail of schemes, we have come forward with new schemes. There is an onus and a responsibility on us to come forward to help businesses such as this one.
I will give an undertaking to bring back this matter to the relevant Ministers on foot of the representations this evening.
We appreciate the positive response from the Minister of State and look forward to the Government going back and looking again at the schemes and the benefits that may be available. We are representatives of Dublin South-Central and it is important that the Ballyfermot club remains in situ. It is an interesting club because it is lean in its staff and flexible with the community but it caters for a huge number of groups and individuals and schools. I think it is worth a little bit of flexibility from the Department and all Ministers concerned to look at ways in which it can be supported. We have all said this. The issue goes beyond the boundaries of Ballyfermot. There are bound to be hundreds of other projects like it around the country that have been affected. We will bring this information back to the people who run the club and the community. We appreciate the positivity that the Minister of State has displayed tonight and look forward to a resolution. I thank the Minister of State and the Department.
Like my colleague, Deputy Bríd Smith, I thank the Minister of State. This is obviously an anomaly but it is not one that applies only to Ballyfermot sports complex. There will be other such cases because Ballyfermot sports complex is not unique in the way it runs its business. It is probably unique in many ways, given the amount of people who are dependent on it. We are coming out of Covid-19 restrictions and I hope that the likes of these halls will be able to deliver services and cater for groups as it has done in the past but that will not happen without some level of grant aid and help.
The Ballyfermot sports complex has an impressive list of groups for which it caters. The list includes: Mary Queen of Angels national school; Ballyfermot youth service; Ballyfermot Youthreach; Kylemore College, Ballyfermot; BallyfermotCandle Centre; Lifestart, Cherry Orchard; Caritas College, Ballyfermot; De La Salle GAA club; St. Patrick's GAA club, Palmerstown; Ballyfermot kenpo club; Ballyfermot martial arts club; Irish dancing; ballroom dancing; roller hockey club; Gurteen Youth Club; after-school sports clubs; soccer clubs; the Dublin-Philippines basketball club; late night crime diversion soccer programme; and the Ballyfermot Gymnastics Club. The staff of Wheatfield Prison use the complex for squash and the Traveller community uses it for handball. That is the considerable reach of the complex.
Deputy Ó Snodaigh has gone easy on the number of people in the community who benefit from the sports complex to show how valuable it is. I thank the Minister of State for his flexibility and positive answer. We look forward to working together on this.
The Deputies have made the valid point that these community groups provide an invaluable service right across each of our constituencies. The Deputies have made their point well tonight about Ballyfermot. The Government is committed to supporting the people, businesses and communities in this difficult time. I reassure the Deputies that my Department and those of my ministerial colleagues in other Departments are keeping programmes that are administered by the Departments under constant review. I alluded to the new programme that we launched, the small business aid scheme. It was launched as a direct result and consequence of the fact that many groups were excluded from the Covid restriction support scheme, CRSS, as was identified to us. We have demonstrated that when something is brought to our attention, we want to intervene. This issue has been brought to my attention by the Deputies this evening and I will revert to the Minister, Deputy Humphreys, and the Minister of State, Deputy Joe O'Brien, who are the responsible representatives in the Department and I will articulate to them what the Deputies have said to me. I will ask them to converse directly with the Deputies in the hope that we can offer some assistance within the confines of the available budgets.