Seanad debates

Tuesday, 2 December 2008

6:00 pm

Photo of Frances FitzgeraldFrances Fitzgerald (Fine Gael)
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I welcome the opportunity to raise the issue of the funding available for sports facilities at Collinstown, Clondalkin and Palmerstown. There are four other community facilities affected by the developments of recent weeks and months. I welcome the Minister for Community, Rural and Gaeltacht Affairs, Deputy Éamon Ó Cuív, to the House. Will he outline how these facilities and community-based centres will be funded? It appears the dormant accounts funding which was financing these centres effectively has run out.

As the Minister is aware, these facilities are used by thousands of young children who attend various groups and sports in the halls. These facilities are vital for the community and very much part of community life. The recent developments are of great concern and there have been many meetings to discuss what will happen. The sports facilities at Collinstown and Palmerstown are excellent and widely used community facilities that have been of significant benefit to the community. There is great concern that they may not be able to continue in the present format because the funding has dried up with no alternative funding mechanism in place.

I understand there have been some discussions between the local council, the vocational education committee and the Department. The community, the staff involved in running the centres and the users wish to know the breakdown between those three groups if there is to be agreement on funding. Will the funding be the same as before? Will the same number of staff be employed in these centres? Will the same number of community groups be able to use the facilities? Those in the community do not mind from where the funding comes so long as there is funding for these excellent community facilities which have developed and grown significantly since they were established. People wish to continue using them.

The north Clondalkin community service has held several public meetings attended by hundreds of people. These are lively facilities used by everyone in the communities involved. I hope the Minister can clarify what will happen in respect of the funding, whether the sports facilities can continue to be used, whether the staff will continue to be employed, if the funding is secure, and if there has been agreement between the various bodies which can provide funding so that the centres may remain open given that the dormant accounts funding has ended.

Photo of Éamon Ó CuívÉamon Ó Cuív (Minister, Department of Community, Rural and Gaeltacht Affairs; Galway West, Fianna Fail)
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I thank Senator Fitzgerald for raising this matter as it gives me the opportunity to outline to the House the proposal my Department is developing along with the Department of Education and Science, County Dublin Vocational Education Committee and South Dublin County Council. I was made aware several years ago that my Department made money available through the dormant accounts fund. I was approached recently by the Department of Education and Science and it explained the money was running out. We were aware of this. The Department of Education and Science indicated it did not have the resources to keep the facilities open at night. I assure the Senator this development was of immediate concern to me and I decided to make appropriate arrangements to keep these places open. It would be a scandal if these fine facilities were not available to the public for the longest number of hours possible. I share the concerns of people regarding these facilities.

The matter raised affects four combined community and school operated sports halls in Killinarden and Firhouse in south Dublin and schools in Palmerstown and Collinstown in west Dublin. These four facilities were built or upgraded as part of a programme to develop combined community and school sports halls in drugs task force areas in Dublin and Cork. The objective was that each facility would serve a dual purpose. They would put state-of-the-art sporting and recreational facilities at the disposal of the school-going population of the areas of south and west Dublin and the facilities would be accessible to the wider community to utilise.

Senators may wish to note that the Department of Education and Science provided funding in excess of €34 million to cover the capital cost of constructing nine halls attached to post-primary schools. Eight of these halls are located in Dublin, including the halls referred to earlier. Four are located within the boundary of Dublin city at Pearse College, Crumlin, the College of Further Education, Inchicore, Senior College, Ballyfermot, and St. Michael's secondary school in Finglas. The facility at St. Vincent's convent secondary school is based in Cork city.

The Government approved operational funding in respect of six halls in 2007 to make the facilities available for community usage. These funds were provided from the dormant accounts fund. The allocated dormant accounts funding will finish at the end of 2008. The Senator will be aware that dormant accounts funding has a limited life and cannot continue forever because funding is finite. With the downturn in the economy, more people will remember where their money is hidden. As the Department of Education and Science does not normally fund community facilities, the matter was raised with me to examine the opportunities that might exist under the programmes operated by my Department. In developing a suitable approach, I am keen to ensure we provide a more sustainable and long-term means of funding the community services in these centres.

Having considered the matter with my officials, my Department has in recent days reached agreement with County Dublin Vocational Education Committee and South Dublin County Council on the broad principles of an arrangement to secure the community use of these facilities in the long term. While the details of the proposals are yet to be finalised, I am satisfied that the facilities will remain available to the community without any interruption of services and that their longer-term use will be secured. I am hopeful the necessary support will be forthcoming from the schools and the people of the areas served.

Our proposals have yet to be finalised but having looked at the instruments available, my Department has decided to offer funding under the community services programme, formerly the social economy programme run by FÁS which was transferred to my Department in 2006. There are 370 projects in contract nationwide to provide a very broad range of services. The programme offers a contribution towards the employment cost of an agreed number of workers for contract periods of up to three years. The contracts are renewable and are not subject to any time limit. Funding is also normally provided for the employment of managers. The project is then in a position to offer its services, charge a reasonable fee and develop a sustainable business plan that will reduce its dependence on State support over the longer term. However, I recognise that some State support will always be needed. Having said that, we encourage people to charge reasonable fees for the use of facilities and so forth.

The Senator asked about payment for employees. My Department gives a certain amount for full-time employee equivalents, although organisations can employ people on a full-time or part-time basis, depending on their needs. We pay the minimum wage so if there are four full-time equivalents in employment and a manager, my Department gives four times the minimum wage. The organisation can top up that funding if it so chooses. It is important to stress that given the nature of the funding scheme, the staff employed, except for the manager, must come from the target groups, namely, unemployed people, lone parents, people with disabilities and so forth. In that context, not everything that is in place will fit in under the new arrangements but this is a sustainable model for the future.

I want to ensure these excellent facilities are open and at the disposal of the communities at a reasonable cost. We must also secure their longer-term sustainability. I ask the Senator to support these efforts and thank her for affording me the opportunity to outline what is being planned and, with goodwill, we can make this work. I hope this will give us a permanent solution which will allow the continued use of such facilities while providing gainful employment for people who might otherwise be unemployed.

Photo of Frances FitzgeraldFrances Fitzgerald (Fine Gael)
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When does the Minister expect agreement to be reached on the funding arrangement with the three groups involved? If current staff do not meet the criteria which must be met under the community services programme, are there any transitional arrangements that could be put in place to ensure continuity of staff in the facilities?

Photo of Éamon Ó CuívÉamon Ó Cuív (Minister, Department of Community, Rural and Gaeltacht Affairs; Galway West, Fianna Fail)
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My intention is to ensure a smooth transition and, as I said in my reply, we are working towards continuity. If everything is not finalised by 1 January, we will have to make some interim arrangement because there is no point in closing the facilities only to reopen them at a later date. I will try to avoid that situation if at all possible.

It is important to point out that what is involved here is a cocktail of funding. The CDVEC and South Dublin County Council will provide some funding. The funding being given by the Department would not cover all the staff requirements and overheads of the facilities. The best thing for all parties to do is to determine where to go from here in the context of the constraints of the programme under which the Department is operating because we must live within those agreed constraints. The parties must take account of the total resources that will be available through charges for use of the facilities, contributions from other statutory agencies and local authorities and the contribution from my Department. My hope is that once the management has a clear picture of the shape of the funding package available, it can work out satisfactory interim arrangements in consultation with all stakeholders. That level of final detail has yet to be worked out but with good will, it is possible to get the scheme to work to everyone's benefit.

Transition is always difficult. My Department has examined a suite of possible solutions to this problem. It is somewhat constrained, however, in that it must work within the parameters of agreed programmes. We cannot simply decide a project is a great cause and create a programme to fund it. If we can get from where we are to where we want to go, we will have a very sustainable model and in three years' time we will not face this problem. I hope people can work together to resolve any transitional difficulties that arise.