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Financial Resolution No. 15: General (Resumed) (Continued)

Thursday, 6 December 2012

Dáil Éireann Debate
Vol. 785 No. 3

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(Speaker Continuing)

[Deputy Leo Varadkar: Information on Leo Varadkar Zoom on Leo Varadkar] Although it is considerably more expensive, the S92 is a modern, safer aircraft with a significantly greater capacity, range, and speed. It is configured for search and rescue operations with a range of 270 nautical miles. The Coast Guard also launched a new helicopter emergency medical service, HEMS, last July and has completed almost 100 missions. This service will expand further in 2013.

The Coast Guard is fortunate to have an extensive voluntary service at its disposal, with 900 Coast Guard, 2,000 Royal National Lifeboat Institute, 300 community rescue boats and 500 mountain and cave rescue volunteers providing a 24 hour on-call service to respond to emergencies at sea, on our cliffs or on our coasts. Without these volunteers, it would not be possible to provide the same level of emergency response. Similarly, funding for the RNLI, mountain rescue, weather buoys and the Marine Casualty Investigation Board will be maintained at current levels through to 2016. These are essential services and much of the cost is met by volunteers. I cannot justify any cut in these budget lines.

The boxers, Paralympians and individual athletes, along with our national teams and local and county sports people, lifted the nation’s spirits throughout the year, and we are grateful for that as a nation. Moreover, rising levels of participation in sport suggest that our policies are working and investment in sport is producing a real return. In recognition of this, I am reducing the planned cut in funding to the Irish Sports Council from 5% to 2.9% for 2013, representing a marginal decrease in funding from €44.4 million to €43.1 million. Funding for the National Sports Campus will be maintained at €1.5 million per annum, leaving aside the provision of an additional €300,000 on an exceptional basis. The Minister of State, Deputy Ring, will expand further on funding for sports in his contribution.

The 2013 allocation includes €7 million in funding for The Gathering Ireland 2013. In 2012, I allocated €5 million to The Gathering, and it is important to increase resources next year when the events and festivals are being held. The budget for Fáilte Ireland will be reduced slightly from €65 million to €63.3 million, saving just over €1 million, with a further reduction to €53.2 million planned for 2014 and 2015. However, plans are under way to merge Shannon Development’s tourism functions with Fáilte Ireland's in 2013, and their combined spend on tourism will amount to €65.3 million, representing a small increase in current spending on domestic tourism. The tourism marketing fund will be reduced by 5% or €2 million to €37.2 million. The Minister of State, Deputy Ring, will provide further details.

Minister of State at the Department of Transport, Tourism and Sport (Deputy Alan Kelly): Information on Alan Kelly Zoom on Alan Kelly I start by acknowledging that it is a difficult time for public transport in this country. Retaining services will be a major challenge in the year ahead for private operators, public operators, taxi drivers, passengers and those dependent on the rural transport system, but one from which we will not shy away. We have found ourselves in an horrific economic situation left to us by the previous Administration, where we have had to make cuts to funding with which we would not otherwise agree. We have reduced and will continue to reduce public transport subvention. Unfortunately, this is a necessity.

Having said that, I acknowledge the contribution of the three main Opposition parties, namely, Fianna Fáil, Sinn Féin and the United Left Alliance, to the public transport debate. Despite constantly moaning in this House about the cuts to public transport, I can take it from their pre-budget submissions that they are in favour of the enforced reductions in subvention to public transport. When it came to putting forward a constructive proposal on the matter, not one of them even mentioned the possibility of reversing reductions in subvention, which is amazing. We can only conclude that either they support the measures the Government is taking to balance the books or, alternatively, that public transport is quite low on their priorities, either of which is quite worrying. The United Left Alliance's 34-page pre-budget submission makes no mention of increasing the public transport subsidy. Sinn Féin's 29-page pre-budget submission makes no mention of taking away the public transport subvention, while Fianna Fáil's pre-budget submission is exactly the same. The only conclusion one can draw is that they support the Government's position in this difficult time or they simply could not care less.

However, as challenging as it is for the public transport system right now, there is a positive story to be told by the Government. The free travel pass has been maintained. While I believe we should do more to tackle fraud and abuse of this privilege of which we are aware, maintaining it was certainly a challenge. With the Leap card, real-time passenger information signs, the introduction of Wi-Fi and the national journey planner, we are beginning to see some form of stabilisation of passenger numbers and, hopefully, this will militate against further reductions in future.

Since November 2009 it has been the responsibility of the National Transport Authority to contract for PSO services with the CIE bus and rail companies on the basis of total funding advanced by my Department. In recent years the total subvention paid to the three CIE subsidiaries has been reduced from a high of €308 million in 2008 to €242 million originally earmarked for 2012. On 24 July, the Government decided to provide additional funding of €36 million to CIE to ensure the companies could continue to operate for the rest of 2012. This would bring the total subvention for this year to €278 million, which is higher than the subvention level for 2010 and is the fifth highest level of subvention ever. At this very difficult time for the public finances, it was not easy to find a large amount of additional funds. It involved very difficult decisions in terms of having to divert funding from other very worthwhile and important projects and initiatives, and imposing sacrifices on others.

Despite our economic problems and the reduced sums available for capital and current expenditure, the Government will continue to prioritise the role of public transport. Unfortunately, the amount that can be made available for PSO subvention must be reduced again. Further reductions of 6% per annum for 2013 and 2014 will be applied. As stated previously, the Opposition does not seem to have any issue with this.

The additional funding for this year only provides a very short breathing space to CIE. It is essential the management and staff in the CIE companies implement proposals to cut costs that can help to address the serious financial position in which the CIE group finds itself. In this regard, I am anxious that the current negotiations between management and unions at the two bus companies are concluded as soon as possible. In view of the difficult financial situation of CIE and the need to finalise its business planning for 2013, it is imperative these discussions bring forward a positive outcome in the coming weeks.

There are some positive elements to the transport budget. The Government has maintained smarter travel and carbon reduction capital investment in 2013 at the same level as the 2012 allocation, which is €17.4 million. If we want to take people out of cars and onto bicycles and public transport, we must invest in the necessary infrastructure to achieve this. We are achieving this through the smarter travel demonstration areas programme, active travel towns programme and the national cycle network. We are actively seeking a private sector sponsor to extend the dublinbikes scheme to other cities. All of these are designed to encourage people to cycle while also focusing on important elements of infrastructure.

This is only a small part of what my Department is actively doing. Working with the Minister, Deputy Varadkar, we are maintaining public transport as much as possible in what is a very difficult time. Public transport is not by its nature profit making. It is a social need that facilitates consumer spending and one that we are actively preserving and improving as much as practicable.

An Ceann Comhairle: Information on Seán Barrett Zoom on Seán Barrett I call Deputy Ó Cuív, who is sharing time with Deputy Troy. As we are due to adjourn at 4.30 p.m. and you have 12 minutes, Deputy Ó Cuív, you will probably bring us to the adjournment and Deputy Troy can follow later.

Deputy Éamon Ó Cuív: Information on Éamon Ó Cuív Zoom on Éamon Ó Cuív Before I deal with the details of the budget, I wish to express concern over some underlying trends. The Government would claim that one of the failures of the Celtic tiger period was that the overall picture was missed when looking at the detail of budgets. Considering there were contributions from two Ministers, yesterday's budget had the longest speeches but contained the least amount of information. Most of the information had been leaked beforehand and other information has been coming out in dribs and drabs in the 24 hours since the budget. Estimates, which seven or eight years ago were quite detailed when they were published, have now become four-liners giving total figures for Departments without giving any indication of the breakdown.

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