Fine Gael TD for Galway West & Mayo South

Forum Connemara and SICAP Funding Arrangements

Deputy Seán Kyne: I welcome the Minister of State to the House to debate this issue. The Government has initiated a process to establish the local community development committees, LCDCs, one of which was established in Galway. Last September, the LCDC in Galway met and had to make a decision on whether to allow one, two or more than two lots for the county. It decided that there would be one lot for the social inclusion and community activation programme, SICAP, contract for the county. Subsequently, there were attempts to have this decision reversed. All the Oireachtas Members from Galway West, including my colleague Deputy Derek Nolan, Senators from the constituency and all the councillors representing the Connemara municipal district requested the LCDC in Galway to reverse the decision and allow for two lots, or allow a separate lot for the Connemara area, which is a distinct region separate from the rest of the county. One has to go through the Galway city local authority area to reach the rest of the county. The reversal did not happen and a contract was subsequently issued.

There is much concern in the locality, not least over the process. There were 19 people eligible to vote on the decision to allow one lot, but only five people made the decision because of certain people not turning up, conflicts of interest and the private and public elements of the process laid down. There is much concern in Connemara. FORUM Connemara has a great record of providing a service to that part of the community over 25 years. The community wants to know what options are now open to FORUM Connemara regarding the SICAP and whether the LCDC decision can be reversed. It is concerned about continuity of services. I appreciate that Galway Rural Development would have to continue services for the full county, but there is still a lot of concern. Ten jobs – five full-time and five part-time – are at risk, in an area where jobs are badly needed. They represent very valuable resources so there is great concern in the community. I do not know anyone in the Connemara area who is happy with the decision that has been made. Unfortunately, it has been made by Galway people on the LCDC.

I am not happy with the decision and I am wondering what the Minister of State and the Department will do to intervene.

Deputy Derek Nolan: We are in the midst of one serious mess in Galway at the moment. The results of what has happened, as Deputy Kyne has outlined, have really thrown the community sector, rural communities, the community in Connemara and the community in the rest of County Galway into total turmoil. No one in Galway wants this situation which has come to the fore. Everyone agrees on this point. Galway Rural Development, GRD, wanted two lots. FORUM wanted two lots. The Minister of State has been to Letterfrack and visited FORUM. She has seen the immense work carried out there to turn what was a very small rural town into a thriving community with so many different community projects. All of them are centred on a community approach of which FORUM is an element.

I know there are things happening to do with judicial reviews and so forth. However, we need to take a step back and look at this mess. No one foresaw it leading to such difficulties. Staff in FORUM and staff in Galway Rural Development are terrified about losing their jobs and communities across Galway are upset. The solution is to find some way for the Department to cut out the legal process and the need for people to go to court. The Department needs to say that two lots are ideal in this situation. This is what both companies would have wanted originally and this is what the citizens and residents of Galway want. They want two companies to allow this to happen.

There may be ways we can do this. Could we allow subcontracting between the two companies or for funds to be transferred in another way? Could we redo the lot again? We need to look at all kinds of options. This is the only way out of it. If someone had been vying for this situation and saying it was a good idea, then the Minister of State could say there is an argument. However, there is no one in County Galway saying that what is happening now is the right way to go. Everyone says it is wrong. Everyone says that FORUM has an excellent record and that Connemara and the east and the west of Galway need that separate independent unique voice which works so well and knows the community. If we can find a way through this without delaying and getting involved in technicalities, let us do it now. Let us put these people and the communities at ease once and for all.

Deputy Ann Phelan: The proposals outlined in Putting People First: Action Programme for Effective Local Government seek to position local government as the primary vehicle of governance and public service at local level leading economic, social and community development, delivering efficient and good value services and representing citizens and local communities effectively and accountably. As part of the programme of reform of local government, local community development committees, LCDCs, have been established in all local authority areas. These committees, comprising public-private socio-economic interests, will have responsibility for local and community development programmes on an area basis including the social inclusion and community activation programme, or SICAP as the programme is commonly known. They will develop, co-ordinate and implement a more coherent and integrated approach to local and community development than heretofore with the aim of reducing duplication and overlap and optimising the use of available resources for the benefit of citizens and communities.

In accordance with the public spending code, legal advice, good practice internationally and in order to ensure the optimum delivery of services to clients, SICAP was subject to a public procurement process, which is in its final stages. In stage one, joint applications were encouraged and organisations of varying sizes, for example, smaller organisations working in consortia with larger organisations, were invited to submit joint applications. The closing date for stage two, invitation to tender, was 19 December 2014. Tenderers have now been informed of the outcome of their tender and local community development committees are in the process of establishing contracts with the successful tenderers. Following contract signature, Pobal will publish a contract award notice in the Official Journal of the EU and on the eTenders website.

LCDCs have managed and implemented stage two, invitation to tender, of the SICAP tendering process. While my Department recommended that in order to reduce the administrative burden for each LCDC that it would be prudent to have one lot only for each LCDC, in some areas the decision was taken by the LCDC to divide the lot into smaller units. That was a decision of the LCDC concerned in each case. The LCDC is independent of the local authority in the performance of its functions. This independence is provided for explicitly in sections 49A(2) and 128B(8) of the Local Government Act 2001. Any decisions made by an LCDC when carrying out its functions are solely a matter for the LCDC. I am satisfied that the decision of Galway LCDC to tender on the basis of one lot was taken appropriately.

The primary focus of my Department is to ensure that the front-line services being supported, particularly those focused on the needs of the most socially deprived communities, are protected, given the need to ensure best value for the scarce resources available. I am confident that the new programme will continue to provide key supports to those most in need in our communities in all local authority areas throughout the county and country.

Deputy Seán Kyne: I thank the Minister of State for her response. While she states that she is satisfied that the decision of Galway LCDC to tender on the basis of one lot was taken appropriately, unfortunately no one in Connemara feels that the decision is serving them. It is certainly not putting them first. The basis of this programme was to put people first. The people of that region of north Connemara have not been put first by the decision of the Galway LCDC. Herein lies the crux of the issue: how do we solve this? As pointed out, no one in Galway is happy with the decision. Although we have gone down a legal route, I ask that the Minister of State’s Department and Pobal would work with the winning tenderer, GRD, and FORUM to see if there is any process or mechanism within the law to reverse this by consent. We have to work together for the good of the county to make the best and most appropriate decision, which is to have a separate lot for the Connemara area. Will the Minister of State examine whatever methods are available within her Department or within Pobal to make this happen?

Deputy Derek Nolan: Gabhaim mo bhuíochas leis an Aire Stáit. I appreciate this is what the Department is telling the Minister of State and it is probably accurate. However, will the Minister of State use her offices in a manner broader than the remit suggested in the answer today? Will she examine the situation and have her Department contact the county council and some of the county councillors, Galway Rural Development and FORUM in order to realise and to understand that there is not a single stakeholder in Galway who is happy with the decision or what is happening, or who is happy that the situation as it is unfolding will work for the communities.

We need to try to recognise that what happened in the LCDC happened at a time when people were probably not as focused as they ought to have been on the issue. Sometimes decisions get made, as we all know, in this House which the Government has got wrong. In this case, the decision was wrong. Will the Minister of State use her office and her Department as a way and means of bringing the stakeholders together to find a way forward? At first, the Minister of State should talk to these stakeholders and listen to them. She will hear the real and genuine concerns from all sides. Will she use her office to examine any possible avenue, be it negotiation, working with Pobal, subcontracting or retendering, to find a way to give Galway Rural Development its piece on the east of the county and FORUM Connemara the piece for Connemara and uphill on the west of the Corrib? This is extremely important. We need to ensure that we continue the vital services which currently serve this region and Connemara.

Minister of State, Ann Phelan: We must bear in mind that the tender process is a legal one which was open to everyone to submit an application. Having said that, I am very conscious that communities have been trying to get their heads around the LCDC structure, the changes and the alignment process, and that there are difficulties, both actual and perceived. I will ask my officials to contact both Deputies to see if we can sit down and examine possible ways to support the communities.

My foremost concern is that front-line services be delivered to those communities that need them. I will take the Deputy’s concerns on board and ask my officials to get in contact with them to determine whether there is a road forward. There would be no problem with having a chat with anyone about finding compromise.