Adjournment Debate

Motor Fuels

I wish to share time with my colleagues, Deputy John O'Mahony and Deputy Peter Fitzpatrick. Cross-Border oil smuggling is an epidemic and the State is losing a great deal of revenue. It is causing unfair competition to legitimate businesses. It arose because of the carbon tax which was introduced in the Republic in the past year and has added €32 to the cost of 1,000 litres of diesel. This has made it worthwhile for people to transport diesel. What are the Customs and Excise and Revenue doing about this? This matter needs to be addressed. I await the response of the Minister of State with great interest.

I raised this issue with the Minister for Finance some months ago. This is a simple matter. Millions of euro are being lost to the State through the illegal laundering of fuel and diesel. This has been caused by the great rise in oil, petrol and diesel prices and it has been an attraction for criminality which has been taken up with gusto. There is a disparity of 51 cent between off-road and on-road diesel at the moment. The difficulty has been exacerbated since the beginning of the year with the change in the sulphur content in diesel. The perception up to now was that this was only a problem in Border areas. However, this illegal product seems to be mushrooming all over the place and has been detected in Cork, Waterford, Limerick and many other counties, including in the west.

The Irish Petrol Retail Association has raised this issue and it maintains that it is costing jobs. The association reckons there are 120 questionable filling stations selling diesel, amounting to 12% of the overall diesel market. I congratulate the Revenue and Customs and Excise on last week's find in Castleblayney but it epitomised the difficulty and has shown the people that the law of the jungle applies in respect of this issue. Not only was the find massive, but those involved ganged up on the Customs and Excise officers as they moved away with the dismantled plant. They have no respect for the environment. Whatever needs to be done should be done and whatever resources are necessary must be put at the disposal of the Customs and Excise or the law. The ordinary people and retailers are keen for this to be sorted out. Whatever needs to be done should be done now.

I thank the Ceann Comhairle for the opportunity to discuss this important matter with the Minister of State. The Government has lost a vast amount of revenue throughout the years as a result of fuel laundering. I congratulate the Garda and Customs and Excise officials for their work in trying to stamp out this illegal activity. Last week, they made an important find near Castleblayney, County Monaghan. Recently, I met a group of fuel retailers in County Louth. They expressed concern that the problem is as bad as ever. They are having problems trying to compete with people who are willing to purchase this laundered diesel for resale. It seems that no matter how many people are caught and put out of business it makes no difference to the volume of illegal product available. It appears those who are prosecuted simply take their medicine and then start up an illegal operation again. The incentive to do this is great because they can make substantial profits from their operations.

There are three problems involved. First, the Government is losing substantial revenue because of this illegal trade. Second, the unsuspecting customer who unwittingly buys this laundered product will find that his or her fuel pumps will be damaged over time. Third, the chemicals used to launder the fuel create toxic waste which is doing untold damage to the environment. Legal fuel retailers find it impossible to operate with those willing to sell the laundered product.

In these cases the punishment does not fit the crime. Since the profits generated from this illegal activity are so great, when those involved are prosecuted the penalties should be equally great. As far as I know, that is not the case. I request that the Minister review the legislation governing this activity with a view to ensuring that the penalties that apply in court for breaches of the law are prohibitive. This action will greatly assist the Garda and Customs and Excise officials in stamping out this illegal activity.

I am replying to this important matter on behalf of the Minister for Finance, Deputy Noonan. I thank my colleagues, Deputies Feighan, O'Mahony and Fitzpatrick for raising it and for bringing it to the attention of Dáil Éireann. I am informed by the Revenue Commissioners, who are responsible for the collection of mineral oil tax and for tackling the illicit trade in fuel products, that the price in Northern Ireland for regular diesel and petrol is higher than the price in the State and that consequently illegal imports of these commodities are not an issue. However, illegal activity in the form of diesel fuel laundering, which takes place mainly in this State, poses a serious threat to the Exchequer, as the Deputies have outlined.

The House will appreciate that it is not possible to accurately estimate the loss to the Exchequer from individual activities within the shadow economy. The laundering of markers from mineral oil is one of several excise fuel frauds that Revenue is proactively tackling. Marked fuel oil, or green diesel as it is more commonly known, is subject to a lower rate of excise duty on condition that it is used for particular purposes such as home heating or as a propellant in agricultural and off-road vehicles. Its use in ordinary road vehicles is strictly prohibited and there are heavy penalties for anyone convicted of such an offence.

There is a considerable difference in the rates of mineral oil tax applied to ordinary and rebated diesel. The former is taxed, including carbon tax, at a rate of 46.5 cent per litre while the latter is subject to a rate of 9 cent per litre, a difference of approximately 37.5 cent. Clearly, there is an attractive incentive for criminals to evade the higher rate of duty.

The use of marked oil in road vehicles takes two forms. In the first, a person simply puts the marked diesel in his or her tank and hopes that he or she will not encounter one of the regular road checkpoints that Revenue officers set up to detect the illegal use. However, an individual will not be able to continue with this particular method of evasion for long before detection. Anyone convicted of such an offence is liable on conviction to a fine of €5,000. If such a person is subsequently detected, he or she will be further prosecuted and his or her vehicle will be seized. While the illegal use by individuals of marked oil in road vehicles is viewed very seriously by the Revenue Commissioners, the more sinister and potentially damaging to the economy is the large scale laundering of such oil in order to make its detection at Revenue checkpoints more difficult.

The criminals — this is what they are — who carry out this evasion are solely concerned with making illicit profit and care little about the damage that their activity does to the national economy. For obvious reasons, the laundering of markers from diesel is usually carried out in remote rural locations. By its nature this activity creates environmental problems through oil and chemical pollution due to the type of oil laundered, the chemicals or filters employed in removing the markers and the dumped residue. It can cause serious mechanical damage to the engines of unsuspecting motorists. Deliveries by un-roadworthy tankers and untrained drivers have caused spillages on national roads and are a serious risk from a health and safety perspective.

This laundering also damages legitimate trade and facilitates the evasion by rogue garages of other taxes such as VAT and income tax through the suppression of this throughput. It is the belief of Revenue that without retailers who are willing to purchase and retail laundered fuel, oil laundries would have great difficulty in marketing their product. To counter this aspect, in 2007 more serious offences and penalties were introduced for persons detected selling or delivering laundered minerals.

I refer to the point raised by Deputy Fitzpatrick about a review of the law in this area to ensure the penalties are strong and robust enough to deter people from engaging in this illicit and illegal activity. As Deputy O'Mahony pointed out, previously this was an illicit trade most focused along the Border region. However, as he rightly observed, this crime is increasingly seen in many parts of the country away from the Border. The effort to counteract it is an example of the very strong action the organised crime section, the Revenue and An Garda Síochána are collectively taking to pursue those responsible. We are aware that much more needs to be done and it is an issue with which Revenue is considerably exercised. I thank the Deputies for raising the matter because of the enormous damage it potentially causes not only to our economy, to the natural environment and to motorists but also to taxpaying consumers and businesses which are operating in a legal and tax-compliant way and whose business is being taken from under them. We will keep the matter under review.

School Transport

St. Columba's national school in Cloonagh, Dring, County Longford is situated just outside the village of Mullinalaghta, in a very rural part of the county. Both Councillor P.J. Reilly and I have been inundated with calls from frustrated families in regard to the proposed threat to the school transport service from 1 September 2011. This service has been provided to pupils since the 1970s when the two schools in the parish were amalgamated. A firm commitment was given at that time that if the people of the area agreed to the amalgamation, the affected families would always have access to public transport to bring their children to the new facility.

Some 40 years later, the former pupils are now parents themselves and are sending their children to school on the bus. The service provides support to 18 families in the area, ten of which are paying for the service, covering a round journey of 22 km. Will the Minister for Education and Skills review this decision, which constitutes an attack on rural Ireland? For too long rural areas have played second fiddle and been seen as an easy target. People in these areas have barely recovered from the proposed closure of two-teacher schools. I am sure the Minister will say that proposal was initiated by the previous Government, and I accept that. However, the threat remains and the Minister has not put it to bed. Many people are fearful for the future of rural two-teacher schools, and this latest proposal represents another serious attack on rural life.

Only three years ago St. Columba's national school benefited under the schools building programme when a new two-teacher building was built and was opened with all necessary auxiliary facilities in place. The old building is now being used as a community and recreational hall. The school is part of a small but thriving rural community which also has a church, two pubs and a shop. As somebody who comes from a rural area and who went to a one-teacher school which has since been upgraded to two-teacher status, I have a great love and affinity for rural Ireland. The Government must do all in its power to preserve services in these areas.

I acknowledge that the Minister is in a straitjacket in terms of financial constraints, but I understand the Exchequer figures are better by some €200 million than what was anticipated at the beginning of the year. For a very small sum this service can be maintained for the 18 families which depend on it. Working parents may be unable to bring their children to school in the absence of a school bus service. I ask the Minister to review the situation as soon as possible before 1 September with a view to alleviating the fears of these families. There is a perception that we are seeing an attack on rural Ireland, including on rural schools. I hope the Minister will allay that fear this evening and will commit to revisiting this decision with a view to retaining the service that is being provided to the 18 families, ten of which are paying for it and are willing to continue to do so into the future.

I take it the Deputy is referring to the changes in the primary school transport scheme announced in budget 2011 by the previous Fianna Fáil-Green Party Government. These changes, which may have an impact on the school transport service for St. Columba's national school, derive from recommendations in the value for money review of the school transport scheme and include changes to the closed school rule, CSR, and to the minimum numbers required to establish or maintain a service.

Regarding the CSR, there is a number of dimensions to the cessation of this rule. The first, which will be implemented from September 2011, involves the uniform application of the distance criterion to all pupils travelling under the primary transport scheme, including those travelling under the CSR. This means that children residing less than 3.2 km from their school of amalgamation will be deemed ineligible for school transport. Families affected will be notified by Bus Éireann of changes to their transport eligibility with effect from the 2011-2012 school year. These families may apply for concessionary transport on payment of a charge of €200 in circumstances where there are spare seats available.

The second element of the change is scheduled to take effect in September 2012 and will apply only in the case of pupils commencing their primary education from that date. This change will restrict school transport eligibility for new pupils to those who meet the distance eligibility criterion and are travelling to their nearest school.

Available statistics, based on sampling undertaken as part of the value for money review, indicate that the impact of this element of the change will be limited, as the majority of pupils categorised under the closed school rule are in fact attending their nearest school. Therefore, the majority of families will not be affected by the change. That said, I have requested Bus Éireann to conduct a detailed analysis of the impact for individual schools and the rural communities they serve. Like the Deputy, I attended a small rural school and am very much aware of the requirements of these schools and the challenge they face to survive.

The Minister of State and I have something in common.

Bus Éireann's analysis will be based on the most up-to-date information available on current usage patterns and this information is expected to be available this summer. The likely effects of this change will then be carefully examined well in advance of the 2012 implementation date.

To put this issue in context for the 2009-2010 school year, transport services under the CSR operated to more than 800 primary schools with almost 26,000 children deemed eligible for school transport under this rule, representing 54.4% of mainstream tickets issued. The transport of such a significant number of children, some of whom would not qualify for the service on the basis of the distance criterion alone, involves a cost.

In regard to the minimum numbers required to establish or maintain a service, the changes include the requirement that from the 2011-12 school year, a minimum of ten eligible pupils residing in a distinct locality will be required to retain or establish a school transport service. This brings the minimum numbers required to establish services back to 2002 levels. As is currently the position, families of eligible pupils for whom there is no suitable school transport service available may apply for the remote area grant towards the cost of making private transport arrangements. Bus Éireann is currently undertaking a detailed examination of all such services to establish the routes in question. Families affected will be notified of changes.

Job Losses

I am grateful for the opportunity to raise the matter of the global pharmaceutical centre of excellence in Tralee. This is an issue of the utmost importance for the people of Tralee, the people of County Kerry and for the entire south-west region. When the centre of excellence was first announced it represented an unprecedented ray of hope for Tralee.

I remind Members that even at the height of the so-called boom, at one point the town of Tralee had a live register figure that was higher than that for the entirety of County Meath. Tralee has been an industrial wasteland for almost two decades and this project offered huge hope and optimism for the future. However, in recent days it has emerged that the project, which has the potential to create up to 5,000 jobs, may be in danger of being relocated to Derry in Northern Ireland. Since the onset of the recession, the unemployment problem in Tralee and in County Kerry in general has worsened considerably and it now appears as though this project, which was dangled in front of them and looked so positive, will be lost to the people of County Kerry and the south west.

The project backers have cited huge differences in attitude between State agencies south of the Border and their equivalents, such as Invest Northern Ireland, north of the Border. In particular, the IDA has come in for enormous criticism from the backers of the global pharmaceutical centre of excellence. I call on the Minister of State to assure me, as well as the people of Tralee and County Kerry, that everything that possibly can be done will be done to ensure this vital project stays in County Kerry and does not go north of the Border. Second, will representatives of the IDA be asked to explain its record on this project and the reason those who back this project have felt obliged to take to the airwaves in County Kerry and to approach the media to complain about that agency? This must be done if jobs are to be successfully created and if the economy is to grow in the future. It is not good enough that a State agency should be cited as being so weak, poor and unresponsive when a huge project such as this is offered as an opportunity.

The project backers also mentioned they have been highly impressed and are satisfied with the support they have received from Shannon Development and from the Minister, Deputy Deenihan. In addition, Kerry County Council and the other local authorities in Kerry have worked hard to try to bring this project to fruition. However, the IDA is an agency that appears to have allowed this project to slip through its fingers. Anyone who examines the IDA's delivery figures for County Kerry over the past 15 years will discern the agency already has a disastrous record in the county. I seek action in this regard as it is not too late. While this project has not yet departed, it will go unless something is done. I seek a guarantee this evening that the Government will stand up for the people of County Kerry and the south west and will help to deliver this project. It is not good enough that there is a possibility that it will be lost. Too many people from County Kerry have been forced to emigrate or are out of work. Too many graduates of the Institute of Technology Tralee have no hope because they see no jobs in the county. Similarly, too many of the leaving certificate students who are sitting their examinations at present wonder why they should even bother going to college because no opportunities will await them on graduation. This project could be the catalyst that County Kerry badly needs to get its economy moving again and to be a model for the rest of Ireland. I wish to ensure this project is not lost to the people of the county and I call on the Minister of State, Deputy Perry, and on the Minister for Jobs, Enterprise and Innovation, Deputy Bruton, to intervene. They should do what is right by the people of County Kerry and should ensure that the global pharmaceutical centre of excellence will remain in Tralee and will lift the county and the south-western region as a whole out of recession.

I thank Deputy Griffin for raising this matter, which refers to efforts to develop a global pharmaceutical centre of excellence to be located in Tralee. The concept involved is to develop and build a multidisciplinary life sciences and pharmaceutical contract research centre in Ireland. The original concept as outlined my predecessors, to my Department and to the State agencies, was estimated to cost €4.7 billion and envisaged jobs for 116 leading academic professionals, 321 corporate management executives and 4, 380 graduates. The project was to operate on a commercial market basis, carrying out paid research for clients such as international pharmaceutical companies.

Since the project was originally mooted, I understand there has been much local and national political involvement. The support of the industrial development agencies and of my Department has been available to the proposers to discuss and develop proposals. In late 2010, the promoters met the former Taoiseach and the former Minister for Enterprise, Trade and Innovation. However, the proposers have not thus far succeeded in developing the concept to a point where a firm business plan has been proposed. Being in business, it is important for me to make the point to Deputy Griffin about the necessity of getting the business potential of such a project onto a plan. Such a plan always is necessary in order that the relevant State agency board, which under legislation is tasked with deciding on how much State monetary aid might be paid to any industrial project, can assess the proposal and reach a decision.

In late 2010, an enterprise agencies team, led by the IDA and involving representatives of Enterprise Ireland, Science Foundation Ireland and Shannon Development was set up to examine a plan submitted by the promoters, which related to the original full proposal. Incidentally, on the issue of Enterprise Ireland, I believe we are well served in this regard. Moreover, since my appointment as Minister of State, the amount of foreign direct investment into Ireland has been extraordinary. Consequently, I would be disappointed to hear this is not the case in County Kerry. The aforementioned group was tasked to furnish its analysis to the then Minister for Enterprise, Trade and Innovation by the end of the first quarter of 2011. However, in early February, the then Minister was informed that the backers of the global pharmaceutical centre of excellence had, for the time being at least, withdrawn from the engagement. An examination of the plan was therefore in abeyance until such time as the promoters of the global pharmaceutical centre of excellence were in a position to re-engage with the agency group.

More recently, proposals for a first phase of the project have been in discussion. It has been indicated that this might involve a number of international research operators and international funding and might have the potential to create approximately 280 jobs. Again, however, neither a business plan nor an application for State support has yet been submitted. A lengthy meeting took place last Friday in which Enterprise Ireland and Shannon Development advised the promoters on drawing up a business plan and on submitting an application for State financial support. If the Deputy has contacts with the promoters, I appeal to him to emphasise to them that the business plan is the absolute starting point. The proposers were given an application form that can be used in a global pharmaceutical centre of excellence application to Enterprise Ireland for financial support. I hope this can lead to an early application for State support. In the meantime, I emphasise to Deputy Griffin, who raised this important issue of huge potential to the region, that he may be assured the support and advice of all relevant State agencies and Departments are available to the promoters.

The Adjournment motion this evening refers to a potential loss of jobs to Northern Ireland. In all negotiations on the location of and State support for mobile industrial projects, it is not unusual for promoters to talk to a number of different countries and State authorities. In this case however, where it is not yet clear whether a firm proposal will emerge or how many jobs might be involved, it is premature to talk of jobs being lost to any alternative location. Finally, from a business perspective, this is about the promoters engaging with the State agencies such as the IDA, Enterprise Ireland and so on. The IDA has been highly successful in terms of both job retention and job creation and I am certain that were an application to be put on its desk, it certainly would get all possible State support to ensure this potential enterprise was located in the region to which the Deputy refers.

Health Service Reforms

I thank the Ceann Comhairle for the opportunity to raise the important matter pertaining to the services at the three midland hospitals, namely, Mullingar, Portlaoise and Tullamore hospitals. Options are being considered at present for the three hospitals, including a number of different measures. Discussions are ongoing regarding the provision of services at the three hospitals with serious implications in particular for acute surgery at Portlaoise hospital. Last year, the Midland Regional Hospital, Portlaoise, was the 11th busiest hospital in the State. In that year, 41,000 emergency cases were dealt with there and this compares with 24,000 cases in Naas. If acute surgery is discontinued at Portlaoise hospital, it will have huge implications for both that hospital and for Tullamore hospital. Tullamore hospital cannot cope with the increased workload, as the staff there already are under severe pressure. Core services at Portlaoise will be undermined. For example, the maternity, paediatric and accident and emergency services all rely on and require acute surgery facilities to be in place in order to function properly. Patient care will be compromised at both hospitals and this must all be considered in the context of growing pressure and longer waiting lists.

I am informed that among the options being considered are to have on-call acute surgery — whatever that means — available for reduced hours or that acute surgery would be taken away from Portlaoise. The timeframe for a final decision is very short, by 1 July at the very latest. The new regime will be in place by 11 July.

The main issues are supposed to be the availability of doctors who are referred to as the NCHDs, non-consultant hospital doctors. I am informed that Portlaoise will have an adequate number of NCHDs for July in order to continue with the current level of acute surgery at Portlaoise hospital. This should not be an excuse. I also ask the Minister to ensure that Naas hospital is included in the ongoing review of services because this hospital will provide a larger pool of staff. The other issue is funding. I know that this presents a challenge for both Tullamore and Portlaoise hospitals and also for Mullingar hospital. However, services can be maintained with careful management and with existing funding. I am sure the Department is open to giving a small amount of extra funding to ensure the hospitals do not run out of money.

Before the general election, both Government parties, Fine Gael and Labour, gave clear commitments to make health a priority. The Minister for Health when he came into office promised to take a very direct hands-on approach and to have his Department directly in control of health provision. I welcome this promise because I have listened for years to nonsense about the HSE being responsible and someone else being responsible, yet here was the Minister having a straight line of responsibility and this is welcomed by Sinn Féin on this side of the House.

However, last week I received a one line response about this major reconfiguration of services in Portlaoise. The reply stated that the matter was being referred to the Health Service Executive for a direct reply. That is a very poor response, considering the commitments given.

I hope that acute surgery will be retained at the hospitals and I hope it will not be ended at Portlaoise, which is the busiest hospital with 41,000 emergency cases last year. I hope it will not happen under Fine Gael and the Labour Party's watch. What we need in Laois-Offaly is for the Minister to intervene directly and ensure that the core services and in particular, acute surgery, will be retained in Portlaoise and Tullamore.

I am replying to this Adjournment matter on behalf of my colleague, the Minister for Health, Deputy James Reilly.

At national level, the HSE is working intensively to ensure there are sufficient non-consultant hospital doctors, NCHDs, in each hospital, following the next rotation of posts due in July. I can confirm that the provision of hospital services at the three midland hospitals is currently being addressed by the HSE in light of a possible shortage of NCHDs to cover services in Portlaoise, Mullingar and Tullamore hospitals. The shortage of NCHDs is an issue internationally as well as nationally and the HSE is working to ensure that services in each hospital can continue to be provided safely.

The HSE, in conjunction with the management of the three hospitals, is considering contingency measures aimed at ensuring continued safe delivery of hospital services in the event that any vacancies which may arise cannot be filled. The regional director of operations in the mid-Leinster area of the HSE is in ongoing communication with the clinical and nursing directors and senior consultants of the hospitals to discuss and develop contingency plans in advance of the next rotation of NCHDs.

Hospital management is working with clinical directors in a planned way to devise contingency arrangements which can be implemented in hospitals if required. A project team has been established, chaired by the clinical director and led by the director of nursing. Consultative meetings have commenced with clinicians in the midlands and this consultation will continue over the coming weeks as plans are developed. Clinical expertise with particular emphasis on patient safety issues will inform this contingency planning.

The HSE is also putting in place a number of processes to address the issues contributing to this difficulty on a short, medium and long-term basis to ensure that hospitals continue to offer a high level of care to all patients. A recruitment drive for a new intake of non-consultant hospital doctors is under way and a number of other initiatives are being considered, in particular, to ensure that hospital emergency departments continue to offer a high level of care to all patients in a timely and appropriate manner.

The Minister is committed to ensuring that the issues referred to will be addressed by the HSE and that services at the three midland hospitals at Mullingar, Portlaoise and Tullamore, will continue to deliver the best and most appropriate services to all patients.

The Dáil adjourned at 9.15 p.m. until 10.30 a.m. on Thursday, 9 June 2011.