Topical Issue Debate

Ambulance Service Provision

The issue of staffing arrangements in the new ambulance base in Tuam is of concern to me and to many people in north county Galway who, for many decades, have been aware that they live outside the optimum response time zone for ambulance bases in the county. This issue was thrown into sharp relief by the recent tragedy in Tuam. I take this opportunity to sympathise with the families affected by that tragedy on Sunday.

Through discussions with paramedic staff working in Galway, I understand that only two paramedics will be assigned to the new base. This would provide for seven 12 hour shifts in a 14 day working cycle, offering three and four day blocks, with gaps of three and four over a seven day working cycle. The plan appears to fill some of the significant blocks in the roster on an ad hoc basis. Will the Minister of State acknowledge that this is entirely unsatisfactory? Anything less than a 24 hour, seven day week staffing of the base would be equivalent to gambling with the lives of people in my community.

Some months ago there was a near tragedy in Tuam. An emergency call was placed but no ambulance was free to attend from Galway so one was despatched from Loughrea. The response time from Galway is 25 minutes, as the Minister of State may be aware, but the time from Loughrea is 45 to 60 minutes. An ambulance coming from Loughrea which brings a patient back to Galway poses significant risk for the patient concerned. In the case I mentioned, as was also the case in the recent tragedy, off-duty paramedics living in the Tuam community attended the call after receiving an emergency call from the Garda asking them to attend the scene. It is not an unusual occurrence for off-duty emergency medical technicians to be called in, unpaid, to attend after a road traffic accident or a crisis in Tuam, comparable to that of last Sunday. I acknowledge the dedication, commitment and the action of the paramedics and the gardaí. That is important. However, the people of north Galway cannot be asked to be dependent on the goodwill of public servants in terms of their security and circumstances.

From my discussions with the paramedics in Galway, I understand the Tuam base would require 11 shifts in order to provide both 24-7 cover and relief cover to avoid overtime. A new rota for paramedics was introduced in early September. Rotas since then that were shown to me show that shifts in the county are surplus to the staffing requirements of the existing network of ambulance bases. I understand there is a particular emphasis by management to ensure that overtime is not paid in order to maintain what one might argue is a "phantom" shift. In the week ending 14 October there were 14.5 so-called phantom shifts in County Galway and in the week ending 21 October there were 15 such shifts. On the week ending 28 October there were ten shifts that might be described as available, though not in action, in the county.

Some minor amendments to the rota could allow for 24-7 cover in the new Tuam base. I understand that Galway has significant surplus capacity in shifts and that there is significant surplus capacity in the midlands and in County Mayo. Emergency medical technicians travel from Tuam to service Athlone and Mayo where there are surplus shifts in the midlands and in Castlebar.

I have no wish to make a political point using last Sunday's tragedies but the regret I would feel returning home tonight not having spoken in the Dáil, not having reported what I believe are unavoidable situations that occur because of a lack of personnel in my community outweighs the risk of raising this issue.

When is the Minister of State prepared to convene discussions with the head of the ambulance service nationally in order to resolve the situation? Solutions are available.

I thank Deputy Keaveney for raising this issue. Before I reply I join him in offering my personal sympathy, that of the House and of the entire country, to the family in question on the tragic loss of their children. It was a traumatic and awful event and we deeply sympathise with the family.

The National Ambulance Service, NAS, provides pre-hospital emergency care and intermediate care services, by stretcher-based inter-facility transfers, to the people. Pre-hospital emergency care is the emergency care provided to a patient before transfer to a hospital or appropriate healthcare facility. In line with commitments to a better and more efficient health service made in the programme for Government, the NAS is progressively improving and modernising emergency ambulance services. Supported by the Department of Health, the Pre-Hospital Emergency Care Council and HIQA, the NAS is providing national management and leadership, particularly in the development of two national control centres, the deployment of advanced paramedics, the move to on-duty rostering and the dynamic deployment of resources within regions.

Response times around the country vary significantly, based on the nature of the area covered and the rural-urban mix. As might be expected, response times are longer in remote areas of the country. In this context, the NAS has developed a performance improvement action plan, focused on achieving an improvement in response time performance. The NAS continues to deliver the best possible performance with the resources available. One of the key elements within this plan outlines that the service provided is not a static service but deploys its resources in a dynamic manner. The NAS therefore works on an area and national basis, rather than a local basis. The dynamic deployment of ambulance resources ensures that the nearest appropriate resource is mobilised to the location of any incident.

The emergency aeromedical service, EAS, which was initiated in June 2012, is focused on the western seaboard in order to provide aeromedical support to emergency ambulances in regard to transit times from a serious or life-threatening incident to an appropriate facility. The EAS involves the Irish Air Corps helicopter, supported by the Irish Coast Guard. Based in Custume Barracks, Athlone, the service has a dedicated helicopter with medical staff, and personnel to fly and maintain the craft. The NAS is responsible for patient care, which is provided by advanced paramedics. The Irish Coast Guard provides additional support to the EAS aircraft, using its new SAR helicopter based in Shannon. This helicopter is crewed by Coast Guard paramedics, accompanied by an NAS advanced paramedic where necessary. Accordingly, there is coverage of the entire western seaboard if required.

In regard to Tuam, emergency activity in the Galway area is reasonably static. Consequently, when Tuam ambulance station is finally commissioned, the NAS intends to use existing resources more efficiently to improve response time performance to the existing call volume. The NAS has been in continuing discussions with staff representative bodies about the introduction of tactical deployment of existing resources from existing ambulance stations to new locations such as Tuam. While such practices have been in place in other parts of the country for some time, Galway is one of a number of areas where this plan had not been progressed. However, this issue is now being progressed under the Croke Park agreement.

The NAS is committed to better utilisation of existing resources in a tactical deployment model so that Tuam ambulance station can service the north Galway area. It is hoped that this ambulance station will be commissioned and operational in the coming weeks.

I thank the Minister of State for his response.

I am cautious about using the desperate circumstances in which there was no ambulance available to bring two bodies from Tuam to Galway on Sunday last in order to highlight this matter. I am disappointed that the Minister for Health is not present to respond to my observations. I do not accept that progress is being made by management in respect of available resources in the context of ensuring a new ambulance base could be opened immediately and on a cost-neutral basis. There is categoric evidence - this is based on rosters which came into effect on 1 September - which proves that there is capacity in the system to provide for a 24 hour service in Tuam with immediate effect.

The Minister of State's reply suggests work is in progress on the possible establishment of a 24 hour ambulance station in Tuam. I welcome this, particularly as it is the first I have heard of it. I am sure this is the first time the staff have become aware that there is space within the mechanisms of the Croke Park agreement to make provision in this regard. I ask the Minister of State to take personal responsibility for this matter and invite the head of the national ambulance service to attend a round-table discussion with the elected representatives from my constituency as a matter of urgency in order that they might put forward comprehensive proof based on existing rosters that there are sufficient staff available across the ambulance service network between counties Roscommon, Mayo and Galway to put in place a 24-7 service as soon as possible.

I am not prepared to look forward to the next crisis and ask what would happen if the ambulance was not available. It is unacceptable to be obliged to pose such questions in circumstances where the requisite resources are available. I categorically state there are existing resources in the Galway area which would allow for the immediate provision of a 24 hour service. Such a service should be put in place for a community that is grieving.

I again thank the Deputy for raising this matter. I will ensure his comments which will be published in the Official Report are brought to the attention of the Minister and his Department. I will ask the Minister to take on board the issues he has raised. My duty is to provide the Deputy with a response, but it is the duty of the Minister and his Department to ensure the wishes the Deputy has expressed are met. The proposition the Deputy has put forward is eminently practicable.

I reiterate that the national ambulance service has been in continuing discussions with staff representative bodies on the introduction of the tactical deployment of existing resources, from existing ambulance stations to new locations such as Tuam. While such practices have been in place in other parts of the country for some time, Galway is one of a number of areas where this issue had not been progressed. However, it is now being progressed under the Croke Park agreement. The matter is under consideration and I hope a conclusion to the satisfaction of the citizens who live in the area in question will be reached.

Sexual Offences

I am gutted that the Minister for Children and Youth Affairs is not present to provide a reply in respect of the diabolical issue I wish to raise. I watched "Tonight with Vincent Browne" last night and must state I did not sleep afterwards. Mr. Browne and his guests discussed the SAVI report on sexual abuse and violence in Ireland which was published ten years ago and the work relating to which was funded by the then Department of Health and Children. The information contained in the report is horrific to say the least. What is really striking is that no one questioned whether the methodology used in the report's preparation was accurate. It is, therefore, accepted that the report which contains information which is, frankly, phenomenal is accurate.

The report indicates that one in five women, or 20.4%, reported experiencing contact sexual abuse in childhood, while a further 7.6% of all women stated they had experienced attempted or actual penetrative sex in childhood, that is, rape or attempted rape. Thus, almost one quarter of all women were sexually abused in childhood and one in 13 were subjected to rape or attempted rape in childhood. The report also shows that one in six men, or 16.2%, reported experiencing contact sexual abuse in childhood, of whom approximately one quarter reported experiencing attempted or actual penetrative sex in childhood. Overall, almost one third of women and one quarter of men reported some level of sexual abuse in childhood, that is, contact and non-contact sexual abuse. Such non-contact sexual abuse includes being exposed to pornography or actual sexual scenes.

The report further illustrates that most sexual abuse in childhood and adolescence occurs when individuals are prepubescent, with 67% of abused girls and 62% of abused boys having experienced abuse by 12 years of age. Some 36% of those who experienced sexual abuse as children now believe their abusers were also abusing other children at the time. Some 25% of those who perpetrated sexual abuse against girls were family members, 50% were non-family members who were known to those abused and another 24% were strangers. One in seven, or 14%, of those who perpetrated sexual abuse against boys was a family member, two thirds were non-family members who were known to the abused boys and one in five, or 20%, was a stranger.

We are referring to 12% of the population. One does not need to be a mathematical genius that we are potentially referring to over 500,000 people. I use the word "potentially" because we do not have accurate, up-to-date figures. The SAVI report is ten years old. It was stated on Vincent Browne's show last night that it would cost €1 million to carry out a new study. The actual cost would be €500,000 when the Government had collected whatever taxes would be due.

Something must be done about this matter. We are holding a referendum on children's rights and I will be voting in favour of the proposed constitutional amendment. I am delighted that the Government is facilitating the referendum. What is the point in holding a referendum to ensure the rights of children will be protected, while ignoring the fact that, as the most recent information available indicates, over 500,000 people were sexually abused as children? If that number have been sexually abused, one must ask how many abusers there are in the country. We need to tackle this matter. There is a need for a new report and I hope the Minister of State is in a position to provide good news in that regard.

I thank the Deputy for raising this matter and providing me with the opportunity to outline, on behalf of the Minister for Children and Youth Affairs, the policy and services in place to deal with sexual abuse. As the Deputy stated, sexual violence has a devastating effect on victims and their families and is a serious health and human rights issue.

In March 2010 the Government launched a four year strategy to provide a framework for sustainable intervention to prevent and effectively respond to domestic, sexual and gender-based violence. Cosc, the national office for the prevention of domestic, sexual and gender-based violence, was established in 2007, under the aegis of the Department of Justice and Equality, to ensure the delivery of the Government's strategy in dealing with such violence. The HSE launched its policy on violence of this nature in 2010. The principal actions of this policy are in line with the Government's strategy. Recently, the national director for children and family services who has lead responsibility in this area has established a national office for domestic and sexual violence within the HSE.

The HSE funds 16 rape crisis centres, 20 crisis refuges and 17 support services, including two national representative bodies, namely, Safe Ireland and Rape Crisis Network Ireland. The total cost in this regard in 2011 was €19.182 million. Some €4.5 million was specifically provided by the HSE to fund sexual violence services in 2011.

We need accurate and relevant statistics in order to ensure that the issue of sexual violence is properly reflected in health policy and subsequently addressed through the health services. The sexual abuse and violence in Ireland, SAVI, report published in 2002 was the first national study of the prevalence of childhood and adult sexual violence in a representative sample of the Irish population. Many of its results were shocking, with more than four in ten women reporting some form of sexual abuse or assault in their lifetime and more than one quarter of men reporting the same. This report was in the main funded by Atlantic Philanthropies with some additional funding from the former Departments of Health and Children and Justice, Equality and Law Reform. In 2010 the Department of Health and Children was approached for funding to carry out a SAVI-2 study. The projected overall cost for a SAVI-2 study was just over €1 million, at €1,106,779, approximately half of which was being sought from the Department of Health and Children, amounting to €500,000 over the three years 2010 to 2012. At this juncture, officials in the Department pointed out that the allocation of funding had transferred to the HSE which was subject to significant budgetary constraints in 2011. As these constraints are ongoing, neither the Department of Health nor the HSE is currently in a position to support a SAVI-2 study. However, statistics are available from two national databases.

The Rape Crisis Network Ireland is the national representative body for 14 rape crisis centres. It operates a data collection system specifically designed to collect information from front-line services dedicated to working with survivors of sexual violence. These statistics have been published since 2004. Safe Ireland is the national representative body for 39 women's front-line domestic violence services. It has been compiling national statistics relating to the number of women and children accessing their members' services since 2008.

I wish to reassure the Deputy that while we are not in a position to fund this study, the Government is fully committed to addressing the problem of sexual violence and will draw on available up-to-date statistics on the subject in order to inform its policies and services.

That is not a satisfactory answer nor will it deal with this issue. I come from a national school that was ravaged by sexual abuse. I come from a town that was ravaged by sexual abuse. I come from County Roscommon and we now have the name of the Roscommon case. We give the impression we really care but if we do not take this issue seriously it is nothing other than crocodile tears. When I lived in Galway the apartments I lived in were built on the old grounds of the laundries. I remember hearing about what was there beforehand. I got talking to some older people and they told me about how everyone knew this was going on. That has been said about much of the abuse that happened.

Now we know all of this sexual abuse is happening. We do not the extent of it because the Government will not fund an up-to-date study, even though the Dublin Rape Crisis Centre has asked on several occasions for it to be done. We need to take this issue seriously. In order to take the issue seriously, no more than if one wants to take seriously the issue of speeding one needs a speedometer in the car to show the speed of the car. In the same way, if the Government wants to do something about this situation it will need the facts. The Dublin Rape Crisis Centre would not be asking for another study to be funded if it thought the current studies were adequate.

The Minister of State's reply is not reassuring. It is very worrying that the Government is not willing to provide the funding. In my view it shows the Government is trying to bury its head in the sand. I will vote for the children's referendum but what use will it be? We will end up with children with rights who are hungry and if they are sexually abused we will not know about it. What sort of right is that?

I thank Deputy Flanagan for raising those points in his supplementary contribution. I acknowledge and appreciate the trauma he feels as a representative of County Roscommon. We all feel the same because any child abused anywhere, in any constituency, in any home, is one too many. I concur fully with him that action needs to be taken and I believe it is being taken.

The HSE published its policy on domestic violence in 2007. The principal actions are integrated into a national strategy which is being funded to a significant extent. The national director for children and family services has lead responsibility for the implementation of this policy and actions within the national strategy on domestic, sexual and gender-based violence. In order to assist in this task, the national director has established a national office for domestic and sexual violence within the children and family service. The office is staffed by senior managers whose brief is to ensure that all HSE and HSE-funded services are operated within the integrated strategy. As I stated earlier, services to victims of domestic, sexual and gender-based violence, including 20 crisis refuges, 27 domestic violence support services and 16 rape crisis centres, are funded to the order of €20 million annually. I agree we need to spend more. The 20 refuges received €10.435 million in 2011. Every HSE region has at least one such centre providing crisis emergency accommodation. The majority of the centres are accessible on a 24-hour basis.

A national regional review of domestic violence is under way. The aim of this review is to ensure that funding is allocated according to needs. Areas of high demand are appropriately resourced. The review will highlight any inequities, gaps and duplication. This service review is ongoing and is being conducted by the HSE in each of the four regions at different stages of progression. It is hoped this review will be concluded in October this year.

Negative Equity Mortgages Numbers

I refer to an e-mail I received from a constituent which is representative of a common situation. The constituent bought a two-bedroomed apartment for €420,000 in 2006. A first child was born in 2009 and a second child was born in 2011. This apartment is now valued at €169,000. This is a stark illustration of the burden that negative equity places on many people. Despite the difficulty of being in negative equity, this couple can still pay the mortgage with difficulty. They could pay another mortgage but they remain living in an apartment that is far too small for the needs of their family. They are in a trap. They cannot sell the apartment, nor do they wish to do so. However, if they decide to rent out the apartment in order to cover the cost of the mortgage and then rent or buy a home, either a house or a large apartment for their family, a number of things will happen. If they buy a second property, the Revenue Commissioners will classify the first property as an investment property. They will lose tax relief at source on the original property. The second property is then regarded as a second home and is liable to the second-home tax. They can afford to cover the rent on a second house or a larger property but they are then classified as investors by the tax system while they are anything but that. They are just looking to find a home for their family. This is a stark example of the difficulty being created by the tax system for people already bearing a very significant burden of a mortgage and negative equity. I ask the Minister of State what can be done to create imaginative arrangements to accommodate those who are looking to change home.

While they would be able to bear the cost, the tax system acts as a barrier to taking this step. I ask the Minister of State to give some thought to addressing this issue creatively to accommodate people who can afford to move to homes of an appropriate size and with appropriate facilities to raise their families but require some support from the system if they are to do so.

I thank Deputy Donohue for raising this matter on which the Minister for Finance has asked me to respond. The Deputy is correct that to qualify for mortgage interest relief an applicant must live in the property and may not rent it out. Those in receipt of mortgage interest relief who choose to rent out a property immediately lose the relief. I would be interested to learn when the mortgages to which the Deputy refers were taken out. As he will be aware, the maximum period for which one can obtain mortgage interest relief is now seven years. If, in the cases to which the Deputy refers, the individuals took out a mortgage five years ago, they will receive mortgage interest relief for only two more years.

As the Deputy is also aware, in last year's budget the Government introduced an increase in support through mortgage interest relief to help people who purchased a property between 2004 and 2008. Perhaps the Deputy will clarify when the persons to whom he refers purchased their homes. If, for instance, they purchased their homes five years ago, they will only receive mortgage interest relief for a further two years and it would not make a significant difference if they were to lose it at this stage. If they purchased their homes between 2004 and 2008, I presume they will be in receipt of the maximum relief of 30%, which was introduced by the Minister for Finance last year.

I will skirt through the written reply provided. Mortgage holders who are in difficulty with their mortgage obligations in respect of their primary residence have significant protections available to them under the Central Bank's code of conduct on mortgage arrears. The banks have signed up and are obliged to enforce the code of conduct. In addition, in October 2012 the Government published the report of the interdepartmental working group on mortgage arrears, known as the Keane report.

The Government remains committed to progress measures to assist genuine mortgage holders in difficulty and the Government committee on mortgage arrears, which is chaired by the Taoiseach, continues to meet. It is the intention of Government to ensure that those mortgage holders in genuine difficulty will receive appropriate assistance and a high priority has been assigned by Government to the implementation of this broad range of measures to assist those experiencing difficulty on their mortgage across the relevant Departments and agencies.

With specific reference to mortgage interest relief, as the Deputy will be aware, the relief is available at varying rates and subject to certain ceilings in respect of interest paid by an individual on a loan used by that individual for the purchase, repair, development or improvement of his or her sole or main residence. The Government is committed to helping address the particular problems faced by those who bought homes at the height of the property boom between 2004 and 2008. Mortgage holders qualify for the increased rate of 30% if they made their first mortgage interest payment in the period from 2004 to 2008.

Mortgage interest relief for principal private residences will no longer be available to house purchasers who purchase after the end of 2012 and will be fully abolished from 2018. This means the loan will have to be drawn down by 31 December 2012 to qualify for this relief.

Given the current budgetary constraints, the Minister for Finance has no plans to widen the scope of the relief to cater for people who are renting out their property, as the measure would become less targeted and very costly. However, it should be noted that an individual who rents out his or her residential property may be allowed a deduction, subject to certain conditions, in computing the taxable rents from that letting of 75% of the interest accruing on money borrowed to purchase, improve or repair that property. In arriving at the profit rent for tax purposes, 75% of the interest paid may be set against the gross rent. However, it should also be noted that where the landlord has not complied with the registration requirements of the Private Residential Tenancies Board in relation to all tenancies that existed in the particular premises for the relevant tax years, none of the interest paid may be set against the gross amount.

As the Deputy will appreciate, the Minister for Finance receives numerous requests for the introduction of new tax reliefs and the extension of existing reliefs every year. He will also appreciate that the Minister must be mindful of the public finances and the many demands on the Exchequer. Tax reliefs, no matter how worthwhile in themselves, reduce the tax base and make general reform of the tax system that much more difficult.

What are we to do? We have young people, married and unmarried, with young children who want to have more children but are living in one or two bedroom apartments they purchased at the height of the property boom. The tax code makes it difficult for them to rent accommodation appropriate to the size of their family. While I understand the pressure on the public finances, this is none the less a large group of people who find themselves in a horribly difficult position.

The Minister of State indicated that widening the scope of the current relief would make the measure "less targeted and very costly". While I accept it would be costly, I do not accept it would be less targeted because I am asking that it be targeted at a specific group, namely, families who wish to move out of apartment dwellings but cannot do so without being classified as investors. I have raised this issue elsewhere and I ask that the Minister give it careful consideration.

I thank Deputy Donohoe for raising this significant issue and highlighting the circumstances in which people have been caught which prevents them from selling their property. To answer his question on what can be done, the banks would have ultimately to write down the loss in circumstances of catastrophic non-failure, but in the cases in question the individuals are meeting their obligations and paying their way. As a consequence, they do not fall within the group for which the Keane report proposes to provide protection.

Questions would also need to be posed about any measure taken to address this matter. For example, how many children or bedrooms would someone need to have to qualify under any new scheme? What would be required to make a scheme sufficiently targeted so as to help the group in question? Ultimately, however, someone would have to write off the loss.

As the Deputy knows, the Central Bank is in discussions with the banks about a range of new products which they must make available as part of the implementation of the recommendations of the Keane report. This issue should form part of a subset of these recommendations in order that we can unlock the potential of the people in question and allow them to move on to larger properties to meet the needs of their growing families. The solution may be for banks to show a little imagination and allow them, for example, to bring their debt or a portion thereof with them if they move home. In this regard, the Government has already proposed split and renting mortgages.

The Minister for Finance has indicated that it is difficult to confine the scope of measures taken on the tax side. However, we have an open mind on this issue and if a serious proposal were developed, I would bring it to the attention of the Minister. From what I have read about this matter, the solution lies with the banks encouraging people to move on. In the United Kingdom, people in negative equity have been able to take their mortgage with them in circumstances where they want to move elsewhere in the country and purchase another property. Perhaps this is the type of solution we should consider, rather than one that is tax driven. I concur with the Deputy that this is an important issue. We have an open mind on how to solve it.

Departmental Investigations

The issue I raise is extremely important, especially in the Duhallow area of north Cork. I need not inform anyone about the horrendous weather conditions we experienced over the summer months and the difficulties they created for the farming community. These difficulties persist as farmers seek to provide fodder for cattle over the winter.

On 12 July during Leaders' Questions I asked that the Government examine the ground inspections process carried out by the Department and suggested it take a commonsense approach to the inspections that are carried out in the normal course of events for cross-compliance and other reasons. I am disappointed a Minister from the Department of Agriculture, Food and the Marine is not present to take the question, but I hope the Minister of State, Deputy Hayes, will convey my serious concern about this matter to the Minister. I have grave concern not alone for the financial and physical well-being of the farming community, especially in my area, but also for their mental well-being because they are under great pressure.

Last weekend and the weekend before that a number of people came to me about satellite inspections that took place on the ground that they would have submitted as part of their single farm payment application. As the satellite identified a rush cover on the land, the Department sent out inspectors who found rushes on the land and subsequently fined farmers 20%, 30% or 50% depending on the payment they receive. One farmer, who has rheumatoid arthritis and has been in hospital almost at death's door, was told of a fine last Friday.

As I stated on 12 July, this land cannot be travelled over other than by helicopter or other aircraft because it is saturated with water. For the Department of Agriculture, Food and the Marine to inspect the ground and fine farmers on single farm payment or disadvantaged areas payment because the rush cover is not cut off is beyond ridiculous. I had discussions on this matter with Department officials in the past two weeks and I am frustrated by the situation. The farmers affected by this issue are genuine. In negotiations sometimes there are cowboy farmers but 99.9% of farmers are genuine operators. It beggars belief that the Department would send out inspectors to check if there is rush cover on this land. The weather broke on 7 April and not since the middle of May was this land fit for travelling on. As anyone dealing with a farming community would know, it is during the summer months that this land would be cut.

I have serious cases on my books regarding this matter. I do not bring it to the House lightly but I am appalled by what is going on. I appeal to the Minister for Agriculture, Food and the Marine and his officials to re-examine this matter and take a commonsensical approach because the evidence I saw in terms of inspections and penalising farmers, especially in the past two weeks, is nothing short of draconian.

I thank the Deputy for raising this matter. The Minister is acutely aware of the difficulties being experienced by farmers as a result of the prolonged adverse weather conditions in the current year. In so far as the direct aid related inspection regime is concerned, his Department is required to carry out a mandatory range of inspections to meet European Union requirements. In carrying out these responsibilities, however, which must be done to a standard which meets EU audit requirements to protect the drawdown of the significant funding involved, every effort is made to take account of the realities of farming and, in particular, the effects of the pattern of bad weather experienced this year.

The next paragraphs of my script sets out the importance of the direct payments scheme which I will not read out as we all know about that. I am taking that as read, as it were.

I now come to the net issue the Deputy has correctly raised. On behalf of the Minister, Deputy Coveney, I will give the House an overview of the nature of the inspection regime. The Department of Agriculture, Food and the Marine, in the context of delivering the single payment scheme, the disadvantaged areas scheme and other area-based schemes, is required to carry out annual inspections covering both the eligibility of the land declared to draw down payments and also cross-compliance aspects to ensure compliance with EU regulatory requirements in the areas of public, animal and plant health, the environment and animal welfare. These inspections are mandatory and certain minimum numbers and types of inspections must take place annually.

Land eligibility checks must be carried out on 5% of applicants. These checks are carried out to verify the actual area claimed in the application form corresponds to the area farmed by the farmer and to ensure any ineligible land or features are not included for aid purposes. The Department has made every effort to respond to concerns about the impact of on-the-ground inspections on farmers and, arising from that, up to two thirds of these inspections are initially carried out without a farm visit as the information is verified using the technique of remote sensing via satellite.

The rate of inspections for cross-compliance is 1% of applicants to whom the statutory management requirements and good agricultural condition apply. However, 3% of farmers must be inspected under the bovine identification and registration requirements while 3% of sheep or goat farmers must be inspected covering 5% of the flock. It is a recognised principle of the direct aid regime that it serves broader public good objectives and contributes to the maintenance of the rural environment. These inspections are thus necessary to verify these objectives are being met.

On the timing of inspections, the overall annual inspection cycle can only commence following completion of a structured risk analysis selection process which includes the analysis and evaluation of data from the previous year's inspections. Eligibility inspections, as such, can only commence following the initial stages of processing of the current year's single payment scheme applications.

To be eligible to draw down EU funding, it is a requirement that all land eligibility inspections must take place before any payments can issue to any farmer in the country in a given year. While cross-compliance inspections can be carried out after payment has been made, it is a regulatory requirement that this category of inspection must take place throughout the calendar year to take account of specific requirements at individual statutory management requirement level. In so far as possible, the various categories of inspections are integrated with a view to avoiding more than one visit to a farm. There are also inter-agency agreements in place, for example, with local authorities, to facilitate this approach. In terms of delivery of on-the-ground inspections, all the Department's inspecting officers are very experienced and are trained to carry out inspections in a professional manner.

I thank the Minister of State for reading that information into the record of the House. We understand all of that. This is a desperately serious situation in the first instance because of the weather, which we understand is out of everyone's control. What we need now is for the Department to adopt a commonsensical approach. In terms of inspections, inspectors are examining land to determine if it is eligible for grant aid, if it is used for agricultural land or maintained using good farming practices, that is, the rushes are topped off. In all sincerity, since the middle of May of this year, the land in question, which is black in nature with poor drainage, has not been in a fit state to be travelled on. The farmers who came to me would normally top this land two or three times a year. Some of the drier land has not been touched or silage harvested off it, even at this late stage.

I raise this issue because of two cases of which I became aware last week. To impose a penalty because the rush cover was not cut off the land bordered on criminality. The two cases I saw were crazy, and I have seen many more cases. I want the Minister of State to convey to the Minister for Agriculture, Food and the Marine and his officials that they must not compound the crisis facing agriculture. There are major issues for these people in terms of their mental health and their financial well-being, but to compound that by having on-the-spot checks and imposing fines of €1,000, €2,000 or €3,000, depending on the size of their single farm payment, for something that is out of their control is wrong. That is the only income they will have this year because of the weather. I ask the Minister of State, Deputy Hayes, to convey to the Department my concern about this issue and for the well-being of farmers affected by it.

In his written reply the Minister brought to the attention of the House regulations allowing the spreading of slurry to 31 October.

This is the first dry week we have had since the first week of September. Will the Minister of State ask both the Departments of Agriculture, Food and the Marine and the Environment, Community and Local Government to extend the period into the middle of November?

I do not pretend to be an expert in this matter and I defer to Deputy Michael Moynihan’s knowledge in this area. I give him my word that I will raise this matter with the Minister for Agriculture, Food and the Marine who cannot unfortunately be here this evening. It is true to say the weather this year has been atrocious, circumstances which have made it ten times more difficult for farming than in an average year. I know that from my knowledge of the flooding issue with which we are dealing in my Department.

It would seem from the reply, however, that the drawdown for the scheme is predicated on a very strict inspection regime. The Deputy is seeking flexibility in this regard. I will ask the Minister to revert to him on that matter, given the difficulties farmers face and the necessity for a flexible approach in the matter.

Some flexibility must be shown.