Topical Issue Debate

Local Property Tax

Given the statement by the Revenue Commissioners last week that they will be compiling information on valuing properties for the local property tax beginning in March, it is necessary to provide more information for the public. Assumptions have been made in the media. I have spoken to individuals who are uncertain as to the valuation methods to be used by the Revenue Commissioners. If the Irish Independent is to be believed, surmising from the statement by the Revenue Commissioners, stamp duty records, electricity bills, rental details and household charge records will be used. With the exception of stamp duty, I am not sure how any of those payments are connected in any way to the value of a property. One would assume the vast majority of stamp duty records relate to the period before 2008, in which case, it would be very difficult to value these properties even if one were to take the industry average of 30% to 60% of loss in value since that period. It is very difficult to arrive at an accurate figure, even if only indicative.

I refer to reports in the media that property owners will have the option of valuing their property. I raised this matter in early January. It also came up for discussion in my constituency over Christmas. I refer to properties that are extremely difficult to value, such as those in estates affected by pyrite. There have been no sales of properties in the vast majority of those estates.

It will be almost impossible to put a value on the property where there is no comparable property on the market within a couple of miles. It would be difficult, even in urban environments such as my constituency, to value these properties, notwithstanding that the Minister has rightly announced that pyrite affected properties are to be exempt. I refer to properties that might have been repaired and on which the local property tax will be due.

The Office of the Revenue Commissioners has set out in its timeline that it will be issuing letters on self-assessment at the end of March, stipulating a valuation date in the middle of May. I am slightly concerned about where the figures are coming from and the right of reply of the homeowner. To what lengths must one go in valuing one's property? Must one engage the services of a valuer? If so, how much will it cost? Will the industry push up its prices? Perhaps it will, given that an opportunity presents itself to those concerned. I do not really have a problem with this in that people pay for services provided and valuation is a service, but many homeowners are under severe stress financially. Adding to the local property tax is not a step we should be taking.

The Revenue Commissioners' ability to stand over stamp duty figures, in particular, will present a difficulty. There is a large number of unique properties, including those in rural environments. I am clearly not talking about three-bedroom semi-detached bungalows but about properties above and beyond these, perhaps those built in the 1990s or 2000s. These properties are very difficult to value right across the country. They may not have sold for a number of years and it would be very difficult for us to value them. What leeway will the Revenue Commissioners provide in the valuation process for these homes?

I thank the Deputy for raising this important issue. The legislation governing the local property tax is contained in the Finance (Local Property Tax) Act 2012 which was signed into law by the President on 26 December 2012. The legislation sets out in detail how the tax is to be administered and provides how a residential property is to be valued for local property tax purposes, including where there is a change in ownership of the property. The Act provides for a number of specific exemptions from the charge, in addition to the possibility of deferring the charge in certain cases of hardship.

The Revenue Commissioners are compiling a local property tax register which is being drawn from a range of sources, including the LGMA database, its own databases and data from utility companies. Data from the various sources are being cross-checked to ensure the register is as accurate as possible. The register will be used to correspond with property owners.

In common with many other taxes, the local property tax is a self-assessment tax. Thus, in the first instance, it is a matter for the property owner to calculate the tax due based on his or her assessment of the chargeable value of the property. Beginning in March 2013, the Revenue Commissioners will be issuing a local property tax return to all property owners, together with an information booklet. The general issue of returns will also include a Revenue estimate of the local property tax. This Revenue estimate which is provided for in the Finance (Local Property Tax) Act 2012 is not a property valuation but an amount of tax which will be collected in the event that the liable person does not submit a return. Property owners will have the option of completing and submitting their local property tax return on paper or by electronic means. I am advised that the development of the paper local property tax return form and an online system for completing and submitting local property tax returns is well advanced.

The Revenue Commissioners will not be valuing properties for local property tax purposes, except where there is a dispute about a valuation provided by a taxpayer which, because of the banding system, is expected to arise only in a minority of cases. Revenue is, however, actively preparing valuation guidance and developing tools to assist liable persons in assessing the value of their property. These will be made available as soon as possible. Where these guidelines are used honestly, the property valuation will not be challenged by Revenue in accordance with its normal customer service charter. The guidelines will include drawing property owners' attention to the publicly available PSRA property price register which includes some 62,000 reasonably recent property prices and a method to help property owners establish average-indicative values for properties in different locations.

A range of data sources is being analysed to assist in providing this valuation guidance. They include Revenue's stamp duty records which record all property sales in the Republic and the values of the properties sold. These records provide an important benchmark that indicates average property values across the country. Analysis shows these values are in line with price indices produced by the Central Statistics Office and similar measures published by the real estate sector. Revenue is also examining accessing other sources of recent property valuations data which will complement and enhance the stamp duty data.

Data sources in addition to stamp duty records and other valuation data include the GeoDirectory produced by Ordinance Survey Ireland and An Post which provides information on property location and type; spatially derived data that indicate relative distances of all residential properties — using GeoDirectory — from a series of key amenities and services, including transport, health, education, retail and emergency services.

Revenue is also geographically linking its data with publicly available sources such as the CSO's 2011 census results at small area level and the 2011 Pobal HP Deprivation Index. The output of this work will be to give indicative or average values for properties in different locations across the country. The average values will be provided by property type, to distinguish separate values for detached, semi-detached, terraced and other types of houses. Other features include, for example, the ability to distinguish between values for new and old properties.

The Revenue valuation guidance tools will be available on the Revenue website as soon as possible but certainly in good time before the general issue of local property tax returns in order to allow property owners to examine and compare these indicative average values in their area. The Property Services Registration Authority property register, to which I referred, is already available for consultation in regard to property sale prices in recent years.

The approach of the Revenue Commissioners to producing valuation guidance is based on international best practice methods in this field. The methods being applied are widely used and accepted in real estate valuation and property tax administration in many countries. Similar methods to estimate average valuations have been used in Ireland, for example, by the Central Statistics Office when estimating the residential property price index and in research by authors from the Economic and Social Research Institute.

The Revenue guidance will provide average values for an area. These averages will be indicative of the correct property value band in the majority of cases but will not be correct for every property in every area. The approach used by Revenue meets international standards for property valuation, but no method can comprehensively and accurately value every property in the country. Comparisons with properties recently listed for sale show that valuations provided are in line with current market transactions.

The Revenue valuation guidance is intended to assist property owners, but each owner will need to consider the specifics of his or her property, the area and any other local factors that influence the value when making his or her valuation assessment. As I noted, the local property tax is a self-assessment tax and the Revenue valuation guidance will be provided to assist property owners in determining a value for their property. Each property owner will need to consider his or her area, his or her knowledge of properties therein and any other relevant factors in determining for himself or herself whether the Revenue guidance offers a reasonable indication of the value of his or her property. If the property owner approaches the matter honestly, Revenue will accept self-assessed valuations in accordance with the customer service charter.

I thank the Minister for his comprehensive response. Let me return to his point on homeowners being honest in their approach to the process. Once guidance is made publicly available, perhaps it will be a little easier for people to judge how best to approach the process.

I am slightly concerned about the process that will apply to a property in a new housing estate where the owner or owners have invested in the property - there have been articles on this subject in a number of publications - be it to build an extension or to fit a new kitchen, for their own benefit and such investment has increased the value of the property. How easy or difficult will it be for Revenue to factor in the value of those improvements? If a homeowner receives a letter from the Revenue Commissioners with a valuation of €300,000 for their property and has spent €50,000 on an extension or a considerable amount to fit a new kitchen, as against their next door neighbour who has the same type of property but has not invested in it, how is the homeowner to balance such improvements in terms of the valuation given that they have increased the value by having invested in the property? Will the Revenue accept the homeowner returning the self-assessment form with the original value of the property?

The Revenue will send out a return to every householder. Much of what I described related to Revenue putting together a register of homeowners as that is not readily available. It will involve putting together a complete inventory of homeowners in Ireland, not valuing the properties just identifying the owners because the obligation to pay is on the owners. If one goes to anybody in the estate and valuation business, the auctioneering business, and asks them to sell a house, they will give one an indication of value very quickly and put an indicative price on the house. They may be right or wrong but the same system can apply if a homeowner wants to bring in a valuer. If the process is honestly approached, Revenue will accept that at face value. If somebody does not want to get a valuation and simply takes the norm for the area, as indicated by the Revenue, one does not have to precisely value one's house, all one has to do is to indicate the value is somewhere within a €50,000 band. If one thinks the value is between €150,000 and €200,000, one would put an X in that box and the house will be taxed at 0.175%, the midpoint. If one has built an extension at a cost of say €7,500 and one's neighbours say that their houses are valued between €150,000 and €200,000, the normal thing would be for one to value one's house in the next band and indicate it is worth between €200,000 and €250,000 and one would put an X in the box opposite that band and the tax will apply at 0.225%. One can create a problem for every solution but this can be done if there is a willingness to do this. One is not being asked to precisely value the house. Everybody knows that price values have gone down. The Revenue will give a good deal of information to assist people to simply fill out the form and will give an indicative value but it will not value houses for tax purposes. It is a self-assessment system and it is up to the homeowner returning the form to indicate what he or she thinks is the value of the house. If the homeowner proceeds in an honest fashion, according to the Revenue customer charter, that will be accepted. The value will hold for three years until there is a revaluation in November 2016.

Northern Ireland Issues

It is hugely important that we in this House collectively put our heads together and work to bring about an all-party, cross-community response to the recent flag protests in the North and the violence that is accompanying them. We know from the recent census figures that Belfast is a changed city and is no longer dominated by Unionism. The issue of flags and symbols in City Hall is a sensitive one but that does not mean it should be ignored or put aside. The city needs to be representative of the people of all traditions who live there and not simply Unionism.

The recent controversy of the flying of flags over City Hall can be traced back as far as 2004 and the issue has arisen through a variety of equality tests, legal advice and council committees. Belfast city is a shared workplace and those who represent that city have to reflect that and give cognisance to it. Under equality legislation in the North and in the interest of creating a good and harmonious working environment, it is important to ensure employees and those who use City Hall have their cultural and political identities respected and are not made feel unwelcome. That is a primary role for elected representatives in that area.

A proposal was placed before a council to remove the union jack from Belfast City Hall totally but it was not accepted by the Alliance Party and a compromise position of only flying the flag on designated days was democratically passed by the council in accordance with the equality legislation. Many people are confused not only in this country but in Britain and elsewhere as they cannot understand what is happening.

The DUP and the UUP cynically tried to use the issue in a bid to undermine the position of Naomi Long as MP for east Belfast and distributed 40,000 leaflets. Many parties were supposedly opposed to the flying of the flag on designated days - in the past the DUP, the UUP and the PUP all voted in favour of the flying of the flag on designated days. What is happening in regard to this?

One of the positives is that nobody has been killed so far. We have been lucky that nobody has been killed. Also, they are not getting large numbers on the protests. Again, that is a positive. People are asking what exactly is happening and how did this come about. In the Tánaiste's view, is this about criminality? Is it about court cases coming down the line - supergrass court cases? Is it about the number two in the UVF in east Belfast facing drug charges at the moment?

I must ask the Deputy to conclude.

What about the other night and £100,000 worth of drugs being found in the area? Are there underlying factors in regard to what is happening?

At the heart of the shocking violence that has spilled across the streets in Belfast in the past six weeks and the economic damage it has wrought is a profound problem with how politics works in Northern Ireland. If politics is not clearly about the bread and butter issues of making people's quality of life better, it will all too quickly revert to being all about flags, emblems and parades and the bleak chronicle of flashpoints that have defined public life in Northern Ireland for too many people for far too long.

My critique is based on a deeply held belief that the Executive can and must work for ordinary citizens. It is the belief that the peace process was supposed to be much more than just an absence of violence. If the Executive is not making real progress in tackling head-on the challenges people in the North face on a daily basis, we cannot be surprised when a section of society unleashes chaos and brings a city to a standstill. I condemn unequivocally and unreservedly what has happened in terms of the disturbances and the impact they have had on business, jobs and the quality of life of people.

Some have dismissed the riots as just a Unionist problem. I think that is a mistake because those of us who want to advance republican politics know what the peace process must deliver for all communities. It is also a mistake because disregard for the rule of law is not simply confined to angry thugs in east Belfast. As recently as November, for example, we watched as Sinn Féin's justice spokesperson led 300 protesters on a picket of PSNI headquarters in east Belfast.

It was a peaceful protest.

Yes, I acknowledge it was a peaceful protest because the party was unhappy with the direction of a PSNI investigation and wanted one of their own released from custody. The idea of political parties deciding who should and should not be arrested is no longer a tenable proposition for any party to promote.

Deputy Crowe rightly raised questions about the motivation behind certain people in east Belfast behind this and about arrests. That is exactly the point I am making but we cannot have it both ways. The PSNI and reform of policing in the North was central to the peace process. It was one of the great developments that was commented on worldwide, the Patten reforms, and parties must be very careful in their actions that they do not undermine that in particular.

It is time for the Executive - I ask the Tánaiste in his talks and for both Governments to engage on this issue with the Executive - to up its game, for all those from Sinn Féin to the DUP to approach this vital work with real honesty and not to indulge in the tired old sectarian scripts and gross hypocrisy that unfortunately has scarred much of what the Executive has been doing.

Too many political parties have been playing to their electoral bases and in their comfort zones for far too long. If there is fresh honesty of endeavour following the events of the troubled past few weeks, Northern Ireland will have taken a major step forward. All of us collectively need to de-escalate the situation. For example, calling for a Border poll at the weekend is wrong in its timing, will move us in the opposite direction in reducing tensions, will be interpreted in the wrong way and is not developed in adopting a collective approach. It could even inflame matters more.

I thank both Deputies for raising this issue. In the light of the ongoing protests and tensions in Northern Ireland, there is a need for broad political agreement among the political parties on a way forward. In recent weeks we have seen widespread street violence in Belfast and elsewhere in Northern Ireland. We have seen attacks on the Police Service of Northern Ireland, PSNI, including the attempted murder of police officers, as well as widespread attempts to intimidate public representatives and their families. I have condemned these events unreservedly.

I have remained in contact with the Secretary of State for Northern Ireland, Ms Theresa Villiers, and the party leaders in Northern Ireland throughout. In the past week I have spoken to Mr. Peter Robinson, Mr. Martin McGuinness, Mr. David Ford, Mr. Mike Nesbitt and Mr. Alasdair McDonnell. I will be travelling to Belfast tomorrow morning to meet the Secretary of State, as well as the First Minister and the Deputy First Minister. Officials of my Department continue to work closely with the British Government and political representatives in Northern Ireland to identify ways to address not just the current crisis but its underlying causes. Tomorrow's meeting will discuss with the First Minister and the Deputy First Minister a positive way forward and the two Governments will be providing them with all necessary support to find solutions to the current problem. We will continue our efforts, but they must support rather than supplant those of the Executive and elected political leaders.

Irish Government officials visited St. Matthew's Church and the Short Strand community yesterday and have reported extensively to me on the situation locally. I am concerned by reports that the attacks on houses in the Short Strand were premeditated and I condemn them. I will be discussing this matter with the Secretary of State, as well as the First Minister and the Deputy First Minister, when I meet them tomorrow. I hope to visit the Short Strand area and other community interfaces in the near future.

The persistence of sectarianism in Northern Ireland, with the absence of political agreement on how to make progress towards a truly reconciled society, contributes to the likelihood of incidents such as those we have witnessed in recent weeks. Building relationships between divided communities takes time and sustained effort and investment. The recent violent street disturbances are a reminder that the challenge remains to build a society that can accommodate competing and, sometimes, contradictory notions of identity. It is incumbent on all political leaders to show that democratic politics works and is the only means through which positive change can be brought about.

It would be simplistic to suggest the street protests are a result purely of the decision by Belfast City Council to fly the union flag on designated days only. Dealing with the legacy of the past and current contentious issues, manifestations of that legacy present challenges that will be at the core of the work of the Northern Ireland Executive, party leaders and the Northern Ireland Assembly for some time to come. The parties in Northern Ireland must learn to resolve issues around flags and symbols in a respectful and consensual way as we work towards a society based on respect for difference, as well as tolerance for the traditions and multiple identities on the island. The blight of sectarianism affects both Nationalist and loyalist communities and contributes to grievances on all sides.

My Department, through its reconciliation and anti-sectarianism funds, assists projects in interface areas designed specifically to address the root causes of sectarianism, defuse tensions and pursue new and more effective ways to tackle sectarianism. In the past two years direct small grants totalling almost €300,000 were awarded to local community groups operating in predominantly loyalist areas in Northern Ireland. Projects supported include programmes at women's centres, support for youth outreach services to the Nationalist community and re-imaging of murals and emblems. Funding is targeted at groups which have the potential to transform attitudes in their communities.

The majority of people in Northern Ireland want to see an end to street violence. The rioters are, in effect, wrecking their own communities. This year has the potential to be a great year for tourism in Northern Ireland. That potential must not be jeopardised by the recent terrible images from Belfast that have been beamed around the world by international media. The economic cost of recent events is becoming apparent. Apart from the cost of the policing operation - estimated at £7 million - foreign direct investment, the retail trade and tourism are all at risk. The director of the Confederation of British Industry in Northern Ireland has warned about the economic damage being inflicted on local businesses, tourism and investment.

It is my hope that out of this setback we will see a redoubling of efforts to achieve a genuinely reconciled society in Northern Ireland. It is a reminder to all that the peace process is exactly that - a process which still has some way to go. Political and security co-operation on the island has never been better and we can rely on these relationships of trust and the resilience of the Good Friday Agreement to create space for progress beyond the current difficulties.

We all agree that peaceful protests can be healthy and positive in defusing tension. It should be a democratic right in any society for its members to protest. The difficulty, however, with these protests is that they are illegal and violent, with people and their homes being attacked, which has terrified them and prevented many from going to work. The other difficulty is that Unionists cannot solve this problem on their own; they need to involve their neighbours. It is incumbent on us all to become involved in these discussions that, I hope, will lead us out of this mayhem.

We had all hoped we had moved beyond conflict. The reality is, however, that there is much more work to be done. There is a responsibility on us all not to take cheap shots on this issue. It can be resolved but only by people sitting down and talking to each other.

Last October I made a significant speech at Bodenstown on the issues in the peace process on the island. I warned that we were not reaping the full dividend of the Good Friday Agreement and that its potential was not being realised. As a former Minister for Foreign Affairs and watching events unfold, I made the criticism – not by way of a cheap shot – that politics in the North was not working. As the Tánaiste and Minister for Foreign Affairs and Trade said, there are deep underlying and profound reasons we are witnessing these street protests. That is not to excuse anything and I unequivocally condemn what is going on. Unfortunately, however, one has the terrible sense that politics has not moved on from the tired old scripts on parades, emblems and flags. I understand the importance and significance of symbolism in Northern Ireland. However, bread and butter issues have not been addressed by the Executive. Those on the ground in disadvantaged areas, both Nationalist and loyalist, have not reaped the dividends of the Good Friday Agreement. It seems a new effort and initiative are required to have a far more effective, anti-sectarian policy and drive.

The funds provided by the Department of Foreign Affairs and Trade have been effective in reconciling community groups in interface areas. Should there be a significant expansion of these funds? Should there be greater collaboration with the British Government and the Northern Executive to adopt a far more expansive approach to an anti-sectarian and cross-community reconciliation agenda? We also need to deal with critical issues such as the fact that the North still has the worst indices of child poverty, particularly in west Belfast, that school completion figures are low, particularly in loyalist areas, and that health indices are poor. There is a need for a fresh initiative on these fronts.

It is important that we recognise progress has been made. Deputy Micheál Martin will remember, as he was directly involved, that there was a time when it was stop-go with the institutions in the North. They were up and running, before being suspended and are now up and running again.

Since then there has been a prolonged period, including an election period, where the Northern Ireland Assembly has been running, the Executive has been operating and we have seen increased devolution. We have also seen improvements in several areas of the economy, tourism and so on. This is important for the normalisation of society and a de-escalation of the security apparatus and environment and so on. It is important to acknowledge that progress has been made.

I agree with Deputy Martin that Northern Ireland remains a deeply divided society. Let us consider Belfast, the number of peace walls still in existence there and the number of divisions throughout the community. There is a considerable amount of work to be done to tackle sectarianism. One of the great strengths of the Good Friday Agreement is that it allows for a mutual respect and a respect for both identities. That must be handled with great sensitivity. There is no point in replacing one form of triumphalism for another or one form of victory for another. We must work towards a shared society in Northern Ireland. As Deputy Crowe noted, Belfast is a shared working space for the people who live there and Northern Ireland is a shared space. We must work towards that shared future and society.

Much work has been done on the North-South side. This morning I referred to the 50 meetings which have been on bread-and-butter issues including education, health and co-operation on transport. We have also seen the progress that you have made, a Cheann Comhairle, with the Speaker of the Northern Ireland Assembly in bringing together the two parliamentary bodies. All of this represents progress but we must ensure there is no going back.

What we have seen in recent weeks has something of a recall of the past about it. The images of burning cars from Belfast are the wrong images to be communicating internationally for Northern Ireland and for this part of the island. We need to work together to ensure that progress is maintained. In the first instance the political leaders in Northern Ireland, including those in the Northern Ireland Assembly and the Executive, must work as one in order that there is no return to the ways of the past. It is also important to appreciate that the numbers involved in recent weeks have been relatively small. We need the Police Service of Northern Ireland to get on top of it. Respect and support for the police service is vital. As far as the two Governments are concerned, we intend to work with the Northern Ireland Executive to ensure that progress is made. Certainly this is the approach that I intend to take on behalf of the Government.

Food Safety Authority Inspections

Although all the findings of the Food Safety Authority of Ireland, FSAI, report are serious the findings on horse meat contamination could potentially do the most damage because of the nature of the meat involved and the quantity of horse meat found in one sample. I welcome the steps taken by the supermarkets to remove product from their shelves and to reassure consumers. This is a serious issue because food exports from Ireland are vital to our economic well-being. Many jobs depend on the meat sector, including those of farmers, workers in distribution and workers in the processing industry, etc. Our reputation as a safe, quality producer of food with a high level of traceability of product is vital. We need to get to the bottom of this affair quickly and we need to take all necessary steps to protect our reputation. Through decisive action the Minister must ensure that our people and all our customers worldwide maintain their faith in the quality and integrity of our meat and food products. We also need to ensure that labelling reflects the origin and contents of all ingredients in food products and that it is made a serious offence to give misleading information in this regard.

I emphasise that in one case approximately 30% of the meat content was horse meat. This is not cross-contamination but the use of horse meat as a major constituent of the burger in question. Given that millions of burgers are made every year, the chances of picking a burger subject to isolated once-off mistaken contamination from a random sample - if it was purely a random sample - are less than the chances of winning the national lottery. Therefore, I have several questions for the Minister. What was the statistical chance of a random sample picking up a once-off isolated contamination? When did the Department and the Minister become aware of this issue? What actions did the Minister take to deal with it? Why did he not immediately make the public aware of the report? What steps have been taken to establish the source of the ingredients? Does the Minister have evidence to show that this horse meat did not originate from within the country? Is the Minister willing to come into the Dáil next week to debate this issue in detail in order that we can reassure the public at home and abroad about the safety of the product we put on consumer shelves?

The first thing this episode highlights is the need for a more comprehensive system of food traceability and labelling in the country. While it is to be welcomed that the contamination was detected by the FSAI and that an inquiry has been established there must be positive steps taken as a result. This is especially the case given that consumers are probably under the impression that they are buying Irish beef products when in fact a significant part of the product is imported. Moreover, in this case it was not even beef. The Minister must make known the names of the companies in Spain and the Netherlands which, he claims, supplied the contaminated product and he should say whether either of these companies are owned in part or in whole by any of the Irish companies which processed the burgers. Given that horse meat is an ingredient in pet food usually described as animal by-product rather than horse meat, these issues must be clarified in the interests of the good name of the companies involved in the processing of burgers here. It would be helpful for the Minister to name the companies and to state whether a connection exists between the Dutch and Spanish companies and the Irish companies.

It is also poignant for many people from a socioeconomic point of view because some of the people who bought burgers in the outlets such as those named here this morning are among those most in need. If this contamination was deliberate then effectively people most in need are being abused by companies either inside or outside the country.

I welcome the reform measures that enable us to debate this key issue which is being discussed in the national newspapers and in our communities.

I acknowledge that testing has taken place and it is positive that active testing is taking place in the State. This was discovered and acted upon by the Minister. Food labelling is a major issue. We should recognise that it could become a food safety issue if food processors do not know what is in the ingredients they purchase. I accept the statements today to the effect that this is currently not a food safety issue but rather a labelling issue. My colleagues have raised the issues already and therefore I will focus on food labelling. I hope the Minister for Agriculture, Food and the Marine will work with the Minister for Health to address the points I raise.

The traceability of ingredients is another issue of concern because of how food is produced and marketed in Ireland and elsewhere. Meat, including chicken, pork and beef, is being raised in other countries, imported to Ireland and processed and butchered here. It is not acceptable that such meat can be labelled as produced in Ireland. This is putting severe pressure on our farmers. It is misleading to compare a meat product that has been born, raised, butchered and processed in Ireland with foreign imports. Food producers, retailers, restaurants and caterers should have to specify where their meat comes from.

Irish people have a right to know to allow them to support Irish products. It ensures consumers know whether they are eating Irish products.

I have raised the issue of food labelling on a number of occasions. The Ministers for Health and Agriculture, Food and the Marine must address it as a matter of urgency. It is not enough to label a product as containing Irish beef; all the ingredients must be labelled. We are seeing substantial additives being used to bulk up low-cost foods in particular. As Deputy Ferris said, it is mainly those in economic stress who are looking for cheaper options. We must ensure through a strong labelling process that those people are protected.

I wish to make it clear at the outset that from birth, via the suckler cow welfare scheme, through to slaughter, Irish cattle are the most traceable in the world. Traceability is only as good as its weakest link. Traditionally, this has been a difficulty with processed food products rather than with beef carcass and cuts which make up the vast majority of Irish beef exports.

There are two aspects to the issue before the House. First is the trace contamination of beef products by equine and porcine DNA which must be investigated fully and any manufacturer who cannot guarantee non-contaminated ingredients for the food industry removed from the system. Second is the disclosure that one fifth of a burger product contained equine meat. The AIBP group which is at the centre of attention has focused in recent years on becoming the preferred partner of major retailers in Ireland and Britain. While I do not believe the company would put this valuable business in jeopardy by deliberately including equine meat in its product, I cannot accept that such a significant content of equine meat mistakenly ended up in a product labelled as beef. It was either a deliberate act or an instance of gross incompetence at some point in the supply chain. Investigations must not only take place internationally to source the contamination and to discover how it happened, but someone must pay dearly for undermining the integrity of the food chain.

The AIBP group handles over one quarter of the total beef kill in Ireland and just under a quarter in Britain. It seems bizarre that the largest single processor in Ireland or the UK would import beef from continental Europe to a country which has 900% self-sufficiency and is the fourth-largest exporter of beef in the world. Consumers and the thousands of families nationally who rely on our beef industry need honest and clear answers quickly. It is what they deserve.

The Minister has two minutes.

Given the number Deputies who have asked questions, I ask the Chair for some leniency on time.

The Minister can revert for two minutes.

People will have a copy of my speech, all of which I will not be able to read out in four minutes. I will go as far as I can.

As the House is aware, the results of laboratory tests provided to my Department by the Food Safety Authority of Ireland on 14 January 2013 revealed the presence of non-beef DNA in some beef products. This generally involved trace or minute amounts of porcine or equine DNA with the exception of one burger product which had a high level of equine DNA. My Department works under a service contract to the Food Safety Authority of Ireland on food safety matters and, as has been the case in previous instances, both bodies are working together to address this matter. The authority and Department operate as part of a coherent, multi-layered control system designed to ensure the highest standards of food safety. The authority and Department work closely to ensure the safety of Irish food in accordance with strict EU and national regulatory requirements. The system is completely transparent. We identify and respond wherever a problem is detected. It is important to note that this is the system that identified the problem, which demonstrates that it is working. While the problem is not one of food safety as such, it was identified by our systems.

I stress that it is national policy on food safety that consumer protection takes priority and that concerns for public health or confidence in food products are brought promptly to public attention. It is for this reason that the Food Safety Authority of Ireland published the results yesterday. While the authority has provided assurances that no food safety issues arise in this instance, there are clearly issues to be addressed in respect of confidence in the quality of the products concerned. Those issues are now being addressed in the full investigation which I have initiated. Experience has taught us that openness, transparency and early action are vital to maintaining consumer confidence in these cases and those have been the underlying principles in the instant case.

On receipt of the laboratory results from the Food Safety Authority of Ireland last Monday afternoon and notwithstanding that it said there was no food safety issue involved, my Department commenced a full-scale investigation. The priority is to ensure that the source of the ingredients which gave rise to this problem is found quickly and remedial action taken. That is critical to ensuring there is no question mark over the quality of beef products from Ireland given our collective obligation to ensure the integrity of the food production chain. The investigation is focusing on the individual ingredients used in the manufacture of the affected batch. A number of these individual ingredients were imported into the State. There is no evidence from the investigation so far to show that the manufacturer knowingly imported equine meat to use in the production of these burgers and further investigations and DNA testing of product manufactured yesterday will bring clarity to this preliminary conclusion within 48 hours of tests being carried out.

There has been some comment on the sequence of events and I wish to set the record straight. The first samples were taken by the Food Safety Authority of Ireland as part of one of its snapshot surveys at retail level in early to mid-November. Those samples were sent for analysis to a private laboratory. In December, the authority took further samples at retail level and again had them analysed in a private laboratory in Ireland. Following this process, the initial samples which tested positive were sent for analysis in late December to a laboratory in Germany to confirm the accuracy of the initial tests. Obviously, there was concern about the results. Separately, my Department was requested by the authority on 21 December 2012 to take samples of ingredients at the two processing plants of concern. The results from the German laboratory were received by the authority last Friday, 11 January 2013, and my Department was informed on Monday last. A meeting took place between my Department and the authority on the same day at which the results were presented and their implications evaluated and discussed. My Department set in train a full-scale investigation. Subsequently, the authority met representatives of the food processors and retailers concerned and published the results of the tests.

I turn to the market response. The companies involved have carried out their own urgent investigation and withdrawn product from the market. In the case of Silvercrest, that amounts to some 10 million burgers. It is a significant response and an appropriate one. Retailers have also voluntarily withdrawn affected product from their shelves. While it is too early to assess the impact, if any, on food exports, I am disappointed with this development, particularly when the industry has been performing so strongly to reach record export levels in 2012. The industry's success is based on robust relationships with premium customers which have been built up over an extended period and are capable of withstanding challenges. My aim is to ensure that everything possible is done to restore consumer confidence. I have asked Bord Bia to work with the industry to explain the facts to international markets. We have a reputation for dealing openly and quickly with all food related issues once identified which will stand to us internationally.

Primary responsibility for the safety and quality of food placed on the market lies with food business operators who must implement food safety management systems based on HACCP principles. This is subject to a series of official controls which are applied vigorously at different stages in the food supply chain to verify compliance by businesses with food safety management systems. My Department has a permanent veterinary presence at all export-approved slaughtering plants. Controls at stand-alone processing plants are based on audits and inspections which are carried out by my Department's staff based on risk assessment.

In accordance with the official risk assessment, the plant in question was subject to monthly inspections in 2012 and my Department carried out a full inspection last December.

Under the Department's national residue programme, some 30,000 samples taken at farm and factory level and covering a wide range of foodstuffs are tested annually. These tests normally relate to microbiological and chemical standards focused on food safety and in accordance with EU testing requirements. DNA testing is not required under EU legislation and is not generally in use in respect of food production and safety. It has, however, been deployed in recent times as part of the Food Safety Authority of Ireland's food fraud control activities and these results arose as a result of that control programme.

The investigation arising from the DNA findings is continuing and the Department and Food Safety Authority of Ireland, FSAI, will incorporate the results when found to ensure that we maintain the highest food safety and quality standards within the Irish food production system. As the investigation reaches finality I will, of course, come back to this House and update it on the details concerned.

In view of the importance of the issue, I decided not to cut anybody off. Deputy Ó Cuív has one minute in which to ask a question.

I thank the Ceann Comhairle. It was important that the full reply was on the record of the House and I am glad the Ceann Comhairle facilitated that. We need openness, transparency and decisiveness. It is very important that we get absolute clarity about what is happening and assurances that it cannot happen again.

Can the Minister clarify on what basis it is being said - the word of the factory or the knowledge of the FSAI - that the equine product was imported? It is very important for us to get to the bottom of that issue once and for all. We know that up to 30% of the equine product was found in one case. Can the Minister give us details of the level of pigmeat contamination, which I understand was minuscule? Could the Minister reassure people as to how minuscule that was?

Is the Minister willing to accept the invitation of the Chairman of the Oireachtas Committee on Agriculture, Food and the Marine to appear before it next week with the FSAI so we can have a full and reasoned discussion on this issue and collectively in the Oireachtas be seen to deal with this matter in an agreed manner?

It is very important for the Minister to name the companies in the Netherlands and Spain and tell us whether any of them or any of the companies that distributed the product here were owned by Larry Goodman. It is also important for the Minister to outline sanctions for the companies involved if any underhand work has been carried out in respect of quite substantial damage to the industry in this country. All of us have been very reserved and responsible in trying to ensure we do everything in our power to ensure the industry retains its good name rather than engaging in point scoring. If ingredients coming here from another jurisdiction are sold as Irish beef and have been contaminated by produce outside the country, this situation exposes the fallacy of traceability.

We need regulation to cover how food is labelled and marketed with misleading labels. We need clarity about the source of proteins and fillers in food and must act either with regulation or legislation. Transparency is needed and we need to address this issue now with strong rules on labelling and traceability so that people know and have confidence in what they are buying. The Irish food industry has been done a significant disservice through the importation of these products as basically fillers. I have confidence that the Minister will act speedily and for future confidence, we need much stronger regulation in respect of labelling. The EU scheme of geographic indicators is not the solution and needs to go much further.

I have a few brief questions for the Minister. In respect of the burger of which one fifth was of equine origin, was the contaminated product meat or bulking agent? Does the Minister agree that supermarkets must take responsibility and stand over what they sell, especially at the lower end of the market? The public is confused about the terms "produced in Ireland" and "produce of Ireland". Both those terms are very different, as the Minister knows, but EU substantial transformation rules have added to the confusion experienced by the public on a daily basis. What can the Minister do as head of the Council of Ministers to streamline that? Can he clarify whether any of the plants involved in the Netherlands and Spain process equine meat products?

I will try to answer those questions as best I can. Some of the answers are not complete yet because we must wait until we have the full facts. In respect of Deputy Ó Cuív's questions, I would be happy to come before the Oireachtas Committee on Agriculture, Food and the Marine to debate this issue. I might not be able to do it next week because I am due to be in Brussels for much of the week.

Could officials come before the committee?

We will do it as soon as we can and if I cannot do it, someone from the Department will do it. We need to get the full facts first, be that next week or in a fortnight's time. Obviously, I want to ensure we respond to this in as appropriate a way as possible. This is a significant industry for Ireland. One is talking about well over 100,000 jobs and an industry worth about €3 billion in exports alone. We need to ensure we do everything possible to maintain Ireland's reputation as a quality producer of food from a traceability and safety point of view.

The FSAI's press release stated that traces of horse DNA were also detected in batches of raw ingredients including some imported from the Netherlands and Spain. I want to make it clear that does not necessarily mean that companies from the Netherlands and Spain are responsible for this. In respect of some of the work we have already done in Silvercrest, they are dealing with companies in the UK, for example, in terms of importing product. The place where food originates is not necessarily where the company responsible for putting that product together and selling it into an Irish company originates. That is the kind of complex trail we need to follow to ensure we find out who is responsible, ensure it cannot happen again and put systems in place to do that. I do not want simply to scapegoat two countries but it is a fact that the FSAI referred to those two countries as a source of some of the material that came into the processor concerned.

We will name companies and I can assure Deputy Martin Ferris that if there are inappropriate linkages, we will highlight those. As far as I can see, there has been no linkage to date between some of the companies that sold product in relating to ownership of companies but, again, let us wait and see until we have a full picture because there are multiple sources for some of this product. That is the reality of the food industry.

Labelling is a very complex matter to solve. If there was to be a label on every food product which itemised where every product within that food came from, one would face a very difficult task putting an appropriate label on a pizza, for example, in terms of where all the individual products came from, be they olives, onions, fruit etc., and likewise in this sector. Having said that, what has happened here is totally unacceptable and we need to find a solution for it.

This problem may have been caused not by a lack of regulations but by a lack of respect for those regulations and the need to enforce them. Common standards across the European Union require full traceability and accurate labelling. If a product comes from one European country into another and is labelled incorrectly, that is a matter of enforcement rather than new regulation. We are collectively examining the issue of traceability and country of origin labelling at European level. This incident will help to inform that ongoing debate in terms of the need for more accurate labelling on country of origin.

The type of burger concerned was a frozen product comprising 63% meat, with the remaining ingredients including onion and other filler protein. The protein should have been derived from a beef-sourced product. It is of concern that 29% of the meat content of the burger was horse meat, which means that 20% was horse meat overall. It is difficult to explain how that happened and we are taking a tough line with everybody involved to ensure we get the full facts so that we can provide an explanation to this House at the earliest opportunity, because consumers and, most important, buyers of Irish food across the world need to know we are on top of the matter.

This incident involved a small segment of the Irish food industry. The frozen burgers concerned were sold predominantly in the Irish and British markets. The vast majority of the beef we export to 165 different countries is fresh meat either on the carcass or processed in some way. However, even though this issue is specific to frozen burgers in a particular price category, we need to enforce the same standards, because every consumer, regardless of what he or spends on food in Ireland, is entitled to the same assurances and quality control systems.

We are taking this matter very seriously but it does not give rise to food safety issues. It is not like the dioxin scare in pork or a disease scare in animals. There is no threat to human safety. It is a question of traceability and labelling. It has been flagged because we have a structured and comprehensive system of checks. We will get to the bottom of the matter and do everything we can to ensure it does not happen again.

I ask the Minister to clarify how small were the traces of pigmeat in the other burgers.

In most cases they were minuscule. In one case they comprised 15%, but it subsequently emerged that the label on that product stated that it contained pigmeat. The meat processor concerned contacted us to complain that it was being lumped in unfairly with the other products. The vast majority of products contained less than 1% and in most cases the amount was closer to 0.1%. This quantity of pigmeat can be explained by the way in which we produce and transport food. A refrigerated lorry that carried pigmeat a few weeks ago may still contain a tiny molecule of pig DNA even after it has been power-hosed and cleaned. It is important that we put this matter into context. However, that does not explain the presence of horse meat, which is a serious issue deserving full investigation.

Ambulance Service Provision

I thank the Ceann Comhairle for allowing me to raise this topical issue and the Minister of State at the Department of Health, Deputy White, for coming to the House to respond to it.

Above all else, people are concerned about their health, and if they are injured in an accident or suffer a heart attack or a stroke they want to be assured that the system of ambulance cover throughout the State will give them the best chance of survival, with prompt medical attention on site and efficient transfer to hospital. I commend our paramedical staff on the tremendous work they do, in often horrific circumstances.

The State is covered by 86 ambulance stations. Under the Croke Park agreement the issue of inefficiencies in rostering arrangements in ambulance stations was referred to the Labour Court following intensive discussions between the HSE's national ambulance service and trade unions representing paramedical staff. The Labour Court subsequently issued a recommendation directing the national ambulance service and the trade unions to address a number of overtime-generating inefficiencies within rostering arrangements. Discussions have concluded at 30 ambulance stations on changes to rosters and 25 will now operate on a 24-hour basis, 365 days per year. However, the stations in Maynooth, Baltinglass, Swords, Athy and Arklow will not have an ambulance on stand-by for immediate dispatch for 12 hours per week. This means there will be no local cover for the equivalent of 26 days, or almost one month, each year.

Maynooth ambulance station covers a population of 60,369 in the towns of Celbridge, Leixlip, Clane, Kilcock and Straffan, as well as Maynooth. Between 7 a.m. and 7 p.m. every Thursday, no ambulance is available for dispatch directly from Maynooth ambulance station. In the event of an emergency, an ambulance would have to be sourced from Athy, which is 90 minutes distant, Naas, which is one hour distant, Dublin or Cavan. I do not want to scaremonger but it would be inefficient to allow this situation to continue if it puts people's lives at risk. The national ambulance service has pointed out that two new rapid response vehicles operate in south Dublin and Kildare and that a new hospital transfer service has increased ambulance capacity. However, neither I nor the people of north Kildare are satisfied with the current arrangement.

If full cover can be retained in 25 stations throughout the country, why can this not be achieved in Maynooth? What is the cost of reinstating dispatch from Maynooth on a 24-hour basis, 365 days per year? I ask that the matter be reconsidered because I cannot understand how savings can be made through the changes that have been introduced. If the Minister of State does not have specific information I will be satisfied if he passes the information to me subsequently. I have been trying to get information from the ambulance service but it is like pulling teeth from hens.

I thank Deputy Stagg for raising this issue, for drawing attention to the improvements made in the HSE national ambulance service, NAS, and for affording me the opportunity to outline the ongoing delivery by the HSE and its workforce and representatives of important changes in the way our emergency ambulances and crews are deployed.

The Deputy is correct that the NAS is progressing a number of efficiencies arising from the Labour Court decision following a referral to it under the public service agreement. These include the issue of overtime built into rosters and a change from on-call to on-duty service. The elimination of on-call rostering was sought by ambulance staff. The referral to the Labour Court was in line with the Croke Park agreement. The court has issued a binding recommendation directing the NAS and the trade unions to address a number of inefficiencies in rostering arrangements. New rosters are in place and are operating successfully in a large number of stations, including Tallaght, Swords, Maynooth, Kildare, Wicklow and Cavan.

Some concerns over perceived levels of cover or lack of cover at certain stations in the north Leinster area have been raised as these changes have progressed. I reassure the Deputy and the population of the areas referred to in this regard that the national ambulance service is not a static service. It deploys its resources in a dynamic manner and works on an area and national basis rather than on a local basis. The dynamic deployment of ambulance resources ensures that the nearest appropriate resource is mobilised to an incident, including incidents in the greater Dublin area. Where necessary, emergency cover is provided by an advanced paramedic motorcycle response unit, supported by resources deployed from adjacent stations on a rolling basis.

In addition to the operational efficiencies being implemented, two new rapid response vehicles, RRVs, now operate in the south Dublin and Kildare areas, to improve services further across the greater Dublin area. The national ambulance service has also introduced a new intermediate care service in south County Dublin to address routine inter hospital transfers. This releases emergency ambulances for emergency service work. The net effect of these changes is improved efficiency and increased availability of emergency ambulances across the area for incidents where hospitalisation is required.

As mentioned, the national ambulance service is a dynamic service. It responds to calls on a prioritised basis, through the advanced medical priority dispatch system, AMPDS, which is in operation in all NAS control centres. The NAS has established that 10% of all 999 calls are inappropriate for an emergency ambulance and a further 50% are neither life-threatening nor serious. This data is in line with international experience.

With regard to the specific stations mentioned by the Deputy, Maynooth, Baltinglass, Swords, Athy and Arklow, these stations particularly benefit from the dynamic and rolling cover improvements due to their proximity to each other and to the road network available in the area they cover. I appreciate the Deputy referred to Maynooth in particular. The question raised with regard to Maynooth and the manner in which these issues are being addressed must be seen in the context of the dynamic service that exists, which comprehends a broader area of cover than a particular town or centre.

The system we use for raising topical issues is very useful for Members like myself, but we appear to be falling back into the old trap, where Ministers or Ministers of State come into the House and read a script that was prepared before hearing what we have to say on the issues. The result is that regularly the issues being raised are not addressed at all. This is what has happened today.

I asked some specific questions and while I did not expect the Minister of State to have the answers, I would have been satisfied if he had said he would get the answers for me. I will put my questions again. How can he justify not having an ambulance service in Maynooth when there is, apparently, no savings whatsoever from abandoning it? The system being put in place is no better and is probably more expensive than the system that existed when Maynooth had a full service. I do not accept the notion that Athy and Maynooth are adjacent, as they are an hour and a half apart. A person could have died from a heart attack ten times in the time it would take for the special ambulance to come. However, perhaps the man on the motorbike would arrive to help.

The man on the motorbike would probably cost more than it would cost to send the ambulance which is lying idle in Maynooth, all because somebody decided that five stations in the country should have 12 hours a week with no ambulance service and that a motorbike service would replace them. I do not understand how this could provide any savings. Will the Minister inquire or find out what exact savings are being made, as all of this was based not on more efficient services, but on cost efficiencies? I fought for years to get an ambulance service for Maynooth and we succeeded in getting it. I am not about to allow it be whittled down or reduced so as it will eventually disappear into some larger centre.

Can the Minister of State tell me what happens in Maynooth on a Thursday when the ambulance and crew are not allowed to leave the station? Does the crew sit in it and wait for the 12 hours to be up before they can go out? What has occurred is nonsense. A group in Maynooth and the north Kildare area is organising a protest on this issue and I understand and appreciate that. If we could get some answers, we could explain why this has occurred.

The Deputy has indicated he would like me to ascertain the level of savings associated with the changes in so far as they apply to Maynooth and I will endeavour to ensure that if the information can be ascertained it will be relayed to him.

I cannot explain the broader issue any further than I have done. However, all of us would be concerned if any of the decisions being made in order to achieve efficiencies brought an associated risk with them or if they introduced any kind of public health risk into the system.

Of course there is a risk.

Our primary concern is to ensure the health and well-being of the population, including access to emergency care if needed. If it can be demonstrated there is some risk associated with this change, that must be addressed.

If there is no risk, there is no need for an ambulance service at all.