Topical Issue Debate

Garda Vetting Applications

I thank the Ceann Comhairle for selecting this matter. Garda vetting has been an issue for a number of years. We all recognise the need for it for those who work with children and vulnerable adults.

I am bringing this up today, however, because of the length of time it takes to get clearance. In February, 25 new people joined the vetting unit and last November the wait was down to five weeks. I was contacted by someone yesterday who has been waiting for eight weeks and was told he would have to wait another six weeks. I met Deputy Connaughton and he told me of a person who had to give up a FÁS position because his clearance did not come through.

Last week the co-ordinator of a sports coaching programme in Mayo called "Goal to Work" saw 12 unemployed people become qualified coaches in GAA, soccer and rugby. The course was delivered in Castlebar, Ballina and Ballyhaunis. Each of the coaches had to coach the different games and had to secure Garda clearance for each of the different disciplines. Instead of 24 people getting their clearance, 72 clearances had to be issued, even though these were the same people and, in many cases, they were coaching the same children.

I remember a term from way back, GUBU: grotesque, unbelievable, unprecedented and something else.

This is crazy, but it gets worse. When that course finished, one of those to whom I refer was subsequently offered a position as an activities co-ordinator at another venue. The person had been vetted on three separate occasions already. He is the person who is waiting eight weeks and has been told that he must wait another six weeks because he got a community employment scheme as a sports co-ordinator and he must be vetted again. The duplication of the vetting is something that must be dealt with. I will leave it at that.

I thank the Ceann Comhairle for selecting the issue and acknowledge the presence of the Minister of State, Deputy McGinley.

I will not repeat what Deputy O'Mahony has said, but this has come to light in my office as well in the recent past. There is a sense of frustration that constituents are being delayed unnecessarily, particularly on the conditions that have changed for the Department of Social Protection on involvement in community employment schemes. It is no exaggeration to state that some community employment schemes in my constituency are at the brink of collapsing because of the delays due to Garda vetting.

I would be the first person to say that Garda vetting needs to take place, particularly for vulnerable adults and children, but the system needs to be reformed and modernised. For example, once one is vetted by the Garda and one does not change profession or change one's place of employment, one is never vetted again. Something could happen in the interim and it does not appear anywhere.

One simple measure could be taken. At some point, everybody in this country will be issued with a biometric card and it has come to the stage where we need to have people's PPS numbers linked to either the Courts Service or another agency that can ensure the system of Garda vetting is a living and ongoing process, and that as something happens, one does not wait for a person to lose his or her job and having to go through the same rigmarole, taking another eight weeks. Also, potential employers, with the consent of the person, should be able to access a website securely to see the Garda vetting status of the individual.

The process takes far too long. We can channel as many staff into it as we want, but the concept of the system needs to be looked at as well. Unless the system is living and unless it is constantly changing and evolving with information being fed in from the Courts Service, the Garda and others, we will continue to experience these problems.

I am responding on behalf of Minister for Justice and Equality, Deputy Shatter, who regrets he is unable to be here. I thank the Deputies for raising this important matter. Since his appointment, the Minister has given priority to doing all he can to ensure the vetting process operates efficiently and applications are dealt with as quickly as possible.

We should not be under any illusion about the scale of what is involved. The Garda central vetting unit provides employment vetting for approximately 20,000 organisations in Ireland, registered with the unit for this purpose, which employ personnel to work in a full-time, part-time, voluntary or student capacity with children and-or vulnerable adults. The unit processed approximately 328,000 vetting applications on behalf of these organisations in 2012.

There are 94 personnel assigned to the Garda central vetting unit. The current average processing time for applications is approximately 12 weeks from date of receipt. However, seasonal fluctuations and the necessity to seek additional information on particular applications can result in this processing time being exceeded on occasion. All organisations registered for Garda vetting are aware of the processing timeframes for the receipt of Garda vetting and have been advised to factor this into their recruitment and selection process.

In order to observe equity and fairness in respect of all applicants for Garda vetting, standard procedures are such that applications are processed in chronological order from the date of receipt at the central vetting unit. A vetting disclosure is made in response to a written request and with the permission of the person who is the subject of that request. Garda vetting disclosures are issued to specified organisations registered with the vetting unit for that purpose in respect of a particular post or employment. The disclosure is made to the requesting registered organisation of the position at the time when it is issued.

Each time a new vetting application is received, a full vetting check is conducted to ensure the most recent data available are taken into account. The non-transferability and contemporaneous nature of the certificate protects against the risk of fraud or forgery and is a guarantee of the integrity of the vetting service. It also affords the registered organisation the facility to assess suitability based on the most up-to-date information available on the applicant. It is worth emphasising that the primary purpose of the vetting process is the protection of children and vulnerable adults and this must remain the case.

The Minister has been pursuing all options to ensure that adequate resources are available to the vetting unit. I believe the Deputies will welcome the fact that following discussions with the Department of Public Expenditure and Reform, sanction was granted for an additional 25 staff to be redeployed from the Department of Agriculture, Food and the Marine to the Garda central vetting unit in the near future. This should clearly have a positive effect on matters.

The Minister has asked me to assure the House that it will remain a priority to ensure that vetting applications will be dealt with as quickly as possible.

I thank the Minister for the reply. I wanted to give credit to the Minister, Deputy Shatter, because he had the processing time down to five weeks in November last. Regardless of whether it is the National Vetting Bureau (Children and Vulnerable Persons) Act 2012 that is causing the problem, the issue is the duplication of vetting that is needed. I would ask the Minister of State to bring that message back.

I note from the reply that the average processing time is 12 weeks. I understand the Department of Social Protection will not allow vacancies in community employment schemes to be advertised within approximately eight weeks of the roll-over of schemes. There is a contradiction here. If there are appointments made to a CE scheme or a job offered, those concerned will not know that until eight weeks before they are due to take up office. Maybe it is in that context that some of these appointees cannot take up the positions.

I thank the Minister of State and ask him to convey those specific issues to the Minister, Deputy Shatter.

I accept fully the need for Garda vetting. I think everybody does. The problem is that when there is a change in criteria laid down by a publicly funded organisation such as the Department of Social Protection for community employment and it does not take account of the 12 week time delay for Garda vetting, as in my case in County Limerick and probably every constituency, community employment schemes cannot fill vacancies in the timeframe because of the delays associated with Garda vetting. That is the first aspect of my point.

The second aspect, which is equally important, is that this is not a continuous living process. Once one is vetted and one does not change or move job, one is never vetted again. That system needs to be looked at. There needs to be a continuous system. It needs to be joined up, between the Department of Social Protection, the Courts Service and the Garda, to ensure that if something happens after a person is vetted, such information is properly fed in and that potential employers would have access to a much easier streamlined system than what is there, which is cumbersome, archaic and taking far too long.

I thank the Deputies for their comments and assure them that these will be brought to the Minister's attention. I hope it is clear from the reply that the Minister acknowledges the importance of this matter and that in the near future there will be 25 personnel transferred from another Department to work in the Garda vetting unit. The Deputies can be assured that the Minister will continue to make every effort to ensure the system is in a position to operate as efficiently as possible. As a practising politician, I recognise and acknowledge the validity of the points that have been made.

Wind Energy Guidelines

I thank the Ceann Comhairle for selecting this issue and I thank the Minister for coming to the House to take part in the debate. It is an important issue not just for my constituency, but also for the midlands and the country at large. We are all aware that the Minister signed a memorandum of understanding with his UK counterpart in January and two private companies are actively engaging with landowners regarding potential leases for the erection of wind turbines in the midlands. Mr. O'Connor of Mainstream Renewable Power was quoted in the Financial Times in January as saying, "We have already signed up hundreds of landowners across the Irish midlands and will create the largest wind farm in Europe." While I acknowledge landowners are entitled to engage with whomever they want regarding what they want to do on the land, the proposed wind farm will affect entire communities across the midlands which are not being consulted. There is widespread concern and anxiety among these communities. Given that the scale of the development will mean that any potential application will need to go directly to An Bord Pleanála, does the Minister not believe we need something more than non-binding wind energy guidelines to influence a decision?

I accept that Ireland has a legal obligation to meet under the EU directive 2009/28/EC. In an ever-evolving world we should continually enhance regulations and legislation to ensure sustainable development which will not be detrimental to our communities. This is a national issue and it warrants a national strategy on renewable energy. The Government should introduce a moratorium on any future development until such a strategy is introduced. The national strategy should encompass all renewable energy sources - wind, biomass, solar, etc. There should be consultation with the various industries, the local community groups, environmental groups and the various Departments. Such a strategy could then inform the Government and take into account competing interests.

The Oireachtas Joint Committee on Transport and Communications could be charged with formulating such a strategy. It should look at various countries where best practice exists. We should introduce a moratorium until the guidelines are reviewed, amended and put on a statutory footing. These guidelines should deal with issues such as ensuring communities are aware of potential planning applications and that proper comprehensive public consultation is carried out. The distance between the residence and any proposed turbine should reflect the height of the turbine. Environmental impact assessments need to be carried out. We need scientific studies on noise, flicker and shadowing. We need to use the most up-to-date research from the World Health Organization to ensure that no potential development will have a detrimental effect on people's health. We also need to ensure our targets are met under the EU directive before we start exporting excess energy.

I ask the Minister to facilitate my request, which comes not only from me. Various other Oireachtas Members and members of the Minister's party at local level are calling on him to introduce a moratorium. They are calling on him to introduce a national strategy to deal with the issue. They are calling on him to ensure the guidelines are revised and put on a statutory basis to ensure we have sustainable development into the future and that such development will not have a detrimental impact on communities. I again thank the Minister for coming in to take this debate.

I thank the Deputy for raising this important issue. The more it is ventilated, the better. He is absolutely right that several colleagues in the House have been in touch with me about this issue, perhaps in some cases prompted by some of the more garish headlines the issue attracts. I entirely accept that communities have some concerns. Deputy Penrose has been with me on a number of occasions in recent months in particular to discuss the issue, following which he drafted a Private Members' Bill. I met a number of Senators, including Senator Kelly, on the same issue. The more we examine this, the harder I find it to see how we could enshrine in primary legislation the kinds of precise planning requirements Deputy Troy advocates. The expert advice available to me is that it is virtually impossible to exploit what is an indigenous renewable resource in this country to generate energy and perhaps to help us create a significant export sector if we were to enshrine planning obligations in primary legislation.

Therefore, arising from the discussions within my party, with Deputy Penrose in particular but also with Senator Kelly, the Minister of State with responsibility for housing and planning, Deputy Jan O'Sullivan, engaged in the public consultation to elicit public response as to how the guidelines put in place in 2006 might be finessed or improved as appropriate. She has had a significant response to that public consultation and is teasing through it at the moment. The Sustainable Energy Authority of Ireland, which comes under the auspices of my Department, is carrying out a study on other aspects to which the Deputy has just referred. The Minister of State, Deputy Jan O'Sullivan, will take that into account when she reaches decision stage on the issue.

I do not know whether it is permissible that the script I have here might be read into the record. In any event I would be happy to make it available to the Deputy. It sets out the progress that has been made in recent years where 1,250 turbines on 150 wind farms across 22 counties have been a commissioned with a capacity of 1,738 MW. The Deputy is right in saying that our first obligation is to meet our mandatory targets. We are certainly intent on doing that and we believe we can do it. In any event it would not be possible to generate an export market in green energy unless we can ensure that we can meet our own targets - I believe we will meet those targets.

I have published a strategy on the area and have provided other guidance last year. The best practice wind energy guidelines published in 2006 are now being reviewed. Taken together with the Government policy statement on the strategic importance of transmission and other energy infrastructure, which I published in 2012, this emphasises the importance of public and local community acceptance; adherence to national and international standards in designing and constructing energy networks and infrastructure; early consultation and engagement with local communities; and building community gain considerations into energy infrastructure planning and budgeting. I deliberately put those principles onto the record of the House because it is important that they are adhered to. Consultation and engagement with local communities and building into the arrangements provision for community benefit are very important.

I would be concerned if local communities were provoked to overreaction and over-concern by some of the wilder reaches of rhetoric promoted by some. I do not mean elected representatives.

The Minister is over his time.

This would be an overreaction to what is actually happening. We have 200,000 acres of cutaway bog not too far from Deputy Troy. For many years Bord na Móna has been considering what to do with this after its primary business expires. This is a big piece of the jigsaw which might well be taken into account.

I thank the Minister for his reply. He already alluded to the fact that members of his political party have drafted legislation relating to the governance of this issue and they are obviously at variance with the Minister's opinion on the need for legislation. I find it amazing that if one were to add an extension to the back of one's house of 40 sq. m or more one must adhere to primary legislation on planning permission so I do not see the big issue with regard to introducing legislation on the governance of industrial wind farms in our area.

The Minister also spoke about cutaway bogs and I am happy to hear him do so. However, this does not remove the fact that Mr. O'Connor, one of the directors of the company seeking to develop wind energy in the midlands, has stated he has already signed up hundreds of land owners throughout the midlands and will create the largest wind farm in Europe. The Minister stated we do not have an issue with meeting our own targets, but this contradicts what he stated on 16 October 2012 in reply to a parliamentary question. He stated that at the end of 2011 we were at 17.6% renewable electricity, 3.6% renewable transport biofuels and 5% renewable heat, which together meant 6.5% of all energy consumed in 2011 was from renewables, and that we had another eight years in which to achieve the remaining 9.5%, which would be very challenging. These were the Minister's words.

I am glad the Minister recognises there is genuine concern in the communities where the proposed development will take place. Will he consider introducing a moratorium until these concerns are allayed and the guidelines are reviewed? Only two short weeks were given for the consultation process and the review of the guidelines. One is given five weeks to make a submission with regard to a local planning application but only two weeks were provided for an issue of such national importance. The Minister is a member of Government and has the opportunity to dictate the schedule. At the very minimum will he ensure we have a proper debate in the House on the renewable energy sector?

What I stated in October is probably accurately quoted by Deputy Troy, and I am very glad to say I was aiming those remarks at certain players at the time and that logjams which had existed, particularly in connection to regulatory matters in the context of the all-island market, have since been happily concluded and now we are getting on with the business. Today I state to the Deputy I believe we will comfortably meet our targets.

With regard to a moratorium, the last thing the country needs at present is a moratorium on the creation of jobs. We have an unconscionably high number of people on the live register. At another time we could debate the historical reasons this is the case, but it is the case. Here we have an indigenous resource and the capacity to generate more energy than required for domestic demand. The neighbouring island is in need of energy, and in need of green energy to help meet its mandatory targets. It seems if we have the capacity to generate excess energy and there is a market for it on the neighbouring island, it is as old as trading cattle between the two islands that we should develop trade in this area. In the context of the need to put 250,000 people back to work the last thing we need is a moratorium.

I invite the Deputy to submit his concerns and suggestions to the ongoing planning consultation. It will go to consultation again as soon as proposals are ready from the Minister of State, Deputy O'Sullivan. I want to be very sensitive about unreasonable intrusion in the lives of local communities or any local householder and great care needs to be taken. I do not want to make any political point about some of the complaints about the construction of turbines when the Deputy's own party was in office. It may very well have happened if I were in office also-----

It is about getting it right in the future. We must learn from our mistakes.

-----but some of the complaints which are being raised-----

The Minister is over time.

-----are historical and not about the contemplated export project which I am dealing with.

Services for People with Disabilities

I thank the Ceann Comhairle for selecting this topic for debate. The matter I want to raise directly relates to the public consultation process on the mobility allowance and motorised transport grant. It is very timely because the consultation process closes today. I am very concerned about this and believe we should extend it by at least a week. As everybody in the House is aware, the payment was removed very suddenly in February after concerns the scheme did not comply with the Equal Status Acts. In my constituency of Waterford 128 people were in receipt of this payment in 2011, the year for which the most recent figures are available. However, small the number of people in receipt of this payment was, it made a huge positive impact on their lives. I am very concerned about the public consultation process to date and the review to put an alternative in place.

The Minister of State is aware the process closes today, and my colleague Deputy Ann Phelan and I are very concerned about the wider level of the awareness of this fact. In a reply to a parliamentary question the Minister stated he instructed the HSE to contact each individual in receipt of the payments to notify them of this decision. I am not aware that this happened. I gather the forms were placed on the Internet in recent weeks. Surely given the level and range of disability experienced by these citizens, individuals should have been contacted directly by post in a timely manner. Deputy Phelan will elaborate further on representations she has received in her office.

The disgraceful language used in the form is also of huge concern to me, particularly with regard to question three which asks applicants to rank the listed criteria in order of importance to determine eligibility for any new solution to support an individual's transport needs. For want of a better word it asks people which disabilities are more deserving than others. To my mind this is a disgraceful way to embark on a public consultation. Given there are questions with regard to the Equal Status Acts, to use this type of system is itself very questionable.

I hope I will not repeat the issues my colleague has raised. There has been much coverage in the media about the decision to remove the mobility allowance and motorised transport grant in June this year, following the findings of the Ombudsman of inconsistency with the Equal Status Acts. However, in contrast to this it appears there has been very little coverage regarding the open consultation process which has been highlighted on the Department's website since 2 April to aid the process in replacing the former mobility allowance and motorised transport grant.

Any constituents who have contacted my office have outlined that they were not aware of the consultation process that was taking place. Had they been notified in advance, they would have completed the questionnaire. Many constituents have raised concerns over the limited timescale regarding the consultation process, the deadline of which happens to be today. The forms can only be accessed on the Department's website. While I am an advocate of IT and reducing paper trails, one may ask how many of these people have Internet access. Some Departments seem constantly to overlook the fact that not everybody is computer literate or has access to such facilities. It appears the form cannot be accessed by any other means.

I note on the website that the purpose of the consultation is to hear the views of the widest possible number of people who have an interest in this matter, and in particular those who are currently in receipt either of the mobility allowance or the motorised transport grant.

The Deputy is over her time.

Surely those in receipt of the latter two items should have been prioritised by mail. Those are the people who ultimately need to be consulted. In order to have a fair and accurate consultation process, I will go further than my colleague and seek a two-week extension to the deadline so that the people who have contacted my office can at least have their say.

I also wish to draw the Minister of State's attention to section 3 which was questioned by the Ombudsman.

The Deputy is a minute over her time now.

The language in section 3 certainly has to be re-examined. Asking people to rank disabilities in order of importance will get us into a lot of bother.

I thank both Deputies for raising these important issues concerning the mobility allowance and the motorised transport grant schemes. I apologise that the Minister is unable to attend the House, but I am taking this matter on his behalf.

I am pleased to outline to the House the Government's position on the mobility allowance and the motorised transport grant schemes. The Government is conscious of the needs of people with a disability who rely on transport supports from the State.

Following detailed consideration arising from the position of the Ombudsman regarding the schemes' legality, the Government decided in February that they can no longer continue and that an alternative must be devised. The funding of €10.6 million remains committed to meeting the needs of relevant people. While the schemes are closed, mobility allowance payments to those who had been in receipt will continue until June as we devise alternative solutions. A tight timescale is involved.

An independently chaired review group is seeking solutions which will not run counter to the Equal Status Acts. The group includes a number of people with a disability and a number of disability sector organisations. The work of the project group includes a public consultation process, which has been available on the Department's website for the past three weeks. A number of focus group sessions will take place shortly. The HSE is to undertake a survey of a significant number of people who were benefiting under the schemes. The purpose of these consultations is to hear the views of the widest possible number of people, and specifically includes those who have been in receipt of payments to date.

The public consultation questionnaire attempts to elicit from individuals their views on issues such as the highest priority transport needs, who faces most difficulties in getting where they need to go, eligibility criteria, whether support should be in the form of access to transport services or individual payments and how often qualification should be reviewed.

The consultation questionnaire was developed in consultation with the review group. For questions which ask for a ranking, individuals may rank more than one option with the same score, if they wish. There is no intention to exclude or compare any particular disability and the review group is not approaching its task in that way.

The Department has received submissions, comments and observations from individuals and organisations by e-mail, in the post and online. The expressed views of many individuals and organisations have been shared with the members of the review group. The public consultation was advertised in national newspapers in advance. Offices of the Citizens Information Board will assist, if required.

The public consultation is part of the much wider deliberations of the group and will not be the only thing which will decide what solutions are recommended. Given the very tight timescale, it is not possible to extend the closing date. However, the Department will be flexible where submissions are received over the next few days. Results of the review will be presented to the Government before any decisions are made. At this stage, I cannot pre-empt the outcome of the review or any Government decision.

The Deputies have one minute each to put supplementary questions.

I thank the Minister of State for his response but I am disappointed to hear that there will not be an extension of the deadline. Although I have no reason to disbelieve what the Minister of State has said about flexibility concerning the receipt of answers, I am not convinced. How this got past a review panel in the first place is disturbing. I find the language that was used - in particular concerning the ranking exercise - to be totally unacceptable and inappropriate.

As we know and have the scars to prove, these cuts have caused widespread anger and alarm, and rightly so. Therefore, we need to find a solution. The ranking of disabilities as presented in this questionnaire is most galling when one considers that it is due to concerns around the Equality Act that the payments were pulled in the first place. A review group that was established to consult on this very issue should have foreseen the kind of distress and upset this has caused. People who are involved daily with those in the disability sector were not aware of this public consultation.

The Deputy has exceeded her time.

I urge them to forward their submissions today or through any public representatives in this House who may be able to do it on their behalf. I am deeply concerned that a review group would let this kind of language pass.

I thank the Minister of State for his reply but I am also somewhat disappointed. I do not doubt the Minister of State's bona fides but, having dealt with Departments in the past, I am not sure how they can be flexible on deadlines. The Minister of State could elaborate, perhaps by e-mail, on how that might take place.

I agree with my colleague on section 3. Unless something was lost in translation, I fail to see how anybody filling in the form would come to the conclusion that one can rank disabilities and give them the same score. One is asked to rank them in order of importance but I do not see how one can give the same score to different disabilities. I find it hard to believe how that kind of language could have got through a review group. I agree with my colleague, Deputy Conway, in that regard.

I thank both Deputies for their supplementary questions. An independent review group was established and people with disabilities were represented on it. It also had organisations from the disability sector on it, which are still there.

As regards the public consultation, advertisements were placed in newspapers, as well as requests for information online. The HSE advertised the consultation process as well. There was a short time during which all that took place.

I note Deputy Conway's point that she was told an individual letter would be sent to persons with disabilities. I am not aware of that but I will certainly follow it up and will obtain a response for the Deputy.

Second, on the language used in the third question, I will see what I can get in respect of a response or reply to that. However, I understand the information that was considered in an individual capacity was not so much to rank matters in terms of what was a less or more serious disability but to decide what were the priorities to deal with the mobility issue and the transportation issue. This is what they were endeavouring to do. Finally, on the length of time, the Government seeks to receive a report next month and for the review group to have completed its deliberations by that time. While that is a tight timescale, as I indicated in my reply any submission that is received over the next few days or for the rest of the week via letter, e-mail or other mechanism will be considered. I am sure there is no problem about that. However, I also will seek to ascertain whether a further extension is possible. I understand one Deputy mentioned an extension of one week, while the other Deputy suggested two weeks. Perhaps a slightly extended compromise, between one and two weeks, might be achieved.

Beekeeping Industry

The next topical issue was raised by Deputy Wallace and concerns the decision to vote against a European Commission proposal to ban neonicotinoids, the pesticide blamed for the decline of the bee population. I hope I pronounced that correctly.

I would say the Acting Chairman's pronunciation is as good as mine. A series of high-profile scientific studies in the past year has increasingly linked a pesticide group known as neonicotinoids to harmful effects in bees, including huge losses in the numbers of queens produced, as well as large increases in disappeared bees, that is, those that failed to return from foraging trips. If ever there was an issue in which the precautionary principle ought to guide one's actions, the use of neonicotinoids certainly is one in which precaution should be one's guiding principle. Bees are far too important to crops to continue to take this risk. Beekeepers and environmental scientists have become increasingly concerned by the mass die-off of bees seen in recent years, including the phenomenon known as colony collapse disorder. Increasingly, the finger has been pointed at these pesticides manufactured by the giant agribusiness companies Bayer, which I believe sponsors the football club, and Syngenta.

More than 300 separate scientific studies in the past three years have shown adverse effects on insects such as bees from these chemicals, which attack insects' nervous systems and are systemic, meaning they are taken up in every part of the plants in which they are applied. This means they are not simply present on the leaves and seeds that pest insects might eat but also are to be found in the pollen and nectar gathered by bees in the process of pollination. The European Commission has made proposals to ban the use of three of these neonicotinoid insecticides used in maize, rapeseed, sunflower and cotton cultivation from July 2013. The pesticides concerned were highlighted as a risk to bees in a recent scientific survey by the European Food Safety Authority, EFSA. All three pesticides are used widely in Ireland and environmental campaigners believe the pesticides should be banned before bee numbers fall further. Bumblebee and honeybee numbers have declined recently in both Ireland and Europe, prompting fears for food security, as the insects pollinate both fruit and vegetables. Some countries are opposed to this ban and are preparing their own scientific studies to challenge recent European Union research conducted by the European Food Safety Authority, which found the pesticides posed a risk to the declining bee populations. Naturally, Bayer is opposed to the ban and it was hardly surprising to hear the company state that disproportionate action would jeopardise the competitiveness of European agriculture, would lead finally to higher costs for food, feed, fibre and renewable raw materials and would have an enormous economic impact throughout the entire food chain.

However, in recent years there has already been a steep and disturbing global decline in bee populations. Some already have become extinct and some species in America are running at only 4% of their previous numbers. Italy has banned these pesticides and has already seen its bee population recover, which is a sure indication that Ireland should be doing the same. The Minister voted against the proposal but I believe he will have another opportunity to think again about the issue. I acknowledge those who will lobby the Minister to keep the chemicals on the market have more power then those who are trying to save the poor bees. I am sure the Irish Wildlife Trust has been in contact with the Minister and I note that Billy Flynn, who was one of the people who were very disappointed, has stated there is strong scientific evidence that these insecticides are not good news for key pollinators. He also has pointed out that Ireland has 101 different bee species, of which half are in decline, with six having been assessed as being critically endangered. Neonicotinoids are implicated in colony collapse disorder and in bees' ability to navigate. As I already have noted, the European Food Safety Authority has labelled them as posing an unacceptable danger to bees. Likewise, campaigner Pádraic Fogarty has asked what particular groups lobbied the Minister and has asked who managed to sway the Minister in the direction of standing by the chemical firms at the expense of the poor bees. The Minister probably will recall that a few years ago, Einstein said that were the bees to ever disappear from the planet, we would probably only last approximately six years.

Following that profound statement, may I first agree with the Deputy on a couple of points, mainly on the importance of bees and the maintenance of bee populations? However, it is important to have some accuracy in this regard. The neonicotinoid pesticides that it is proposed by the Commission to be banned or restricted in their use are not widely used in Ireland and only 0.7% of insecticides used in Ireland are neonicotinoids. One should be clear in this regard. In addition, there is no evidence of a collapse of bee populations in Ireland, although bee populations are under pressure in some areas in Ireland. However, there is no suggestion that Ireland is experiencing the kind of collapse in numbers that has occurred in other countries in Europe. It is important to be accurate in this regard.

Neonicotinoid insecticides were discovered in the 1980s but not commercialised until the 1990s. They are synthetic chemicals related to the naturally-occurring nicotine. There are five different active substances within the neonicotinoid family and three of the five are subject of the Commission's proposed restriction of use. The Commission proposed an implementing regulation to amend the conditions of approval of these three substances and prohibit the use and sale of seeds treated with plant protection products containing those active substances. An attempt has been made by certain parties to attribute the phenomenon of colony collapse disorder in bees to the use of pesticides and more particularly the use of neonicotinoid insecticides. Anecdotal evidence suggested a link between the increased use of neonicotinoids and the rise in the frequency of colony collapse disorder and sub-lethal effects. The Commission proposal was discussed at the European Union's standing committee on the food chain and animal health on 14 and 15 March 2013 and the resulting vote was inconclusive, with 14 member states refusing to support the measures proposed by the Commission, including Germany and the United Kingdom. Accordingly, the matter will now be tabled at an appeals committee meeting in late April.

I opposed the proposal on the basis that, procedurally, the European Commission proposal should be based on the EFSA conclusions and the current proposal seeks to go far beyond that. The procedure to date has been for the Commission to approve or not approve an active substance, in consultation with the member states. Thereafter, each member state approves or does not approve products containing these approved substances and specifies risk mitigation measures, where appropriate. In this instance, the proposal is taking the decision making process away from member states and thus ignores the principle of subsidiarity, whereby approval of an individual product at member state level has heretofore been a matter of member state competence. I am concerned that a precedent is being set here. I also had some technical concerns with the proposal, including the proposed prohibition for use on some crops that are not attractive to bees and the proposed prohibition for use on crops based on the time of year in which they would be sown. For example, the proposal continued to approve use on winter cereals, while prohibiting its use on spring cereals. I also believe there has been insufficient consultation with experts who understand the precise context of actual use of these substances.

I have not been lobbied by anybody on this. I have received some e-mails but I have not been lobbied heavily. If I have been lobbied, it has been far more on behalf of bees than on behalf of any industry interests. My only interest here is in making a decision that is based on science and fact.

The UK is now finalising a very substantial field study on the use of neonicotinoids, which does not draw the same conclusions as the Commission has drawn. We must listen to that. I have no problem voting for restrictive use or a ban, if necessary, of certain substances if there is a direct scientific link which shows that the use of those substances is causing significant damage to bee populations. However, we must be sure that we make decisions based on science. Yes, we need a precautionary principle but there are conflicting views and science on this, which I believe are not driven by the industry but by Ministers and their teams in the Council of Ministers who want to make decisions based on science, trials and fact. In time, we will be able to make decisions on the basis of fact, but there is probably more consultation required before we do that.

The Minister says these are used very little in Ireland. If they are so little used that is probably all the more reason that we should not use them at all. Perhaps Irish farmers can survive without them. The British have carried out a great deal of research into it, but I note they did not vote against a ban. They have abstained, as have the Germans. However, the Germans have their own ban. Given that Bayer is from Germany and is a huge company in that country, it is interesting that Germany has a ban in place. It is happy for Bayer to make money on its exports, which is a very German thing anyway. It is happy to protect its bees through its internal ban.

With regard to the bees and how much they are under threat in Ireland, traditionally a great deal of honey is produced in Wexford. Some bee producers have mentioned to me that they are concerned. The Minister might say they are reading too much international news, but they say there could be a problem coming down the tracks. They are worried about their bee stocks. Very often in these cases the strong chemical firm has a great deal of power. The Minister is querying the wisdom of the Commission, but one could express surprise that the Commission has been so strong against the chemical industry in this case as it is a very powerful lobby. If we do not have the courage, it will be too late to find out five or six years hence that further damage has been done. The Minister says he is relying on science, but there is science and arguments on both sides. Given the importance of bees' activity and what it means to the planet, we should err on the side of caution and in their favour, if possible.

I agree with the last statement. If I am convinced that, in all likelihood, the use of a certain product has the potential to do significant damage to the bee population in Ireland, we will act on it. I wish to be clear about that. This is a small but important industry in Ireland, and bee populations are also hugely important for non-honey production reasons in terms of pollination and so forth. Other countries have concerns in this regard. Hungary, for example, has the largest honey industry in the European Union and it also voted against it. A total of 14 countries either voted against it or abstained. I understand that the UK might well vote against it on the next occasion, but we must wait and see. My job is to articulate the Irish position and why we have taken it. I have an open mind on this, and I am not being lobbied heavily by any industry representatives. My view is that we must look at the evidence and the different studies that have been carried out and try to make the right judgment call. Also, we must ensure we follow procedure. There are some decisions that are appropriate to be taken within member states under the principle of subsidiarity and other decisions are appropriate for the Commission to take as a collective.

In the context of those two issues as I have outlined them, I will take the most responsible approach I can to protect bee populations, but I will do it on the basis of science.

Will the Minister take on board the fact that the countries that voted against the ban are all small countries and have less power? Many of the big countries in Europe have not voted against the ban. Also, pollination in Ireland is worth over €50 million, according to Government sources.

That is not true. I must correct the record.

The Deputy has used his time. The debate is concluded.

For the record, it is not a question of big and small countries. There are big and small countries on both sides. It is a split between 13 on one side and 14 on the other. There have been two debates on neonicotinoids in the Council of Ministers with the Commissioner. I chaired the debates. There is division in terms of the opinion and the state of scientific evidence on this issue. We have to resolve that so we can come to a conclusion. There is a great deal of scientific research taking place on this issue. More field trials are taking place in a number of countries, including in the UK, and when we see the results of those we can make more informed decisions.