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Dáil Éireann debate -
Wednesday, 20 Nov 2013

Vol. 821 No. 3

Topical Issue Debate

Fisheries Disputes

I thank the Ceann Comhairle for allowing us to raise this issue and the Minister for Agriculture, Food and the Marine for coming to the House to respond to it.

The people of south Wexford are dependent on fishing and farming for their economic survival. Unfortunately, the fishing industry was attacked over the weekend by the Department of Agriculture, Food and the Marine, the Navy and the Sea Fisheries Protection Authority. On Friday, letters were delivered to 100 fishermen on 15 trawlers, and workers in Kilmore Quay have been laid off since then. The livelihoods of these men are jeopardised and the viability of the business in which they work is in serious doubt. Fishing is the lifeblood of the small village of Kilmore Quay, which has been thrown into a state of crisis. With no fish, there is no work for the people on the boats or in the factories. The O'Flaherty brothers, who operate trawlers, are trenchant critics of Government policy on fishing quotas.

It appears the south east has been systematically discriminated against by the Department, the Navy and the SFPA in targeting fishermen under a long list of regulations. The entire O'Flaherty fleet has been ordered to cease trading, despite only two of the trawlers having been questioned originally. It raises the question of whether the fleet on the south-east coast is being unfairly targeted. As these Irish boats remain in port, Spanish, Belgian and French ships continue to fish these seas. The broader issue at stake is the need for Ireland to trade quotas with other states that are under-fishing, particularly the French. The French only caught 38% of their monkfish quota in Irish waters, but they steadfastly refused to yield their unused quota. It is up to the Minister to press this matter at EU level to enable fishermen to maximise the total quota available.

An effective quota transfer system between member states is the key part of the Common Fisheries Policy that delivers both for fishermen who make their living from the sea and consumers on the shore. I ask the Minister to examine the possibility of a swap, whereby fishermen at Kilmore Quay could return to fishing and the men in question could return to work as quickly as possible.

Yesterday morning I went to Kilmore Quay where I met the O'Flaherty boat owners and crew members and people associated with ancillary industries in the area. Some 170 people are out of work. Most of them are self-employed and can receive no assistance from the State. Some 15 boats have been ordered ashore and tied up. The consequences are alarming and disturbing for the community and the wider industry. This is all about the denial of an adequate quota to Irish fishermen in Irish waters.

In area 7, out of a quota of 18,000 tonnes of monkfish, 58% was caught by the French, whereas the Irish caught 97% of a quota of only 3,000 tonnes. The French quota in the area is six times higher. In the same area, 33% of megs was caught by French vessels, while 92% was caught by Irish vessels. There is a ratio of more than two to one in favour of France. This year some 38% of megs was caught by French vessels, while the figure Ireland is at 81%. I cannot understand how the part of the French quota that has not been caught cannot be redistributed to Irish vessels. There is an another reason, one economically driven in favour of France which is a stakeholder in Irish waters and the Irish mixed fishery feet. This cannot be allowed to continue. This issue needs to be met head-on. We cannot have Irish fishermen with boats tied up on the shore and forced to sign an affidavit before they go back to sea. In other words, they are criminalised before they return to sea. That is a disgrace and I want the Minister to deal with the matter. Decent men and women who are striving to put bread on the table for Christmas as best they can are being effectively criminalised by inequality within the system.

All matters relating to the operational enforcement of sea fisheries law are, by statute, appropriate to the SFPA. Deputy John Browne, in particular, knows this and I am surprised to hear a former Minister of State with responsibility for the fisheries sector say what he said. The issue relates to a company's compliance with sea fisheries legislation and is one for the SFPA. The matters arising are individual matters of operational law enforcement in respect of an individual company. The principals of the company own the biggest fleet of large whitefish trawlers in the country, with more than a dozen of its trawlers involved. It would be inappropriate for me or anybody else to comment on matters that may be sub judice and may come before the courts in due course.

This matter relates to illegal fishing. Any illegal fishing has significant consequences for the broader fishing community and the sustainability of fish stocks. Such activity is not a victimless crime and the impact is felt in a very real and immediate way by law-abiding fishermen who will see reduced prices at market, lower monthly quotas and, ultimately, significant stock reductions, putting livelihoods and future sustainability at risk. All fish caught by individual vessels and companies, whether legal or illegal, are counted against the national quota and reduce the quota available for law abiding fishermen in the following period.

The former Minister of State, Deputy John Browne, knows that the industry plays a lead role in decisions on quota management and in managing quotas. The individual quotas for fisheries each month are recommended by representatives of the fishing industry's producer organisations on a stock by stock basis with the support of data from the SFPA and the Department at monthly meetings. The objective of the monthly whitefish meeting is to give the industry the opportunity to recommend how the national quota can best be used for the benefit of the fishermen and onshore fish processors to achieve the highest economic return and best outcomes in terms of quota availability.

This year we have had a higher quota in the Celtic Sea for almost all stocks than we have seen for many years. The industry was involved in the allocation of the quota throughout the year and now that we are coming to the end of it the quota is becoming tight, but that is because large portions of it were used earlier in the year. We cannot have a situation where, because people want to catch more fish, they break the rules and do so while other fishermen abide by the quota arrangements decided on in consultation with the industry on a monthly basis.

With regard to the specific events that have prompted this question, I am informed by the SFPA that on three days last week there were five infringements by the company's vessels detected and files have been sent to the Director of Public Prosecutions. Since 2007 the SFPA has advised that it has recorded infringements by vessels operated by the company concerned on 42 occasions. I am advised by the SFPA that the decision to direct these vessels to port under Article 43(b) of the EU Illegal, Unreported and Unregulated Regulations was carefully considered and taken owing to the serious level of infringements by the company.

There have been lengthy meetings this week, as there should be, between the SFPA and the company to try to find a way forward. Livelihoods are at risk, specifically at a difficult time of year, in the build-up to Christmas. I want to see these boats out fishing and obeying the rules. What is on offer is not criminalisation; the SFPA has asked the company involved to sign an affidavit to ensure it will keep the rules in terms of the monthly allocation of quota, just like every other fishing boat off the southern coast. We must have the same rules for everyone. We cannot have one rule for the O'Flahertys and another for everyone else. If I were to facilitate this or pressurise the SFPA into facilitating it, we would have chaos in the fishing industry. If we want this to be a credible country in terms of how we manage our fish stock sustainably, everyone must have the law applied to them evenly, including the O'Flahertys. If we do so, it will be my job in December to get the best possible deal for the Irish industry in quota negotiations.

Relative stability with other countries is a valid issue we have debated in the House on many occasions, but this is not the reason there are 15 boats tied up. It is because people made a conscious choice to overfish and I cannot allow this to happen. The SFPA cannot allow it legally. We are trying to find a practical way forward to get people back to work, while ensuring we are enforcing the rules laid down. Otherwise, the Commission will come to Ireland and enforce the rules.

I am well aware of the rules and regulations in the Department and I am not asking the Minister to break them. I was approached by fishermen in the community of Kilmore Quay to see if we could arrange for a swap or trade with the French who have under-fished certain species.

This would allow the Kilmore Quay fishermen fish until the end of the year. Is that possible and has the Minister had any discussions in that regard? Will the Minister consider the issue?

Considering the quota from last year to this year, there is a marked decline in the order of approximately 400 tonnes in megrim in area seven. A fisherman is down approximately 400 tonnes with monkfish as well in area seven. There has been a reduction in the quota.

The Deputy is being selective. What about cod, haddock, whiting and herring?

I am talking specifically about what these boats were fishing for. The Minister is also aware of the problems surrounding discard and bycatch, all of which are ongoing and unresolved, although I understand they will be resolved over a number of years. These fishermen are victims at this point though. We need to see equality and fairness. I do not care what facts and figures are put out but it is not right that the French Government has a stake in Irish waters to the detriment of Irish fishermen. That is the issue. They have six times the quota in Irish waters, and they are not even close to filling it. At the same time the people here are trying to make ends meet, pay for boats and so forth but they are effectively-----

I do not care what word we use for people coming in a bit over quota or with bycatch or discard.

Please allow the Minister to respond.

I cannot see how they can be seen as criminals.

I share the frustration that the Irish fishing industry does not have a higher share of certain quota species but I cannot change a Common Fisheries Policy arrangement without getting a majority of countries across the European Union to support me in that. Both Deputies know the legal practicalities of what is possible, and I have focused instead on putting the scientific arguments together to build stocks and have an increase in the quota allocation linked to the building of those stocks, as we have done with herring in the Celtic Sea, for example, which has been a great success story.

We need to focus on what is possible rather than having the age-old argument which we cannot change about relative stability on waters deemed as European but for which Ireland has a responsibility in the allocation of stocks. There has been mention of swaps and we have been very active in the swaps market this year with France, getting a significant increase in the amount of prawns, which is the second most valuable fishery for the fishing industry after mackerel. I argue that it is the most important fishery in terms of the number of fishermen relying on it. We have seen an increase because the industry made a conscious choice, of which I was a part, to catch 10% of this year's prawn quota last year, as we needed prawns at the end of last year. We have swapped some pelagic stocks to increase the amount of prawns we can catch, and we are always looking for an active swaps market in order to get more fish for our fishermen.

Nobody is more supportive of the fishing industry than I am. I want to build it, employ more people, get more value for fish and work with companies like that run by the O'Flahertys, who run a very significant business in the south east. They are very experienced and very good fishermen but they must have the same rules applied to them as everybody else. The Sea Fisheries Protection Authority, SFPA, has a legal responsibility to ensure fair play. If the O'Flahertys catch more fish, it means others who are legitimately catching fish would get a smaller quota the next month. This is about an even playing field for everybody and the industry working together with my Department and the SFPA to allocate quotas on a monthly basis throughout the year to ensure we get the maximum economic return throughout the year.

That is the process that has been happening but unfortunately, according to the SFPA, incidents last week mean the O'Flahertys have worked outside those rules, and the authority has had to take action as a result. I hope the negotiations and conversations this week, as well as the affidavit on the table, can progress the issue so we can see the boats out fishing again, I hope as soon as in the next couple of days.

Rent Supplement Scheme Administration

I thank the Minister for coming to address the issue, the crux of which is the discrepancy in rent allowance and the limits in areas in the southern part of my constituency, which for all means and purposes are in the greater Dublin metropolitan area, compared with the areas just inside the Dublin border, such as Finglas, Swords, Santry etc. I will speak to the merits that the Minister tried to achieve when the new rent limits were published in June, as she sought to provide value for money for the Department of Social Protection, which is very important. She also sought to ensure people in those areas did not get priced out of the market and rent allowances were suitable for the rental market that would be used by families.

The Department used as an area of information when it surmised the rent limits and I will quote some prices for an average three-bedroom semi-detached house. This example would suit a couple with three children, although it relates to all other categories as well. To rent a three-bedroom semi-detached house in Ashbourne in south Meath costs €1,100, and the cost is the same in Ratoath. In Finglas the cost to rent a similar property is €1,100 and in Swords it would cost €1,200 to rent a similar property. The allowance for families in Finglas and Swords is €950 but if a person tries to rent a house in Ashbourne or Ratoath, the allowance is only €650. Rents in the areas are exactly the same but there is a €300 discrepancy in the supplement provided. I could provide similar examples for two and one bedroom apartments, as well as cases where people rent rooms in houses. In every category there is a major discrepancy between what is available ten miles down the road in Finglas versus what is available in Ashbourne.

I understand the Department considered Meath as a county in its entirety and I appreciate that it is much cheaper to rent in Athboy, Enfield or Kells than it is in Ashbourne, Dunboyne, Dunshaughlin and Ratoath. It is not the fault of people living in those towns that the metropolitan area of Dublin city has expanded not only just into the counties of Meath but also into Kildare, Louth and Wicklow. Rent supplements should be reflective of that. Although we have been beating the drum regarding rents in Meath for approximately a year, it dismays me further that rent limits in Kildare and Wicklow have been changed to reflect the fact they are part of the greater Dublin metropolitan area, and rents are higher.

I ask the Minister to reconsider taking Meath as a county in its entirety and recognise that the south corridor of the county is in the greater Dublin metropolitan area. The rents should be reflected as being equal to those commanded in the Dublin area, so rent supplement allowances should take that into account.

I thank the Deputy for raising this issue. There are currently approximately 81,000 persons in receipt of rent supplement for which the Government has provided €403 million in 2013. The purpose of the rent supplement scheme is to provide short-term support to eligible people living in private rented accommodation whose means are insufficient to meet their accommodation costs and who do not have accommodation available to them from any other source. The overall aim is to provide short-term assistance and not to act as an alternative to the other social housing schemes operated by the Exchequer.

Revised rent limits under the rent supplement scheme have come into force with effect from Monday, 17 June 2013, and will be in place until 31 December 2014. The new rent limits have been determined following an extensive review of the private rental market, based on the most up-to-date data available. The Department currently funds approximately 30% of the private rented sector so it is essential that the rent limits are kept under review. The new rent limits have been set using the 35th percentile, ensuring that sufficient housing is available for recipients of the scheme.

There have been increases in the maximum rent limits in Dublin and there have been some reductions across a number of counties, including some categories in County Meath, reflecting the conditions in the rental markets in those counties.

Special provisions are made in exceptional circumstances, including, for example, people with disabilities in specially adapted accommodation or homeless persons. The overall cost of the rent limit review and the changes we have made for 2013 is an extra €7 million, which can be met from within the existing provision for the scheme.

There are currently 1,981 rent supplement recipients in County Meath, of whom almost 200 are in the Ashbourne and Ratoath areas. In arriving at the appropriate rent limits for County Meath, rent levels in the major population centres in the county were tested. Analysis shows that there are properties available within the maximum rent limits for rent supplement recipients in County Meath. However, the number of rental properties available in the specific locations referred to by the Deputy is significantly lower than the numbers available in the rest of the county, and this has an impact on the cost of the accommodation units available for rent. A search conducted on a leading property website shows that there are a total of 15 one-bedroom, two-bedroom and three-bedroom properties available for rent in the Ratoath and Ashbourne areas. It must be stressed, however, that the purpose of the rent limit review was to ensure the availability of accommodation for rent supplement tenancies and not to provide rent supplement tenants with access to all housing in all areas. The Department will continue to monitor rent levels throughout the country.

The Department's strategic policy direction is to restore rent supplement to its original purpose of a short-term income support - for instance, for people who have lost their jobs. It is a temporary measure. In July 2013 the Government approved the introduction of the housing assistance payment, HAP. Under HAP, responsibility for recipients of rent supplement with a long-term housing need will transfer from the Department of Social Protection to local authorities. Officials of the Department of Social Protection are working with officials in the Department of the Environment, Community and Local Government, who are properly leading the project. It is the job of the Department of the Environment, Community and Local Government and the local authorities to provide appropriate accommodation. They are developing proposals to give effect to the transfer to local authorities as set out by the Government. The Department is advised that following the enactment of the relevant legislation, the HAP test phase will be carried out in the selected local authorities during 2014.

I wish to concentrate on two points made by the Minister in her response. Rent supplement in areas of Meath was reduced in June this year to reflect the lower rents in those areas, namely Athboy, Enfield, Trim and Kells. However, rent supplement limits in respect of the more significant rents in the southern corridor of the county were not increased. The Minister seems to think that the reason rents in those areas are so high is the lack of rental accommodation available, but that is not true; they are high because of the large mortgages involved. When they were sold, the houses were considered to be in the greater Dublin area. It does not make sense that the Minister reviewed the figures in June of this year without being cognisant of the fact that the rents commanded for two-bedroom and three-bedroom houses in Ashbourne, Ratoath, Dunshaughlin and Dunboyne, which for all effective purposes are in the greater Dublin area, are exactly the same as those in Finglas, Santry, Clondalkin and Artane. I agree with the Minister that rent supplement is a short-term measure and that a person should not expect to have it for the rest of his or her life. The effect of the change will be that people who are rooted in their communities will have to move out because of a temporary glitch in their financial circumstances.

The Minister indicated how few people are on rent supplement in the southern corridor of County Meath. Would she please consider a further review in light of the fact that it would make a small monetary difference to the Department but would have a significant impact on communities that have developed in areas where people have decided to rear their families for the past ten to 15 years? It would allow people to remain in these areas during temporary glitches in their financial circumstances until they get back on their feet.

I wish to repeat what I actually said, namely, that a search conducted on a leading property website shows that there are a total of 15 one-bedroom, two-bedroom and three-bedroom properties available for rent in the Ratoath and Ashbourne areas. It must be stressed that part of the issue is the lack of supply. Deputy Doherty suggested that there was a far greater supply. If that is the case, it is not available through the sources of information checked by the Department.

The second and more important issue is that housing is correctly the responsibility of the Department of the Environment, Community and Local Government. I am most anxious to see a fundamental reform in the form of the transfer of rent supplement to local authorities. That is in train through the Department of the Environment, Community and Local Government. People who end up on rent supplement in the long term are heavily restricted in their ability to go back to work or set up a business because, in effect, if they start work again on a full-time basis or if they set up a business, the rent supplement may be withdrawn. The time has come to reform how rent supplement operates in terms of getting people back to work and into activity. It was designed as a temporary measure and I am glad the Deputy has acknowledged that. It is also time for local authorities to properly adopt their responsibilities, including the possibilities that exist for renting houses over the medium term through the rental accommodation scheme, RAS. Local authorities have a significant role to play.

I am most sympathetic to families who find themselves in a situation in which there is very little accommodation available in the area in which they want to live, and what accommodation exists is prohibitively expensive. The Department is spending more than €400 million on rent allowance for more than 81,000 families. It is a very significant and large part of our budget. The Deputy is graciously suggesting that the budget should be increased. Perhaps she would take up the issue with her colleague, the Minister for Finance.

Water Services Provision

As a basic principle of common law, one can own the land adjacent to a waterway and the river bed but one cannot own the water. However, one can insist on the maintenance of a waterway and that the water not be diverted away from one’s land. These principles should inform the debate we will have on the proposal to divert water from the River Shannon to supply Dublin. The Minister of State, Deputy O'Dowd, need have no doubt that the people of the mid-west will fight to maintain the waterway that is Lough Derg. They would be right to do so. In recent weeks, I have heard various proposals from Members of both Houses of the Oireachtas, some sensible and some absurd.

I would like to draw the attention of the Minister of State to the most recent report from the Local Government Management Agency to the Department of the Environment, Community and Local Government providing the results of service indicators in local authorities. The report published earlier this year contains some alarming figures. The level of unaccounted-for water as a percentage of the total volume of water supplied under the water supply schemes of Dublin City Council is 40.3%. A 2008 Forfás report highlighted the need to address unacceptable levels of unaccounted-for water and suggested that proposals to increase capacity should not attract funding in the absence of action plans to reduce leakage. This recommendation was reiterated by the report of the high level group on green enterprise from 2009. One could ask what has changed since then, other than the chickens coming home to roost. The failure of local authorities in Dublin to deal with wastewater resulted in water shortages in Dublin in recent weeks and water being cut off overnight.

The British left a good water system in this city when they lowered their flag over Dublin Castle on 16 January 1922.

Since then, the failure of central and local government to maintain a functional water system has been a tragicomedy. Now it proposed to veer to the farcical to compensate for that failure.

Lough Derg is designated as an SPA to comply with EU law. Much of its shoreline is also designated as an SAC. Under the accompanying regulations, farmers adjacent to the lake cannot take water for their livestock to drink without getting permission to do so. Now it is proposed to divert that water to Dublin so people can wash their pets. Is that really the water plan for Dublin in 2013?

Large environmental projects such as this are typically subject to litigation in Europe. To quote a well-known television programme, we are going to look like very silly “pixie heads" if, instead of fixing the water infrastructure problem in Dublin, we propose to divert water there. I cannot support any proposal to divert water from the Shannon until local authorities here in Dublin get their act together and put their system in order. I ask the Government for a guarantee that what I fear will not happen.

The operating range of Lough Derg is small; it changes by about 40 cm. That is set out in the Electricity (Supply) (Amendment) Act 1934. The water level is set at 110 to 112 ft. above the level at Poolbeg in Dublin. I want a guarantee that any scheme that might even be countenanced by the Government will guarantee that water level. Every infrastructural development on Lough Derg since 1934, including the piers and the waterway just opened in Killaloe, is predicated on maintaining the water level. No more than anybody else in the mid-west, I do not want to live beside a latter-day Aral Sea but beside a beautiful waterway. I look forward to the Minister of State’s response and hope he will be able to give me the guarantees I require.

I am sorry I cannot give the Deputy the guarantees he requires because, with due respect to him, his summary does not make sense. My note suggests the Deputy is talking about robbing Peter to pay Paul. In my reply, I want to talk about the economy and the future of the country, including the area represented by the Deputy and the greater Dublin area. I want to broaden the issue. The Deputy referred to pixie heads and washing cats and dogs but I am talking about saving jobs and the greater Dublin area. It is a question of having water available to the greater Dublin area on a daily basis. The difference pertaining to usage is very small, at approximately 1% or 2%. If the supply is affected, as it was recently, it results in catastrophic failure right around the city. The Deputy is absolutely correct that Dublin City Council did have to cut off the water supply. It did not do so in the transparent way it ought to have done it. The Minister, Deputy Hogan, commented on that. People suddenly found that they did not have water for quite a number of nights.

We must ensure that every part of the country, be it Clare, Galway, Dublin or elsewhere, has an adequate and proper water supply. Most important, we must ensure jobs are maintained and that people can wash themselves and work in an industry that requires considerable water. The water supply in the greater Dublin area feeds the ICT sector and other water-intensive industries. It also feeds agribusiness. Dublin absolutely needs a water supply.

The Deputy is absolutely correct about the level of unaccounted-for water. I have a slightly different figure than the Deputy has. The one I have been given for Dublin – I appreciate the one the Deputy gave and I will check it immediately after this debate – is approximately 28%. I am told this is among the best figures around Europe. The fact is that if unaccounted-for water is below a certain percentage, it is not economical to carry out repairs or make adjustments. Significantly and properly, Dublin and Fingal, in particular, have been extremely proactive in dealing with the issue.

We must step forward together as an economy and country. We must deal with these issues transparently and openly, and they must be dealt with by meeting, talking and, above all, listening to one another. I have met and will be happy to meet again people from the area the Deputy represents. I will be happy to give them any hours or days they want. I will be happy to go to Clare, north Tipperary or Limerick to ensure that any proposals by the Government - it is the Government of which the Deputy and I are members that is making these decisions - are transparent and accountable. We should be running away from no issues. We want to ensure that the people understand fully what we are actually talking about. We are talking about improving the water supply for all the regions between Lough Derg and Dublin. All the towns and places of employment in the areas in question will be much better placed if this project operates according to due process. They will be able to employ more people and there will be much better amenities. The Deputy should not mind his cats and dogs but think about the people and the jobs; that is what this is all about.

It is also about the environment and ensuring that the people around the lake and along the river, which is the longest in Ireland at approximately 360 km, can be confident that the water will not disappear overnight. Any water that is taken from the Shannon will have to be taken in a proper and sustainable way, as pointed out by the Deputy. The water level must not be reduced below a certain point. I am absolutely aware of the economic benefit to the community deriving from the Shannon. That will not and must not be affected.

The planning and environmental impact processes will not and must not be allowed to affect the economic and community benefits. Rather than talk about legislating in Europe, I, as a legislator in this Parliament, would prefer to go with the Deputy to the people who expressed their concerns to talk to them and listen. We must ensure that the bodies that will be in charge of the project, including Dublin City Council, will meet the people in question to explain their position. Let us try to move forward together so we will not be robbing Peter to pay Paul. We are ensuring that Peter and Paul have a job and a water supply and that there will be no adverse economic or environmental impacts.

More than 1,000 jobs will be created through the project. It will cost over €500 million if and when it goes through all the processes. There will be very significant benefits for everybody. On foot of the extraction, which can happen only by way of due process, people must be happy that they will benefit as individuals and as members of their community.

The reports I quoted were from Forfás and the Local Government Management Agency. Both are State agencies that report directly to the Minister of State's Department.

The Minister of State spoke about jobs. I know all about jobs and the lack of jobs where I come from. I represent Clare in the mid-west, which has the highest unemployment rate in the country. There is an empty Dell plant sitting in Limerick and I am damn sure that many people in Limerick city would like to work in ICT. There is no reason that I can see why every single ICT job has to be located in Dublin rather than the mid-west. If water is a prerequisite for this kind of work, it should be noted there is plenty of water and power in the mid-west. Moneypoint and Ardnacrusha are both in my constituency and there are plenty of people looking for work. They are getting planes and boats regularly. I acknowledge we need jobs in Dublin.

As we enter this decade of commemoration, we commemorate the democratic programme of the first Dáil. It referred to equality between men and women and stipulated that all the State's resources would be harnessed for all the people, not just the people living in one particular city. The Shannon is a national resource and nobody is seeking to keep it for Clare, Limerick, north Tipperary or south Galway. Rather, they are looking for a guarantee that the level of the Shannon will be maintained as it is now, and as it has been since Ardnacrusha was built. The Minister of State referred to major infrastructure projects. Some 20% of the GDP of this State was harnessed in 1925. Some 5,000 men worked around the clock to get the power station built. Is that to be sacrificed for this?

We can have major infrastructure projects but they do not all have to be in Dublin. They can be located across the country, as has been the case since the foundation of this State. We can have people working in ICT and tourism on Lough Derg just as well as we can have them working in some boghole in the midlands. If there is to be a reservoir in the midlands and Dublin runs short, the reservoir will be emptied to supply Dublin. What will happen then? Leisure jobs will be jeopardised in the midlands.

There is already a nascent leisure industry on Lough Derg. It has gone downhill. For 20 years since I grew up, many tourists have come into the mid-west to spend money and go out on the lake to fish and sail. Is that to be jeopardised? I am not talking about selfishly keeping water for one area but I am suggesting we should not damage one area to benefit another. The little water that exists in the mid-west at present needs to be guaranteed and maintained before we talk about diverting it anywhere. The Minister of State knows where I stand.

The word is "abstraction", not "diversion". Diversion suggests a change to the physical course of the river, but abstraction is the taking, by licence, of a volume of water from the river. As the water can only be taken at particular times, as the Deputy rightly points out, the level of the River Shannon cannot and must not be affected by the abstraction. It will be done according to a proper and due process, through the EPA and the planning system. There is no question but that it can only be done properly in environmental terms.

The Deputy is absolutely right about recreation on the River Shannon. It is a wonderful waterway on which billions have been spent to improve navigation and tourism amenities. The River Shannon cannot suffer as a result of this and there must be a clear community benefit from the project. If that is the case and the abstraction issues are dealt with properly and planning permission is given, I do not see any problem with the project. I have been to Ardnacrusha in the past. An uncle of mine actually worked there and I know the fantastic, monumental progress it represented when it was built. The Deputy might be interested to know that it was a Drogheda man, Dr. Thomas McLoughlin, who was in charge of the Ardnacrusha project. The plant has a beautiful art deco control room which is worth seeing - it is absolutely stunning. However, the Ardnacrusha power plant has had its day in terms of the energy needs it can supply, although that is not to say it is not functioning; it is. It meets something like 3% of our national energy requirements. I was actually surprised to discover the size of our current energy demands. For the record, my mother is from County Clare and I was born in Tipperary; as a result, I am very much tuned into the Thurles and County Clare sides of the issue.

The bigger picture is that we must step forward together and satisfy the communities affected. I repeat that I would like to go with the Deputy to meet them. I would have no problem in doing so. I would also make sure the appropriate officials were there. Obviously, the planning process will be gone through and all of the other issues will be addressed. We must listen to people and reassure them. We all want what was the Dell factory in Limerick to be occupied by people who are gainfully employed, but this is not an "us versus them" issue. It is not a Dublin versus Clare issue, although some might argue that it is. It is about everybody benefiting from this project.

As regards the hole in the bog in Garryhinch, it will allow over 200 hectares of water to be supplied to the greater Dublin area. An equivalent hole in the bog in Rutland Park in Anglia, England attracts over 1 million visitors per year, which is phenomenal. I absolutely agree with Deputy McGrath that whatever happens in Garryhinch, there must be additional improvements to tourist and other amenities on the River Shannon. That is the only way this will work and it will work if that happens. I appeal to the Deputy not to approach the issue in terms of it being Peter versus Paul or washing cats and dogs. This is about jobs, people, the area Deputy McGrath represents and the greater Dublin area. It is about meeting the needs of the various interested parties involved. Above all else, it is about listening to people, understanding the issues, meeting people's needs within and outside the planning process. We must reassure them that we do understand the issues involved and want their concerns to be addressed properly, fairly and objectively in a democratic, appropriate and proper fashion. I will pass on the Deputy's comments to the Department. I am happy to check the figures he has proffered because I have not been given them. I thank him for them.

Public Sector Staff Redeployment

I thank the Ceann Comhairle for affording me the opportunity to raise an issue of serious concern to eight employees of the local authorities in County Tipperary and their families. The issue at hand is the decision made by Garda human resources, HR, not to proceed with a number of redeployments already agreed between the local authorities in County Tipperary and the offices of the Garda vetting unit. These transfers had been negotiated and signed off on by the Department of the Environment, Community and Local Government but were later blocked by the Department of Justice and Equality. Eight staff in total, six from South Tipperary County Council and two from North Tipperary County Council, had agreed to transfer to the Garda vetting unit and received a letter of offer confirming their transfer only to have the rug pulled from under them later to devastating effect. These employees believe they have been abandoned.

I will outline the timeline of events. In March this year preliminary discussions took place between North and South Tipperary County Councils and the Garda vetting unit on the possibility of having a redeployment option for staff in County Tipperary. Following these discussions, the local authorities issued an e-mail to all staff, inviting expressions of interest. It was indicated to staff that the vacancies were at grades three and four, with a limited number at grade six. It was later clarified that Garda HR was seeking grade three clerical officers only. Full clarification from Garda HR on a number of queries concerning contracts and terms and conditions was provided for the county councils in June. In July the local authorities received an e-mail from Garda HR seeking an update on the progress of potential redeployments. Further to this e-mail, on 24 July, a letter of offer was issued to eight members of staff who had expressed an interest and been identified as suitable for redeployment. An e-mail was returned to Garda HR from the councils outlining the proposal to transfer eight members of staff and providing details of release dates, commencing in September. In August confirmation of the transfers was received from Garda HR. It was stated the transfers would initially, for the remainder of this year, be on a secondment basis, followed by permanent transfers. All the required information on the eight staff was passed to Garda HR and following the provision of this information, confirmation was received from Garda HR that there were vacancies in both the Thurles and Tipperary town offices of the Garda vetting unit for the proposed transfer of these eight staff members. It was agreed that the transfers would commence in September. However, on 2 September, before the redeployments could be realised, the county manager received a telephone call from Garda HR to advise that the proposal was no longer progressing. The eight staff were then notified of the difficulty.

The councils and the staff, in particular, are understandably disappointed and very aggrieved that the proposed redeployment opportunities were effectively withdrawn, particularly in view of the fact that they had already been issued with a formal contract of offer. When the staff received these written offers, they began to make preparations for themselves and their families in the light of their new changed work circumstances. The late removal of this offer has had a devastating impact on the individuals and families concerned. Since their offers have been withdrawn, the staff in question have essentially been left in the dark with no information on whether the transfers could occur at a later date or where they will turn to from here. As a result of the amalgamation of the two local authorities in County Tipperary, discussions are under way internally on where the staff will be transferred and how the single authority will operate. The eight staff who were to be transferred to the Garda vetting unit are essentially in limbo and have been hugely disadvantaged by the conflicting information they have received. It is grossly unfair to them that they should be so adversely affected. They acted in good faith at all times and trusted the information provided for them. It is now urgent and essential that due consideration be given to the request to follow through on the offers previously made.

I thank the Deputy for bringing this matter to the attention of the Dáil. I apologise for the absence of the Minister for Justice and Equality who is on official business elsewhere.

The Deputy and the House will be aware of the importance of delivering a vetting service that protects the most vulnerable in our society. Significant additional resources have been provided for the Garda Commissioner in the past 12 months to decrease processing times in the Garda central vetting unit and ensure the best possible level of service is provided for organisations across the country which avail of the services of the unit. The current processing time for vetting applications is approximately seven weeks from the date of receipt of the application in the vetting unit.

There are currently 136 whole-time equivalent civilian staff assigned to the vetting unit and upwards of 40 additional staff are to take up duty later this month on transfer from the Department of Agriculture, Food and the Marine. This will bring the total number of staff to almost 180 compared to 93 last December. It is expected that when these staff are fully trained in early 2014, there will be a further reduction in processing times. This is a very good example of the value of redeployment within the public service and the contribution it can make to the more effective use of resources.

These additional resources were obtained in recent months from within the justice sector, the Department of Agriculture, Food and the Marine and other public service organisations such as the Shannon Free Airport Development Corporation. Discussions were held with these organisations and the local authority in question to identify surplus staff who could be redeployed to the vetting unit. The outcome of these discussions was an increase of over 90% in the resources available to the vetting unit.

It is my understanding that the discussions with the local authority were not completed by the time the latest staff became available from the Department of Agriculture, Food and the Marine and, therefore, it is not the case that an agreement was in place which was cancelled. As the local authority staff were potentially transferring with different terms and conditions from those that apply in the Civil Service, these discussions were inherently more complex and protracted than those involving the direct transfer of Civil Service staff.

The Garda central vetting unit has sufficient resources available to it to provide an efficient and effective vetting service. In the event that additional or replacement resources are required in the future, the potential for the transfer of staff from the local authority can be further explored. Such a transfer would be dependent on the availability of the necessary sanctions and finance.

An e-vetting system is currently being developed and it is expected that this will come on stream in 2014 following the initial phase of testing, which will take place later this year. When this is achieved, the system will streamline the overall vetting process in this jurisdiction and further contribute to reductions in processing times for all vetting applications. The vetting unit provides employment vetting for approximately 20,000 organisations in Ireland. They are registered with the unit for this purpose, which employs personnel to work in a full-time, part-time, voluntary or student capacity with children or vulnerable adults. Garda vetting is conducted only on behalf of registered organisations and is not conducted for individuals on a personal basis. When an organisation is registered with the unit, it is entitled to receive Garda vetting services in respect of its employees. In addition, there has been a steady increase in the number of applications for vetting. The unit processed 328,000 applications in 2012 and it is expected that this will increase to 350,000 in 2013.

I appreciate that the Minister of State has given a response on behalf of the Minister for Justice and Equality. I believe it is totally unsatisfactory and it is in error, because an offer was made in writing. This debacle arose following the Government's policy initiative to reform and rationalise local authorities. Urban district councils were deliberately abolished and, in the case of Tipperary, the north and south county councils were amalgamated for administrative purposes. The local body set up to oversee and implement the Government policy initiative had consultations with staff in the affected councils and it was agreed that eight staff would be transferred to the Garda vetting unit. This was approved by the county manager and the Department of the Environment, Community and Local Government, and it was also understood that the proposal had the approval of the Department of Justice and Equality, as the need for more staff existed at the time in the unit.

The subsequent change of mind by the Department of Justice and Equality showed stunning disrespect for the loyal and dedicated staff of the local authorities who were engaged in this process. The Government and, in particular, the Department have shown appalling indifference to the plight of these staff, who have been badly let down and are feeling aggrieved. The eight officials have been misled and they received dreadful treatment due to the bungling that took place between the Departments of the Environment, Community and Local Government and Justice and Equality. The matter needs to be addressed at ministerial level and the situation needs to be rectified to the satisfaction of the affected staff.

This sorry saga has left a sour taste in the mouths of all local authority staff in Tipperary. What they consider as a reneging on previous written commitments has led to a distrust of the entire process and frustration and anger towards the system and, in particular, the Department of Justice and Equality.

I thank the Deputy for the detail he has provided to the House. I will ensure the Minister for Justice and Equality is made aware of what he said. Any additional resources that are made available to the vetting unit must be sanctioned by the Minister for Public Expenditure and Reform, and the Minister for Justice and Equality must have sufficient resources to pay the additional staff. It is not expected at this time that additional resources will be required by the unit. However, the position will be kept under constant review and monitored closely. The objective at all times is the protection of vulnerable people and the delivery of an effective and efficient vetting service. I appreciate what the Deputy said and I will make sure the Minister is made aware of his contribution immediately.

Sitting suspended at 2.05 p.m. and resumed at 3.05 p.m.