Topical Issue Debate

Driver Licences

I thank the Ceann Comhairle for allowing me to raise this important matter. I also thank the Minister of State at the Department of Education and Skills, Deputy Ciarán Cannon, for coming to the House.

As the Minister of State will be aware, the National Driver Licence Service has opened an office in Ballybrit. Many people continue to travel to the county hall on Prospect Hill to inquire about driver licences or renew existing licences. This service ceased in the county hall in November last and is now provided by the office located in Ballybrit. People find it difficult to find the new office, which has resulted in Galway County Council's decision to produce a map featuring directions from the city centre to the Ballybrit office. Signage in Ballybrit is poor and many motorists who have travelled long distances to Galway find it difficult to locate it.

There is a ruling, however, that one must apply in person at the National Driver Licence Service, NDLS, in Ballybrit. The signage for the centre could be much better. The question arises as to why people have to travel to a centre to appear in person to make an application. Galway is the second largest county and members of the public, particularly those from outside of the city and elderly rural residents who are not familiar with Ballybrit, find it difficult to go to the office when they are used to the old city centre licensing office. It has been suggested an express postal service, similar to that for passport applications, could be put in place, with the added security of the photograph for an application being verified by a garda’s signature. I hope such a service could be put in place as it would be practical, efficient and ensure people would not have to travel long distances to attend the NDLS offices in person.

I thank Deputy Kitt for raising this issue. The Minister for Transport, Tourism and Sport, Deputy Varadkar, had intended to take this matter but he is in the Seanad.

In 2011, the Government decided to centralise the driver licensing service, following an examination of the options related to the requirement for all EU member states to introduce a plastic card licence. The examination found that a centralised system would offer enhanced security and consistency, as well as being more efficient and cost-effective. The Government appointed the Road Safety Authority, RSA, as the lead agency for the plastic card project and for the centralised driver licence system. The necessary legislation to transfer powers for driver licensing to the RSA was put in place through the Road Safety Authority (Commercial Vehicle Roadworthiness) Act 2012.

The RSA operates driver licensing through the NDLS. The NDLS comprises a central unit in the RSA and three outsourced contractors. These are a card producer for the plastic card licence, a front office to engage with the public and a back office to process applications. This service came into operation from 29 October 2013.

There were problems with the speed of processing applications in the NDLS when the system came on stream. Inevitably, these early difficulties led to the build-up of a backlog. The Minister discussed with the RSA at the time the difficulties people were experiencing and how it proposed to address them. The RSA acknowledged there were teething problems when the service opened. The authority responded by increasing resources in NDLS centres experiencing delays, as well as in the licence-processing centre and providing further training to staff.

There are no major technical difficulties now affecting the service. A booking system to allow for customers to make appointments was successfully piloted and is in use in Dublin, Cork and Tullamore. It will be extended on a phased basis to all NDLS offices. The problems which the NDLS experienced in its earlier days are now largely in the past.

In number terms, 250,071 applications have been received since the NDLS was launched on 29 October, with 242,875 of these completed. The total number of applications on hand is 7,196 with licence applications being turned around in five to eight days. Dealing with problem applications is taking longer. These are cases where the application is incomplete, or where further information or documentation is needed to process the application. This involves contacting the customer and finalisation of these applications takes several weeks.

It is evident there are significant numbers of customers who attend NDLS centres without getting their application processed because they have incomplete or incorrect documentation. Some of this arises because there is a tighter ID regime in place than before the NDLS, in line with the SAFE 2 standard. In implementing the Government’s decision to produce the plastic card licence and centralise the licensing service, the RSA was directed to do so using the SAFE 2 standard to authenticate customers' ID. An essential feature of SAFE 2 is face-to-face validation of identity. This process necessitates that customers apply in person for their driving licences or learner permits and have their photograph and signature captured digitally onsite.

Once authenticated under SAFE 2, the person does not need to have their identity verified again. NDLS enhancements under way will in due course provide additional channels through telephone supported by postal and online access for those customers who have been SAFE 2 authenticated. This means those customers who have been through an NDLS office will not have to revisit the service personally once the additional channels are in place. Work is ongoing also with the Department of Social Protection to capture customers who have been through the SAFE 2 process with that Department so as to enable those also to apply or renew licences or permits without having to attend at an NDLS office.

The Minister is continuing to monitor progress in the NDLS but, overall, he is satisfied the RSA has taken appropriate actions to address the problems which have arisen.

I also have engaged with the RSA recently on the signage for its offices in Galway. It informed me additional signage will be erected in the near future to make it easier for people to find them.

I welcome the fact there will be extra signage in place. There is better signage for the other businesses in Ballybrit than there is for the NDLS offices there.

Will the Minister engage with the RSA on the requirement for people to appear personally at the Ballybrit NDLS office? I already mentioned how this affects the elderly. Emigrants working away from home will find it impossible to have their driving licences renewed too. Young Galway emigrants, as the Minister of State knows, are living and working in Australia, Canada, the United States and other countries. They will also find it impossible to have their driving licences renewed or permits issued if they cannot travel personally to the NDLS centre.

The RSA should review having an express postal system similar to that for passport applications which would involve the Garda verifying the applicant’s identity and sign his or her photograph. This would be a practical and efficient way to do business. I hope the RSA will review this as the requirement to attend the NDLS office puts a lot of trouble on people to travel to a centre which they might not be used to travelling to. This requirement also inconveniences many in rural areas as Galway is the second largest county. Whether one is elderly or an emigrant, one will find it difficult to apply or renew a driving licence if this requirement is not changed.

The initial SAFE 2 authentication of the customer’s ID only needs to take place once. Once that has happened, there is no further need for any customer of the NDLS to attend its offices in person.

I agree with Deputy Kitt, however, that there are questions about how our diaspora can go about renewing driving licences. I will raise this with the RSA and the Minister for Transport, Tourism and Sport and revert to the Deputy with their responses.

Water Charges Exemptions

On a point of information, I was initially scheduled for the second slot. Why was I changed to speak in the fourth slot?

I am informed the sequence is down to the Ceann Comhairle’s office and the availability of Ministers.

I wanted the senior Minister here or at least the Minister of State, Deputy O'Dowd, who were the ones who made statements last week with regard to free water for those under 18 years according to the Government scheme and to answer for the fact that every objective yardstick available to the Department shows that the allowance they have proposed does not add up to that.

The Minister, Deputy Hogan, stated on RTE television news on Wednesday last that the water tax for a family of five, which could be two parents and, for example, three students over 18, would be €450 a year. The Taoiseach stated a few weeks ago that when subsidies from central taxation to water production are ended, which is the Government and the European Union policy, the average tax would be €580 per year per household. I wonder whether the Government has any clue of the crushing new economic burden that these demands will place on ordinary householders.

On the immediate issue on which I need clarification today, Deputy Hogan stated in Dáil Éireann on Tuesday, 6 May, that an allowance of 38,000 litres a year for those under 18 meant "that water charges will...only apply to adults". On national RTE television news on Tuesday also, the Minister stated that, effectively, children, meaning those under 18 years, are free. On Wednesday, the Minister of State, Deputy O'Dowd, stated that the 38,000 litres a year allowance for every under 18 year old, "results in free water for children." That is false and I require the Minister of State, Deputy Jan O'Sullivan, to correct that today.

The study, Water Supply Project - Dublin Region, which was commissioned and sponsored by the Department of the Environment, Community and Local Government, found average usage of water in Dublin to be 148 litres per person per day, that is, 54,000 litres a year. The Government states that so-called "free" water for those under 18 years means 38,000 litres per year. A 17 year old does not need to wash less, drink less or use sanitary facilities less than, let us say, a 20 year old and the 38,000 litre allowance for a 17 year old is 16,000 litres short of what, according to the water supply project of the Department, a 17 year old would use in a year. Therefore, there is not free water for those under 18 years, as the Ministers state. In case Deputy Jan O'Sullivan comes back and states that perhaps they could economise, according to the projections in the document to which I refer, with all metering and charging in place by 2030 the average use will be 130 litres per person per day, which is still 10,000 litres more than the free allowance for those under 18 years. I need the Minister of State to clarify, tell the people the truth of this matter, admit that the figures are incorrect and correct them.

I am answering on behalf of the Minister, Deputy Hogan, who unfortunately cannot be here.

Of course, he cannot.

Last week, the Government announced details of its decision on the funding model for Irish Water. The announcement included details of the free allowance, which will be provided to all customers of Irish Water, which will equate to 30,000 litres per household. An additional allowance will be provided in respect of each child under the age of 18 to cover the normal usage by every child in his or her primary residence. The allowance will be based on the same qualifying conditions as child benefit. This allowance will be up to 38,000 litres per child per year. The level of consumption on which the level of the free allowance for children is based, will be verified by water metering data to be provided to the Commission for Energy Regulation. The provision of the free allowance for children in this way means that no additional charges arise for children and will increase the affordability of water charges for families with children.

Supporting the affordability of water charges is a critical policy objective of the Government. The provision of the free allowance along with a number of other policy measures demonstrates the Government's commitment in this regard. Among the additional measures are a decision that there will be no standing charge for households and that a minimum charge may apply to properties, such as holiday homes, which are not permanently occupied; support for those with certain medical conditions by capping the level of charge at the assessed charge - details of this are being finalised with the Department of Health; the provision of additional support for pensioners, persons with disabilities and carers who receive the household benefits package; a commitment to maintain the average charge for domestic water charges at €240 for 2015 and 2016; a requirement for assessed charges to be based on occupancy to provide the best proxy for usage, with provision for rebates for those moving from assessed to metered charges; and the introduction of a "first fix free" scheme by Irish Water at a cost of €51 million.

The Commission for Energy Regulation, CER, has been provided with statutory responsibility for the economic regulation of Irish Water. Under the legislation, the CER will be responsible for approving the water charges plan prepared by Irish Water. The CER has announced that it will be consulting on the water charges plan in June this year, and that the approved water charges plan will be announced in August. Accordingly, households will have full clarity on the level of charges in advance of their introduction.

The Minister, Deputy Hogan, has announced his intention to use his powers under the Water Services (No. 2) Act 2013 to issue a policy direction to the Commission for Energy Regulation to provide that the Government's decision on the funding model is incorporated into the water charges plan to be approved by the Commission.

The Minister of State, Deputy Jan O'Sullivan, shames herself coming in here today and engaging in deliberate obfuscation and giving me the whole policy that I did not ask for and that I am aware of. She singularly failed to address the key issue I raised, which is, that an allowance of 38,000 litres a year for an under 18 year old does not amount to what she called "free" water for children - those under 18 years. I have quoted the Department's study to prove that. Will she address that? That is the only point I want addressed.

I am aware of all the other stuff and what a considerable burden this will be for families. In two or three years, when EU policy and the Government's neoconservative policies come into effect and the subsidy from central taxation is removed, the price of water for families will shoot up. Of course, we hope to build a movement of opposition that will force the abolition of this progressive and reactionary tax on households.

I need the Minister of State, Deputy Jan O'Sullivan, since she was deputised by the senior Minister, Deputy Hogan, to come in here today, to answer the net point. Why does she state that 38,000 litres per year is so-called "free" water for those under 18 years when the Department's own study shows that a 17 year old will use on average 54,000 litres and, in the best possible circumstances, would also in 16 years' time be way over that limit? It is simple. I ask her to clarify.

The figures upon which this is based is a study by Atkins which identifies the amount of water used per size of households and there is other information available to the Department, for example, in relation to the amount of water consumed in the United Kingdom.

It is based on the fact that one does not automatically add the full amount for a one-person household multiplied by four for a four-person household because that is not the reality. If I put on a wash in my washing machine, and I have a five or six-person household, a person in a one-person household puts a wash in a washing machine as well but he or she is only catering for one person. That is only one example. It is not correct to state if one has a four-person household, one multiplies by four the amount of water consumed in a one-person household. I merely want to make that point to the Deputy. The Atkins study is the study upon which the figures were based and that study suggests that the amount of allocation for children is enough to ensure that children are free.

Child Care Services Funding

The three Deputies sharing are Deputy Dessie Ellis, Deputy Thomas P. Broughan and Deputy Seán Kenny. They will have two minutes each. I call Deputy Ellis first.

I welcome the Minister to his new job and wish him all the best in it.

There is a crisis developing in our public crèches throughout the country and in particular with the Jigsaw project, the Darndale Belcamp Integrated Childcare Services. Over the past few years, there have been cuts to the budgets across a broad range of funders. In the case of Darndale, 260 child care places are in jeopardy. Some of them are from among the most deprived and vulnerable in our society.

Some 98 jobs are at risk with skills and experience that cannot be replaced. I remind the Minister that the 1916 Proclamation states that we must cherish all the children of our nation equally. We must ensure that badly needed services for our children and their families are provided and maintained. Darndale is one of the biggest crèches in the country. An additional €200,000 a year would make it viable both now and into the future. Everything has been tried, including pay cuts, cost reductions and fund-raising, just like other crèches have done around the country.

It is worth noting that €240,000 a year goes to the Revenue, so the Minister is getting money back. It may not be his Department, but another one. Some €330,000 a year is raised from contributions by parents. The social consequences of closing this crèche are huge. Not only will it put people on the dole, but it will also affect parents who themselves work and help in the community. There is no flexibility in funding from Tusla, the DSP, Early Years policy programmes and other funders.

The Early Years policy programme calculations are based purely on child numbers and the band their parents fit into. The DSP reimburses wages and has set allocations for materials and training based on participants' numbers. For one fifth of the money needed for Darndale, we also have a crèche under threat in Ballymun. It is not just this crèche; there are also other serious problems with crèches.

I also wish to congratulate the new Minister for Children and Youth Affairs and welcome him to this Topical Issue debate.

Yesterday, I was honoured to cut the ribbon and open the new Golden Years Seniors' Centre in Darndale Belcamp village, when the Minister for Health, Deputy Reilly, was not able to make it due to illness. It was incongruous because at the same time as we were opening the seniors' centre, public representatives heard of the massive threat posed to the Jigsaw integrated child care crèche centre.

As Deputy Ellis said, the Jigsaw centre is the largest community crèche in the country and provides services to 260 children. Its team comprises 55 core staff and 44 community employment, jobs initiative and Tús participants. Some 90% of the children come from the immediate area, which has long been designated by the Department of Education and Skills and other Departments as one of serious social disadvantage. One sixth of the children cared for come from our local Traveller community.

The Jigsaw centre opened in 2001 and was originally to cater for a maximum of 150 children but it is now catering for almost double that number. The centre's CEO, Kelda Barnes, has rightly pointed out that it provides an important link between social and health services and the local community.

The centre provides much needed employment to the local area with 60% of the staff coming from the immediate locality. In addition, the centre has a history of great distinction, having received a Síolta award in 2013 for its work in looking after young children.

As Deputy Ellis also said, the centre has come under incredible pressure in recent years due to a growing deficit. In 2012, the deficit was €65,000, in 2013 it was €63,000 and this year it is heading towards €200,000.

I am informed that there are cuts to community employment support and changes to payments from Pobal. In addition, the HSE has been relentlessly cutting funding for this service. Fund-raising undertaken by the centre has been in grave difficulties due to the recession. My constituents in Dublin Bay North and in Darndale-Belcamp parish in particular are pleading with the Minister to take decisive, necessary and immediate action to solve this serious crisis and ensure the continued viability and success of the wonderful Jigsaw centre.

I welcome the Minister to his new position.

The Darndale Belcamp Integrated Childcare Service Limited, also known as the Jigsaw crèche, has evolved from small beginnings in 2001 into being the largest community crèche in the country, now catering for 260 children daily. Some 90% of these children are from the immediate catchment area of Darndale, Belcamp and Moatview, which is a recognised area of social disadvantage. It also includes a Traveller community. In fact, one sixth of the children attending the crèche are from the Traveller community.

The crèche service currently employs 55 core staff, some of whom have been there for the 13 years of its existence, and 44 staff from community employment, jobs initiative and Tús. They include one full-time and eight community employment participants from the Traveller community. In this regard, I believe they are unique.

In recognition of its excellence as a crèche, Jigsaw was presented with the Síolta award by the previous Minister for Children and Youth Affairs, Deputy Frances Fitzgerald. I had the pleasure of being present at the award ceremony as a Deputy for the area.

Over recent years, the centre has had to accept financial cuts which it absorbed by way of pay cuts, changing the centre's structure, and fund-raising to the extent of €112,000 in 2013. The centre has now reached a crisis and has been in discussion with its main funders - Tusla, the Department of Social Protection, and the Childcare Directorate - to try to source an additional €200,000 to keep the centre open. The centre was recently informed by the previous Minister, Deputy Fitzgerald, that further payments from Tusla would be made available while a long-term solution was being worked out.

I appreciate that the Minister, Deputy Charles Flanagan, has only just commenced work in his new Department. However, the situation is quite stark for the centre. The only way it will remain open is by direct intervention from the Minister himself. As a Dublin North East Deputy, I believe it is unacceptable that such a vital service as the Darndale Belcamp Integrated Childcare Service, which has the full support of the local community and public representatives, would close.

The centre needs to know this week that these funds can be provided, as its cash flow is drying up. The centre has informed the staff and parents of the actual date of closure, which will be by month's end or else they face the risk of trading recklessly.

I welcome the opportunity to respond to the issues raised by Deputies Seán Kenny, Ellis and Broughan. I had an opportunity of discussing the matter briefly with Deputy Seán Kenny on the day following my appointment last Friday.

I would like to acknowledge the importance of the services delivered by Darndale Belcamp Integrated Childcare Service Limited to some 260 children across the areas of Darndale, Belcamp and Moatview. The centre was established in January 2001 and has evolved into the largest crèche nationally.

In 2013, the Darndale Belcamp Integrated Childcare Service incurred expenditure of €2.022 million and received funding amounting to €1.96 million. This resulted in a deficit of some €62,000. I am aware that the centre has been experiencing cash-flow difficulties recently and that this has given rise to concerns regarding its future operation.

In order to assist the centre, the Child and Family Agency recently prepaid funding due in May and June. I want to acknowledge the support of the agency in this regard. I would expect that the agency will be open to providing some further pre-payments to the centre if this is of assistance in seeking to resolve underlying issues.

The Child and Family Agency is one of a number of State agencies which provide funding to support the provision of services at the centre. The level of support provided is significant and is being provided at a time when all service providers are faced with particular challenges arising from the need to restore order to our public finances. The Child and Family Agency provided funding of almost €360,000 last year.

My Department is responsible for funding three child care schemes, including the community child care subvention programme, the child care education and training support programme - which are both administered by Pobal - and the early childhood care and education programme which is administered directly by my Department. Funding to the centre under these schemes amounted to over €550,000 in 2013. This represents total funding in excess of €900,000 from my Department's Vote.

Funding is paid to the service in respect of actual attendance of children under the various programmes and funding is paid according to national capitation rates paid to all pre-school services. The Department does not provide a grant to the service directly for salaries or administration in any way.

I have asked my officials to meet urgently with the Child and Family Agency and with Pobal, which administers a number of child care schemes on behalf of my Department, to explore all possible solutions to the current difficulties, which I acknowledge are real.

My predecessor, the Minister, Deputy Frances Fitzgerald, recently advised the centre that, in her view, the overall provision of early years services in the area might usefully be considered in seeking solutions to the current difficulties. I concur with this view as we need to ensure all available resources to support these key services are maximised. All services in receipt of State funding have had to generate efficiency savings and, while I appreciate the challenges involved, it is important that all such avenues are fully explored.

I mentioned the centre incurred a deficit of €62,000, partly achieved through successful fund-raising. Fund-raising projections for this year are not as strong and there is a risk of a projected deficit of up to €200,000. While I acknowledge the need to avoid such a deficit, the centre's income projections show income of €1.8 million continues to be available. With such a level of financial support, it should be possible to work constructively to achieve continued services and avoid the closure scenario the Deputies outlined. The funders will be available to support this process. My Department is giving the matter priority attention. I hope a resolution to the current difficulties can be found within the total resources available to the centre and to support the provision of early years services generally in the area.

I thank the Minister. In the past, the HSE promised the centre funding for a specific number of staff and 40 children and operational costs, which never materialised. Instead, it reduced funding by €300,000 in the past five years. Had the commitment been honoured, it would have given an additional €191,000 for 2014. The Minister could investigate whether the HSE reneged on a commitment. Alternatively, Tusla could redirect some of its funding. The question whether the Department can provide additional funding is very important because we have the most vulnerable children and the social consequences if they and their families do not have such support would be very significant. We need urgent action. I heard the Minister say he would try to get as many people as possible involved to try to find a solution. It is imperative we find a solution. This is not the only problem we have with crèches. I mentioned the Ballymun crèche earlier. Other problems arise because of how funding is directed.

The Minister mentioned the issue of pre-payments from the Child and Family Agency and his Department. Is it possible for the Minister to visit the Jigsaw centre and work with Ms Kelda Barnes and her staff to examine all possible ways the project can continue throughout 2014? Everybody is thinking of the global changes that must be made in budgetary spending and the need for a much more expansive approach from next year. In that context, the core point facing the Minister and the centre is to get through 2014 and then to have a proper budgetary consideration for 2015.

A few days ago I asked the Minister's predecessor about the after-school child care initiative for which €14 million was allocated and under which only 42 children have been allocated places so far. Some funding could be available in the Department that could be the core element in keeping the project open and working successfully to the end of the year. It is the linchpin in many aspects of Darndale-Belcamp parish and the wider area. The success of children going on to finish second level education and the growing success of people going on to third level is all based on what the crèche does.

I thank the Minister and welcome the fact he is open to making further pre-payments to the centre to tide it over the temporary crisis. I am also glad the Minister's officials are giving the matter priority to ensure it receives funding on a proper basis. I support the points made by the other Deputies on the importance of the centre for the entire Darndale-Belcamp area. The area has gone through many difficulties and is beginning to improve. The public and community services provided to children at this young age help them to get into primary school and go on to second level and third level and they are the key to tackling social disadvantage. It is important the Minister and his officials give it the priority it needs to put the centre on a proper, permanent basis.

Again, I thank the Deputies for raising the issue. A number of options have been proposed, involving the HSE, the Child and Family Agency and my Department. All possible options are being explored. There have been a number of high level meetings and these will continue until resolution can be found. I am acutely aware that access to affordable, quality child care can be a significant barrier to many low income and disadvantaged families availing of work opportunities. I have heard from the Deputies that it is the case in this area. This year, my Department is providing investment totalling more than €260 million to support the programmes.

I attach a significant priority to child and family services, including the provision of early years services, which we are discussing. I hope the difficulties at the Darndale-Belcamp centre can be satisfactorily resolved. All the parties mentioned must work to resolve the difficulties in a constructive and proportionate manner. I am very conscious of the point Deputy Ellis made regarding the health services and the manner in which commitments may not have been fulfilled as projected.

As a first step, I have arranged for a meeting of the funding agencies, following which I expect there will be an early meeting with the centre to explore on a constructive basis all options for achieving a sustainable approach to the operations at the centre. I ask all parties to work with this process, as indicated by my predecessor, to use whatever space can be provided to identify constructive solutions, of which we have had some today, which will continue to deliver a service to young children and their parents in the Darndale-Belcamp area. I undertake to keep in close contact with the Deputies and others on the issue.

Tobacco Control Measures

I have been following with increasing alarm the debate about the dangers of electronic cigarettes. Today, Dr. Edel Duggan, clinical director of the National Poisons Information Centre, informed my office that she, too, is very worried about the dangers posed by electronic cigarettes. She is especially concerned about the alarming spike in the number of children in particular who have suffered from nicotine poisoning in the past two years. Dr. Duggan believes there could be a fatality if the problem is not addressed urgently. Nearly as many cases of nicotine poisoning were recorded in the first three months of this year as in the whole of 2013. The statistics we received today were frightening. They include 17 cases, comprising 11 children under the age of six, two teenagers and four adults. The National Poisons Information Centre believes the real number of nicotine poisoning cases is likely to be much higher.

An electronic cigarette is a battery operated device designed to deliver nicotine, flavour and other chemicals which are vaporised into an aerosol and inhaled by the user.

These e-cigarettes contain liquid nicotine, which can cause acute illness and vomiting in young children. Severe nicotine poisoning can lead to coma, convulsions, heart attack and respiratory arrest. A measure of 40 milligrams per millilitre has the potential to be fatal, and some of these e-cigarettes on the market have 36 milligrams of nicotine per millilitre, which is too close for comfort. The e-cigarette industry advises that the e-cigarette cartridges should be stored out of reach of children but as we know, children are well able to get something they want, especially if it is attractive.

Sales of e-cigarettes in Ireland have increased by 500% in the past year and it is a business in this country worth over €7.3 million. The industry is reported to have been worth €3 billion on a global scale last year. E-cigarette packaging is attractive and they have attractive flavours, which is a deliberate attempt by the industry to target young people. The marketing is clever in that it avoids falling under any other regulatory framework that would otherwise protect the public and children in particular. I am worried, Dr. Duggan is worried and the Minister for Health should be worried.

I thank the Deputy for raising this very important issues. As the Deputy is aware, I have been very public regarding my aims and objectives regarding smoking and tobacco, particularly the harm they cause in Ireland. With regard to e-cigarettes, these products are not presented by the manufacturer as medicinal products for smoking cessation or as medical devices with a therapeutic purpose, so they do not fall under the medicinal products or medical devices legislation. As e-cigarettes do not contain tobacco, they are not currently regulated under Irish tobacco legislation.

At the European level, the European Council has recently adopted a new EU tobacco products directive, which will come into force later this month. This new directive provides for the regulation of e-cigarettes by setting mandatory safety and quality requirements, such as those on nicotine content, ingredients and devices, as well as refill mechanisms, etc., for e-cigarettes. It also looks to ensure products are child-proof and tamper-proof, and this is clearly a relevant issue from what the Deputy has stated. The directive would also make health warnings and information leaflets obligatory, introduce notification requirements for manufacturers and importers of e-cigarettes and impose stricter rules on advertising and monitoring of market developments. The tobacco products directive also states that member states are free to regulate such matters within the remit of their own jurisdiction and are encouraged to do so.

A World Health Organization study group report concluded that the safety and extent of nicotine uptake from e-cigarettes has not been established and not enough scientific evidence existed to validate the claim that the products were smoking cessation aids. The report also notes that the delivery of nicotine to the lung might be dangerous and that it was of global importance to address lung delivery in scientific studies. Further research and clinical trials were recommended by that group at that time. Of further concern, although not directly related to exposure to the potential harm from second-hand aerosol, is the impact that the use of e-cigarettes might have on the enforcement of the ban on smoking in enclosed public places. As e-cigarettes can often look like cigarettes and emit smoke-like material, it can cause considerable confusion as to whether the person using the e-cigarettes is smoking a cigarette.

Additionally, there is a concern that the policy objective of denormalisation of tobacco use could be compromised by the open use of e-cigarettes in places where cigarette smoking is prohibited. This is a critical point to understand. If one asks a smoker why he or she began the habit, the response will not be because he or she liked it. Most people feel ill the first time they inhale smoke, as it is a toxin, a carcinogen and cigarettes kill one in two people who take up the smoking habit. People are drawn to the habit because they feel it makes them seem "cool". If we allow e-cigarettes to facilitate people to continue with a habit that resembles smoking, we will undermine the public health policy of denormalising smoking, particularly where children are present.

Following this rationale, the use of e-cigarettes will no longer be permitted in any of the Health Service Executive's facilities or campuses. The ban commenced on 1 May as part of the HSE's tobacco-free campus policy, which, in line with Tobacco Free Ireland, our national policy, aims to denormalise smoking and protect the health of staff and patients. The executive has committed to reviewing this policy as new evidence becomes available. Other bodies have also taken the initiative, including larnród Eireann, and all organisations and agencies are free to do so on a voluntary basis. My Department is currently reviewing the available international research and literature relating to e-cigarettes, including the health effects of these devices. Based on the results of this exercise, it is my intention to introduce further regulation on e-cigarettes as necessary and appropriate.

I acknowledge, understand and share the Deputy's concerns regarding the use of devices such as e-cigarettes. I understand this from a health perspective both in terms of the user and people exposed to the emissions. I am also concerned from a tobacco denormalisation perspective and taking into account any erosion of significant developments in the tobacco area in the last decade. As stated, there is a lack of research and evidence regarding the long-term effects of such devices given that they are a relatively new phenomenon. Whereas anecdotal evidence is emerging regarding the assistance of such devices in achieving smoking cessation, no hard evidence supports this conclusively.

It is important to state that the majority of the manufacturers of these products do not present or licence them as smoking cessation aids. With this in mind, the steps taken by the EU Commission in the new tobacco products directive on the regulation of e-cigarettes is a positive development. As stated, my Department is reviewing this area and based on this I intend to further regulate this area as appropriate.

I appreciate that the Minister has stated that e-cigarettes are not presented as medicinal products and do not fall under medical products legislation. I welcome the HSE banning the use of e-cigarettes on its facilities, and I welcome other organisations who have voluntarily banned the use of e-cigarettes, including Irish Rail, Bus Éireann, Dublin Bus, Dublin Airport and Aviva. However, I am worried by what people like Harvard professor and director of the Center for Global Tobacco Control at Harvard University, Gregory Connolly, stated recently in Dublin. He argued that, if unregulated, e-cigarettes could be the panacea for the tobacco industry's woes by discouraging quitting and encouraging children to take up smoking. He also indicated that, if regulated, e-cigarettes could offer a miracle in helping people to quit smoking. Professor Connolly urged Ireland to show leadership within the EU by passing a law to regulate e-cigarettes as medical devices.

In the meantime I will listen to Dr. Duggan's concerns that e-cigarettes could cause a fatality. She is urging parents to keep them out of the sight and reach of children at home and be especially careful in disposing of them after use. E-cigarettes are unregulated but they should be regulated.

I thank the Deputy for raising this very important issue, as it is a serious concern. As the Deputy pointed out, there have been 17 cases of liquid nicotine poisoning reported by the National Poisons Information Centre in Ireland and God knows how many there have been elsewhere around the world. Nicotine is a highly addictive and dangerous drug and of what benefit is it to become addicted to nicotine? There is no benefit, so why would one allow marketing of these products to people as a lifestyle choice when all that can come of it is harm? If e-cigarettes have a role in smoking cessation, let it be proven before claims are made in this regard.

The World Health Organization strongly advises against the use of e-cigarettes until they are proven safe. Studies to be published later this month indicate that some e-cigarettes produce a known carcinogen that would be inhaled by users because of fumes produced at such a high temperature. A second study prepared for the same journal has similar findings, and I am aware of a study which indicates that nicotine by itself can facilitate progression and metastases of tumours. A study published in The Lancet indicates that 94% of people who attempted to quit smoking using e-cigarettes had failed to do so after six months, which is a pretty lousy return.

E-cigarette use among teenagers in the US has doubled in a single year, which must be a grave concern for us. Almost a quarter of teenager e-cigarette users in the US do not smoke regular cigarettes. We all know the impact of smoking on our society, with one in two smokers dying of a related disease. Families suffer hardship from cancers, strokes, heart attacks and the loss of meaningful and useful life years as a consequence of the habit.

I disagree utterly with the outrageous statement made by an individual on the radio recently suggesting that the very welcome reduction in people smoking was due to these products. There is no evidence to support that for half a moment. This reduction has been the result of tremendous work done by the Health Service Executive, HSE, the Department of Education and Skills, the Department of Health, the Irish Cancer Society, the Asthma Society, the Irish Lung Foundation and many others who have worked to try to inform people of the dangers of this heinous and deadly product and to prevent our children's ever taking up this habit.