Topical Issues

Is the Minister, Deputy Bruton, taking the matter to be raised by Deputies Terence Flanagan and Eamonn Maloney?

I am taking the matter to be raised by Deputy Brian Stanley.

Is Deputy Stanley happy to proceed first?

Job Creation

I welcome the opportunity to address this issue with the Minister; I note the Taoiseach is sitting beside him. I welcome the announcement of the €250 million fund to bring jobs to the regions but I want to highlight that the regions have been doing very badly. The region I am located in, the midlands, and County Laois in particular, has been on the back foot. I raised this issue with the Minister three years ago and I have attended meetings with him in regard to the issue, along with other Deputies.

In 2014, not one overseas investor was brought to County Laois, and in the last three years only one such investor has been brought to the county. Last year, only nine IDA-backed jobs were created in the county, while 28 jobs were lost in IDA-backed companies. In total, there are only 87 people working in IDA-backed companies in County Laois. I know County Kildare is slightly bigger but there are more than 10,000 people working in IDA-backed companies there. While most of them are in the northern part of the county, the southern half, including Monasterevin, has not been getting its fair share.

County Leitrim has almost eight times more people working in IDA-backed companies than Laois, despite the fact that the latter county has nearly three times the population. This matter is not confined to IDA-backed firms. Some 951 people are working in Irish export companies in County Laois. Every one of those jobs is welcome, but Laois is second from the bottom of the league in that respect.

We were told we needed to have infrastructure, services and trained personnel. County Laois has the infrastructure, services, motorways, rail connections and facilities to provide a good quality of life, including leisure centres. We even have golf courses for executives to play on.

I must ask the Deputy to conclude his remarks, please.

I cannot understand what the problem is. Perhaps the Minister can address that issue concerning the midlands region and County Laois in particular.

As the Minister is well aware, there is a disparity in job creation for rural communities, including peripheral areas such as my county of Kerry, and north Kerry in particular. That disparity has been alarming and shocking. Given the economic downturn as a result of the recession, the knock-on effect has been quite catastrophic. While there was an improvement in many areas throughout last summer and well into the autumn, the last quarter of 2014 saw a downward turn in Kerry with a 4.5% increase in unemployment. That is quite startling. I am told that the live register rose again in January.

The Minister will be aware of the hope and expectation surrounding the LNG project for north Kerry, which has been going on for seven or eight years. There is still no light at the end of the tunnel as to whether it will be realised and I understand the matter is currently before the courts.

Job creation is important for Kerry, as it is for other counties, but particularly so for a county with such a high unemployment rate. A total of 13,000 people are currently unemployed in County Kerry.

For its efforts, the IDA brought one potential investor to Kerry in 2012, two in 2013 and three last year. Nothing came out of these visits, however. By comparison, Cork had 95 visits in that period, while Limerick had 74. That puts things in perspective as to how far down the pecking order Kerry is in terms of the Government's commitment to the county for IDA-backed investment and jobs. I would like the Minister to address that issue. I understand that a new IDA building has been earmarked for the Tralee technology park, and I welcome that. Having said that, however, we still need jobs urgently.

I thank both Deputies for raising this issue. Part of the response to our employment crisis lies with the IDA, but much of it lies elsewhere. The overall picture is worth stating both in respect of Kerry and the midlands. In Kerry during the crash the live register increased by 10,000. Many of those came from the construction sector which completely collapsed. Since the Government started to address those problems, the live register has fallen by almost 3,500 in Kerry.

In the past three years, the number of people employed in IDA companies in Kerry has increased by 24%. It is one of the very strongly performing counties in terms of IDA growth. While it is a small part of the overall picture in Kerry, as in many parts of the country, it is showing a healthy growth in employment. If the Deputy is seeking to assess IDA activity fairly, he should not look at site visits alone. Kerry is a good case in point, where the IDA has succeeded in getting much of its existing base to grow employment. That is a significant achievement.

As the Deputies know, I am committed to improving the performance of every region. I have committed to putting an advance facility in Tralee because Kerry has the strength to win new investment. This is a vote of confidence in the combination Tralee offers, in particular with the institute of technology and the base of companies. We are confident that we can grow employment there.

The case of the midlands is similar and there is more work to be done in that regard. That is why we have committed to two advance facilities in the case of the midlands as part of our new regional strategy. In the difficult times, some 20,000 extra people went on the live register in the midlands, while in the past three years that has come down by 4,000, so we are making headway.

As regards the midlands and Kerry, however, only 3% of overall employment is in IDA companies. Some 97% of employment is not in IDA companies. If the Deputies want a serious regional strategy to respond to the challenges of the regions, therefore, one must look not only at the 3% but also at the 97%. At the heart of our regional strategy is not just the investment we are making in advance facilities in the regions in order that they can be a magnet for new investment by the IDA, but also the fact that we want to grow our own companies. Both in Kerry and the midlands, one sees strong performance among Irish-owned export companies, which is what we need to build upon.

I have just announced a regional enterprise strategy, part of which is a call to local organisations, businesses and enterprise centres to collaborate with one another and come up with ideas that can drive employment in the regions. There will be a series of calls representing a potential investment of €100 million by the State. It is a great opportunity and a challenge for the regions to come forward with ideas to grow their own enterprise base. It may be in food, medical devices or ICT because various sectors have strength, so we need to build off our existing base.

The Government recognises that we are making headway through the Action Plan for Jobs. We are seeing growth in every single region of the country, but we need to maximise the potential. We are doing so partly through the advance facilities which are a magnet to new outside investment. It is more important, however, to provide an opportunity for collaboration in coming up with new ideas to drive enterprise growth. I invite both Deputies to participate in the forthcoming regional stakeholder meetings where people can come forward with the best ideas in order to develop them.

I thank the Minister for his reply. He outlined the midlands as a whole, but that region is not outperforming anywhere else. It is lagging behind overall. In Westmeath, for example, 285 new jobs were created in IDA-backed client companies last year, whereas there were nine in Laois. In 2012, there was none in Laois but 177 in Westmeath. I am not picking on Westmeath, but I am trying to show the regional disparity that exists.

I welcome the regional strategy and the fact that €100 million is being made available for it. I am interested in encouraging people to become involved in utilising it, but a concerted effort is required in County Laois to get industry up and running. According to all the figures, we are lagging way behind. I understand that €150 million of the €250 million fund is for capital works and putting in advance facilities. I therefore ask the Minister to consider County Laois in that regard.

In his opening remarks, the Minister said he was considering two advance facility projects.

I ask the Minister to clarify what he has in mind in that regard. The business park on the Mountrath Road has one unit, which is now in operation. There are no other facilities and the county is badly in need of advance facilities. We have the business parks but they do not have the factories or offices in them. I ask the Minister to consider towns such as Portlaoise, Portarlington, Mountmellick, Mountrath and Rathdowney. The land is available and the local authority is also anxious to get these projects up and running.

I thank the Minister for his response. He rightly said that the construction sector took a major hit because many, predominantly young, people went into various aspects of that sector. He referred to a fall in the live register in Kerry of 3,500 since then. Most of those 3,500 have emigrated. Most young people I know have gone to America, Australia and England to seek employment because they were all involved in the construction sector.

Much of Kerry is coastal and fishing ports such as Dingle, Portmagee and Fenit have also been decimated. I agree with what the Minister said about collaboration on job creation programmes. All of us should work together to try to bring investment into the county. We should do everything in our power to develop local SMEs and so forth to help to reduce further the problem of unemployment.

Peripheral regions, particularly coastal ones, suffer more. Places such as Donegal are faced with similar issues. There should be positive discrimination towards trying to bring potential investors into the county in order to address a blatant unemployment imbalance per head of population.

We need to have a realistic debate about what we can do. IDA Ireland does not decide where an industry locates. An industry locates in areas where it can get the things it needs to grow. Very often for multinational companies, that will centre on education and the skill base. That is why the institutes of technology in Tralee and Athlone are the magnets. They are what are needed for multinational investment in a region.

However, there are many engineering companies. As a dairy master, Deputy Martin Ferris knows Dairygold which is a fantastic company. It is the sort of company we need to grow. Keenan's is a great company in the midlands. There are many such companies and those are the ones we need to grow to scale. It is not that someone in IDA Ireland sits in an office and decides it will be Kerry, Laois or somewhere else. It must build off the resources and promote each region with the magnets that can pull in the investors. It is committing to two advance facilities in Athlone, one already under construction and another for 2017. That is to build out that centre, but the regional strategy will consider the whole area. In some areas it is not multinationals and the food sector or the engineering sector may be the one we should be growing in certain regions. Combilift, a fantastic company in Monaghan, has gone completely global.

When considering regional strategy, it is necessary to look much more broadly than simply at a measure such as site visits, which is not a fair representation. Of all the employment in Laois or Kerry, IDA Ireland companies only represent 3% of employment. It is necessary to look at the entire enterprise base to determine the assets and opportunities we have. That is the concept behind the regional enterprise strategy. We need to look at our assets and opportunities and then get actions in behind them to drive those forward. That is the only way to develop a successful regional strategy. That is what I am working at.

I accept that international companies have a role to play, but critically the other 97% must have a role to play. Deputies need to look at that 97% to see what can make them grow and perform to higher standards. What can make them go international? Can we, through the local authorities, the education and training boards, and the institutes of technology, create a better environment for them to grow? That is what we are trying to do through this regional enterprise strategy. I would welcome the participation of the Deputies and the organisations in the regions to come up with the best ideas and try to put them into effect.

Private Rented Accommodation Price Controls

I thank the Ceann Comhairle for the opportunity to raise this topical issue of the need for a cap on rental rates in Dublin. We know that rental prices in Dublin have gone through the roof - they have increased by 35% since 2011 and they are nearly back to their peak levels. The average rent for a three-bedroom house in Dublin is €1,400 per month and in some areas up to €2,000 per month, which is quite a lot of money.

A recent NABCO report found that one in three tenants in Dublin are now worried about the risk of losing their home. Obviously with no limit in place, tenants are very worried about their rights. Landlords are very much in charge and can increase prices almost overnight. More people are obviously being forced to rent because of the new Central Bank rules which put many people out of the market to purchase a property and into the rental property market. For anybody on an average income it is becoming extremely expensive with a very large proportion of a person's income being spent on rent, with wages not having increased in recent years and all the deductions through extra taxes, increases in transport prices as well as rental price increases.

Tenants have been forced out to commuter counties as a result of the high prices in Dublin, which, in turn, is forcing up prices in commuter counties by up to 14.5%. Obviously these unaffordable prices are forcing some families into homelessness. In January, 2,980 adults found themselves homeless at very significant expense to the taxpayer. Last year, Dublin City Council spent €4.5 million to house people in hotel accommodation. It is a matter the Minister needs to address urgently. I ask the Minister of State if she can give some hope to people who find themselves having to rent at the moment that extra supply will come online.

As the previous Deputy has done, I wish to highlight the issue of the accelerating rents being charged in the private rental sector. We cannot ignore the trends in that sector. I firmly believe the only solution is to have a temporary rent freeze, ideally for a period of two years.

Any Deputy who might have said 12 months ago that it was attractive to invest in the private rented sector would have been laughed out of the place. However, the most recent figures indicate a very different picture. It is not only in the capital; it is widespread. The largest purchasing group in the residential market during the past 12 months have been investors. It is alarming that almost one out of every three properties sold in the past 12 months has been to an investor. For various reasons, it is a good period to be an investor in the market.

It is not a very good period for a family living in private rented accommodation. My experience is the same as that of the previous Deputy. No longer is it a case of individuals being made homeless - families are now being made homeless and we cannot allow it. We need some control, which is why I believe there should be a two-year rent freeze.

I thank the Deputies for raising this very serious and important issue. The private rental sector is regulated by the Residential Tenancies Act which sets out the rights and obligations of landlords and tenants, including relating to rent, security of tenure and the termination of tenancies. The Act was passed in 2004 and represented the most significant legislative reform in the private rented sector in over a century. Prior to this, there was little or no security of tenure for tenants and in most tenancies, the landlord had a virtually absolute right to raise the rent at any time.

Security of tenure under the 2004 Act is based on rolling four-year tenancy cycles. Where a tenant has been in occupation of a dwelling for a continuous period of six months and no notice of termination has been served in respect of that tenancy before the expiry of the period of six months, the tenancy is established for the remainder of the four-year period. Landlords and tenants may not contract out of this provision of the Act.

A report by DKM Economic Consultants commissioned by the Private Residential Tenancies Board, PRTB, which was published last autumn, considered a number of options relating to rent control, including a rent cap. A review of the literature for the report found that where rent caps are introduced, the fall in rents leads to a reduction in the supply of rental units. Supply is further impacted by a consequent reduction in housing mobility. As the main reason behind increasing rents is a shortfall in housing supply, we need to exercise caution in respect of measures which, prima facie, would seem to offer a solution. This is especially the case where the sector is volatile. In a recent RED C poll carried out for the PRTB, 29% of landlords stated that they intended to sell their property as soon as possible. In addition, according to Central Bank data, 38,000 buy-to-let mortgages are in arrears, accounting for 27% of all buy-to-let properties.

Almost one in five households is now housed in the private rented sector compared with one in ten in 2006. The rental sector cannot be divorced from the wider housing market and the virtual collapse of the construction sector after the economic crisis has led to a serious supply problem, particularly in Dublin and other cities. With the growth of household formation and the recovery in the economy, the lack of supply has seen market rents stabilising and rising since 2012. In the third quarter of 2014, rents were 5.6% higher nationally than in the same quarter of 2013, according to the most recent rent index from the PRTB. Rents for houses were 4.3% higher while apartment rents were 7.3% higher than in the same quarter of 2013. In Dublin, which is seeing the highest rates of increase nationally, overall rents were higher by 9.5%, although the rate of annual increase was down slightly. This moderating of rental inflation is reflected in the latest rent report. Fundamentally though, the issue remains one of supply and the key to stabilising rents is to restore equilibrium in the housing market by addressing supply.

I thank the Minister of State for her response. As she stated, it is very much an issue of supply so could she provide details regarding the level of supply that will come on stream in 2015 and the coming years to provide hope and a home for people who badly need one? We know from the most recent report from that only 5,200 properties were available nationwide on 1 February 2015, which is the lowest figure available since May 2007. This is a major issue.

The introduction of new rules by the Central Bank will force people into the private rental market. Lots of constituents come to our clinics raising these issues. They are very worried and traumatised and they need some hope. I agree with Deputy Maloney that we need to look at introducing some element of a rent freeze because what has happened in recent times is very unfair, particularly to tenants who have been there on a long-term basis. In Germany, the law allows the state government to cap rent increases at no more than 15% over three years. Perhaps we could look to Germany or other countries which have a rent cap.

I thank the Minister of State for her reply. Like her, I read the RED C poll. I am not sure about the validity or the truth or otherwise of those who were surveyed who said that they would very quickly give up their private investment in the rental sector. Why would they give it up? They say in a poll that they would but as we now know, rents were at their highest in 2007 when the artificial boom was in full flow. It is extraordinary that rents today are only 6% below what they were in 2007. Some landlords are exploiting the fact that the demand for rental property is outstripping supply by continuing to increase the rents until they reach the same level as those in 2007, the year when Irish rents peaked.

I return to a point I made previously. The Minister of State, her Department, the Government and us as Government supporters can take credit for dealing with homelessness and the programme for social housing, but we need take action on the private rental sector which is out of control. There is no control over it. Other European countries have controls but we have none. The problem is biggest in the capital and if we do not do something about it, it will become a landlord's paradise.

I thank the Deputies for raising this very important issue. I take on board the issue of rent and instability in the rental market. I would have spoken at great length about the need for stability in the rental market citing France, Germany and Italy, which has a very stable rental market, as examples. We should look at carrying out some research on this because we need to address this situation very urgently. It is amazing that after the boom, we are back in this situation again. I know Deputy Nolan raised the same issue in the House not too long ago and called it a perfect storm.

The Minister has introduced lots of strategies, including his homelessness strategy, and is making very good inroads into dealing with the housing crisis. I will certainly make it my business to take this issue up with him, have further discussions and revert to the Deputies.

Maternal Mortality

The second Maternal Death Enquiry, MDE, Ireland report has just been published at UCC. It makes the point that due to the relatively small number of maternal deaths in Ireland, fluctuation in annual mortality rates is inevitable and should be treated with caution so rates for maternal deaths, MMR, occurring in Ireland are presented in the UCC report over three-year periods. For the three years from 2009 to 2011, the maternal mortality rate was 8.6 per 100,000 maternities, while for the three years from 2010 to 2012, the maternal mortality rate was 10.5 per 100,000 maternities.

It is clear that the apparent increase in mortality rates between the years 2010 and 2012 is not statistically significant and is similar to that of the UK. For the years 2009 to 2012, 38 maternal deaths, occurring during or within 42 days of pregnancy end, were reported to MDE Ireland, of which ten were classified as direct deaths - due to obstetric causes; 21 were classified as indirect deaths - due to pre-existing medical or mental disorders which were exacerbated by pregnancy, and the remaining seven were attributed to coincidental causes - not due to direct or indirect causes. Thus, the majority of deaths were from indirect causes, namely, from pre-existing disorders exacerbated by pregnancy.

The report states that for the years 2009-2012 case ascertainment by MDE Ireland - direct, indirect and coincidental - was four times that of the civil death registration system as per information recorded by the CSO. It also states that this is not unique to Ireland as underestimation of maternal deaths using civil death registration systems, even in developed countries, has been acknowledged by the World Health Organisation. The majority, 60%, of direct maternal deaths occurred in an intensive care unit, ICU, with no direct deaths occurring outside the hospital setting. Women born outside of Ireland were over-represented in reported deaths, reflecting UK findings of an increased risk of maternal death among migrant ethnic minorities. There was also a suggestion of an increasing maternal death rate mong older women. Based on these findings, MDE Ireland makes nine recommendations.

I am inquiring this evening as to whether the Department of Health and the HSE propose to act on these nine recommendations which are: that all health care professionals within the Irish maternity services should be aware of recommendations and lessons contained within the recent UK report, 'Saving Lives, Improving Mothers' Care - Lessons learned to inform future maternity care from the UK and Ireland Confidential Enquiries into Maternal Deaths and Morbidity 2009-2012; that all maternal deaths occurring during or within in one year of giving birth, ectopic pregnancy, miscarriage or termination of pregnancy should be notified to MDE Ireland in order to support the enquiry process; that a question on pregnancy status at time of death, similar to that on the medical death certificate, should be added to the coroner's death certificate; that interpretative services should be used to ensure that the care of any patient is not compromised by lack of communication and misunderstanding; that in the absence of co-location, establishment of a more effective communication system between general hospitals and maternity units in the event of a maternal death is necessary; that women with medical disorders should receive preconception advice and ideally have their medical conditions optimised prior to pregnancy - this will need to be provided by their GPs and specialist physicians in conjunction with the obstetric services; that pregnant patients with pre-existing medical and mental health disorders should undergo risk assessment at booking and should be afforded high priority by colleagues in other medical disciplines when referred for assessment; that maternity medical staff should review and audit current practice concerning the prevention and treatment of thromboembolic disease, giving consideration to the national guideline, and that consideration should be given to provision of a perinatal psychiatry mother and baby unit in Ireland.

I thank the Deputy for raising this issue. It is generally recognised internationally that official statistics can result in an underestimate of maternal deaths. In particular, indirect obstetric deaths resulting from pre-existing disease or diseases which developed during the pregnancy may not be recorded in official statistics. For this reason, Ireland established a confidential maternal death enquiry, MDE, system in 2009. In so doing, it linked itself with the United Kingdom's confidential MDE, which has been acknowledged in recent decades as a gold standard for maternal death enquiry.

The most recent MDE report, published this month, shows 38 maternal deaths during or within 42 days of pregnancy between 2009 and 2012, of which ten were classified as direct maternal deaths, 21 were classified as indirect maternal deaths due to pre-existing medical or mental disorders which were exacerbated by pregnancy, and the remaining seven were attributed to coincidental causes. There was no evidence of clustering in any one maternity hospital.

The report indicates that the maternal mortality rate for the three year period 2009-2011 was 8.6 per 100,000 maternities. This rate increased to 10.5 in the period 2010-2012. However, we must interpret this increase with caution. Ireland is a small country and, thankfully, maternal mortality cases are rare. Taking account of the relatively small number of deaths, fluctuation in our maternal mortality rates is inevitable, even where data are aggregated over several years. The experts who prepared the report note that the increase is not statistically significant. Our maternal mortality rate of 10.5 per 100,000 maternities compares with a rate of 10.01 in the UK. Again, the authors make the point that the difference in rates between the countries does not represent a statistically significant difference.

In conducting its confidential reviews into maternal deaths, MDE Ireland aims to promote safer pregnancy, identify learning points and use its findings to formulate and disseminate recommendations. It is imperative that the lessons learned from this research informs service development. Some of the issues raised by the report will be, therefore, particularly relevant in the context of service planning and delivery. Reports of incidents of maternal deaths in Ireland cause real concern to some women, their families and partners. It is important to reassure women and their families that maternal and perinatal health statistics indicate that Ireland continues to be a safe country in which to give birth and that our maternal mortality rates are on a par with the rest of the developed world. I should also point out that €2 million has been provided in the National Service Plan 2015 to further improve maternity services. Additional obstetricians, midwives and other staff will be appointed. This is against the backdrop of a falling birth rate. I hope this additional funding will drive further service improvement.

My Department, with the HSE, is currently working on the development of a new maternity strategy. The strategy will provide the direction for the optimal development of maternity services, in line with best international practice. It will be informed by a national review and evaluation of maternity services being undertaken by the HSE.

I thank the Minister for his reply and concur with him that our maternity services are very safe and on a par with the best internationally. In regard to the recommendation relating to ethnic minorities, I do not wish to be alarmist but in the context of the divergence in the statistics between the Irish and UK gold standard, will the Minister ensure greater monitoring in this area such that if there is a continuing divergence in these statistics remedial action will be taken? One of the recommendations is that there be proper interpretive services available in the medical arena to ensure people are aware of any underlying conditions in patients.

I often heard it said in the past that Ireland was the safest country in the world in which to give birth. However, the statistics never supported this. I am glad we now have the MDE statistics, which are calculated in the same way as in the UK. This shows, as I consistently say, that our maternal and perinatal mortality rates are on a par with the rest of the developed world. I am not so complacent as to think that we are the best in the world. I am pretty sure we are not. That is why we need to develop the maternity strategy and improve our services further. There may have been a complacency in Ireland in the past about the quality of our maternity services but that complacency is gone now. We are now striving to improve our services, which is backed up by the recruitment of more consultants and midwives than ever before at a time rate when our birth rate is falling. We still have a long way to go, in my view, to get to the point where every woman's pregnancy is managed by a senior decision-maker, be that a senior midwife or senior consultant. That is where I would like us to be in the future.

The point made by the Deputy in regard to ethnic minorities is well made. It is well recognised across the world that people from ethnic minority groups suffer inferior health outcomes. This is often down to issues around language and interpretation. It is also often a cultural issue or due to the fact that they tend to present later to doctors during the course of their illness or, in this case, during the course of their pregnancy. It is a matter we will continue to monitor. Again, this is by no means unique to Ireland but is a matter of which I am sure we need to remain conscious.

Fishing Industry

I thank the Minister of State, Deputy Phelan, for her attendance in the House this evening and would like to bring to her attention an issue that has developed chiefly in the south west of this country with respect to the mussel growing industry. The rope mussel industry is volatile.

It is one in which, largely, small family-run businesses invest heavily in gear and in other ways to grow a safe, organic and healthy food product. The enterprise is volatile in many ways, as it is subject to considerable risks. It is at the mercy of markets, weather conditions and, more recently, high toxicity levels in the water. This toxicity is naturally occurring and is due to a phenomenon known as a red tide or algal bloom. Mussels feed on the algae in the warmer months, and generally the water reaches zero toxicity and it is safe to harvest, process and consume the mussels. Unfortunately, red tide toxin levels have recently remained stubbornly high, although they have abated in the past week, especially in recent days. However, mussel growers and producers have been left with a significant problem.

If the Minister of State will pardon the pun, this is coming at the end of a perfect storm. Last year the storms over the winter caused havoc around the country. The mussel flesh of the offshore rope mussel industry that was waiting to be harvested was wiped out. Production started again, but when the farmers were about to start a new harvest in November 2014, regrettably, they were unable to do so due to high toxin levels in the water. Not alone have farmers been trying to recover from the failed harvest due to bad weather in the winter of 2013 to 2014, but they are now unable to harvest the winter 2014 harvest for the 2015 market.

To give an indication of the scale of the problem, the harbours that are directly affected are, chiefly, Kenmare Bay, Bantry Bay and areas around Dunmanus. Annually, these produce approximately 7,700 tonnes of mussels, chiefly for export. This generates an annual turnover of approximately €7 million, depending on market conditions, which is significant for a very small coastal area.

The vast majority of producers in the mussel industry are ordinary people. They are no different from onshore farmers in the west. They are family businesses and they are not in a position to absorb what has happened for three consecutive years. Could the Minister of State consider instructing BIM to put in place a compensation package through the European Fisheries Fund, EFF, under the current Common Fisheries Policy, which would enable some of those who are most affected to get back on their feet and to produce mussels once again?

Could the Minister of State clarify whether the relevant fund is the European Fisheries Fund or the European Maritime Fisheries Fund, EMFF, under the current Common Fisheries Policy that was recently adopted? Could she ask BIM to examine the possibility of accessing those compensation schemes?

I am responding to this Topical Issue on behalf of the Minister for Agriculture, Food and the Marine, Deputy Coveney. I thank the Deputy for raising this very important issue.

Scientists from the Marine Institute carry out weekly testing of shellfish under the national shellfish biotoxin monitoring programme on behalf of the Sea-Fisheries Protection Authority and the Food Safety Authority of Ireland. These tests check for the presence and levels of naturally occurring biotoxins produced by phytoplankton to ensure compliance with strict food safety regulations to protect the consumer and the good reputation of the Irish seafood industry. A variety of these natural biotoxins build up periodically in particular bays, which requires the bays to be closed until the biotoxin levels subside and the shellfish are cleared of the biotoxins. The biotoxins do not harm the shellfish and the shellfish can be sold for human consumption once the biotoxin levels have abated.

The level of biotoxins in shellfish in a number of bays in the south west, including Castlemaine, Bantry and Kenmare, exceeded the regulatory limits in recent months. This resulted in temporary suspension of shellfish harvesting in these areas until such time as the biotoxin levels returned to normal, naturally occurring background levels. Such harvesting suspensions are not unusual and all seafood enterprises are aware that this is a known and recurring business risk in the sector.

While a number of bays in the south west have experienced temporary suspensions of harvesting over the winter, the Minister, Deputy Coveney, is informed by the Sea-Fisheries Protection Authority that the toxicity events in the south west are abating. Most of the production areas in the south west have already reopened for harvesting, and lifting of suspensions in the remaining two areas appears to be imminent. It is difficult to gauge precisely at this time the likely long-term impact on businesses affected and their capacity to recover. This will no doubt depend on a number of factors, including their ability to harvest and sell stock in the water after the bays have opened. The impact will therefore differ from farm to farm and will also be affected by the specifics of individual businesses, including the extent of their borrowings and other creditors and their cashflow reserves. However, the longer term impact will undoubtedly depend on the extent to which their harvest is salvageable and can be brought to market. It may depend on whether the impact of the suspension is a deferred or delayed sales opportunity or an irretrievable stock loss. Some of the businesses concerned are likely to have sites in more than one location, and may be better able to withstand this business setback. Yesterday, my Department had a lengthy meeting with mussel farmers in the south west and their representative in IFA Aquaculture. This meeting shared up-to-date information on the situation bay by bay and discussed harvesting scenarios that have been occurring and will be occurring over the coming weeks. What was obvious was that the overall impact of the closures will not be clear until the farmers have exhausted the possibilities in terms of harvesting the remaining stock in the water.

The Minister, Deputy Coveney, received a request from aquaculture industry representatives, which was repeated at yesterday's meeting with the mussel farmers, for a package of compensation for mussel farming enterprises, including those to which the Deputy referred. That request sought compensation from either the European Fisheries Fund or the new European Maritime and Fisheries Fund. Similarly, the Deputy is requesting the creation of a compensation fund for the mussel farming enterprises through the EFF.

Ireland's seafood development programme, which is co-funded by the EU under the EFF, has been providing financial supports to the seafood sector across a broad range of investments since it was adopted by the European Commission in 2008. The programme supported the 2008 decommissioning scheme and since then has funded investments in the aquaculture sector, the seafood processing sector, the fishing fleet, and marketing and promotion of Irish seafood domestically and internationally. The programme comes to an end in December this year and will be succeeded by a new programme under the EMFF.

I am sorry to interrupt the Minister of State, but we have run out of time.

I thank the Minister of State for her comprehensive reply. I very much welcome the meeting that took place with the IFA Aquaculture group and key stakeholders. I also acknowledge the success the Minister has had in achieving a 100% increase in the new fisheries fund over the previous one under the revised Common Fisheries Policy .

From what I read of the reply provided by the Minister of State, I note the door has not closed on the possibility of providing some assistance to those operators who, in some cases, have found themselves at risk of going out of business. They simply cannot take the perfect storm, as I outlined, of the recent severe weather and the high toxicity levels now being encountered. I agree that a limited amount of harvesting has begun to take place in the past week. I also agree that it is entirely reasonable to assess how the product will fare on the market and the eventual level of loss to some operators.

I expect the larger operators will probably be in a better position to take the inevitable loss but some of the smaller ones will not. In this context I again call for a favourable response from the Department, for it to engage with Bord Iascaigh Mhara and at least consider a limited compensation package which identifies those hit hardest. This would be to allow them to get back on their feet. I note what the Minister of State said, that the purpose of the fisheries funds, past and present, is to support new and existing industries. It would be very poor judgment if, in looking at new industries and opportunities in the sea fisheries sector, we allowed existing smaller operators to go out of business. This situation exists through no fault of ours, the Department, the Minister of State or the operators, as they have been hit with this tsunami of natural events. I thank the Minister of State for at least not closing the door on the compensation issue.

I thank the Deputy for raising this very important issue. I understand it is a huge local issue for him and I undertake to speak to the Minister, Deputy Coveney, and ask him to refer to the Deputy directly on what plans he has for the compensation scheme. He has not closed the door and I encourage the Deputy to pursue it.