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Dáil Éireann debate -
Thursday, 7 Jul 2016

Vol. 917 No. 1

Topical Issue Debate

Debt Collection

Over the past two days, like many Deputies, I have been inundated with calls from around the country from people who are disgusted by the disgraceful actions carried out against five Limousin heifers in County Monaghan. The killing of these heifers by marksmen from the Defence Forces is unjustifiable. Coming from that type of background, I am quite aware of some difficulties, especially with suckler calves because they are a bit wild. I never had any difficulty and I do not know anyone who had difficulty once they had a small bit of expertise and cop-on.

I want to know if this was sanctioned by the Department of Agriculture, Food and the Marine and the Department of Defence. The owner said that all his cattle passed tests in December 2015. The newspapers quote Chris Lehane, if it is true, saying the cull had to be done because the cattle had failed TB tests. Coming from an agricultural background, I know that TB tests are carried out after slaughter. How could they have failed TB tests? One could have a reactor, take her to the abattoir, have her killed and do a proper test. That is how it is done. It is not done by observation. Mr. Lehane said there were positive tests. How many positive tests were there on cattle taken from Mr. Hoey's lands? I understand 30 cattle were taken last month. Of these 30 cattle, how many failed the TB tests? How many of them went into the food chain? If they pass the TB test, they go into the food chain. Prior to the removal of cattle from Mr. Hoey's land, was his land restricted? Was he restricted? Was he locked down? Of the five Limousin shot, how many failed a TB test? Will the Minister of State give a commitment here to get independent testing analysis of all the animals that were taken from Mr. Hoey's lands in order that we can all establish whether what was said in the newspapers was true or untrue?

These type of actions during repossessions of attacking people who are in a very bad state financially, many who are bankrupt as a result of it, are not happening in isolation. There is the case of Tommy Collins in County Clare. On 20 May 2016, gardaí brought people wearing masks to try to evict Tommy Collins from his home. There was a car present with four masked heavies in it. It had no tax or insurance and was in full view of the gardaí, yet nothing was done about it. What is happening now regarding evictions and repossessions is completely over the top. People who are in dire financial straits, whether it is because of a family home, family farm, cattle, machinery or house, deserve dignity and respect and to be treated properly. This is not what happened with the five Limousin heifers shot dead on a man's farm. The people removing them said they were not able to remove them so they had to shoot them. It is unjustifiable. As I said at the start, I have never had more calls or more people contacting me than I had regarding this terrible incident. I would like the Minister of State to clear up these questions.

This is an incredibly serious situation. I am quite prepared to hear that we do not have the full facts because the facts as they are being presented at the moment are utterly outrageous, bizarre and stretch the boundaries of credibility. It has now become an international talking point. Five cattle were shot dead by members of the Defence Forces in an open field, allegedly with the sanction of the Department of Agriculture, Food and the Marine and the gardaí, at the behest of an assignee in a bankruptcy situation allegedly because the debt collection agency could not get them into a truck because they were wild. It is beyond belief. I have heard, as we all have, the family members involved saying the assignee did not go to every length and did not talk to them, and that there would have been no difficulty in cajoling the animals into the truck. I do not know if that is true. It seems unbelievable that these events could be as they are presented. There is so much information out there now that it is in the public interest to answer questions on all these issues and make sure such events do not happen again.

As Deputy Ferris said, the argument that they were wild and dangerous would not appear to stack up. The argument was made that they were infected with TB and were a public health risk, but if that was the case, to test them they would have to have been rounded up and taken away to be put in a chute twice to be tested. If that was possible then, why was it not possible to do it later on? I look at these issues very much from the point of view of a vegetarian and someone who is involved in animal rights and welfare issues. I do not believe in killing animals but I realise that traditionally the slaughter of animals is done with a single bolt to the head as the most humane way possible. The idea that members of the Army were firing shots at animals that were galloping around a field in terror and not with a single bolt to the head but randomly shooting at them in the middle of the day just beggars belief.

It poses a couple of troubling questions that we need to get to the bottom of. Is it appropriate that State bodies are acting as debt collectors? Why would the Defence Forces agree to act as aid to the civil power in these situations? Sometimes the Garda calls in the Army in issues of national security or a major emergency. How in God's name could the Defence Forces perceivably have any role in a private debt collection situation? It seems incredible.

We are told the Department of Agriculture, Food and the Marine was involved. I would like to hear more about that. What personnel were present when these exercises were carried out? Was the State vet there? What Department of Agriculture, Food and the Marine officials were there? Who gave the sanction for those animals to be killed in this way? It is bizarre that anybody could possibly sanction that. It seems to me that the Animal Health and Welfare Act must have been breached. We passed legislation in the House on these things. It seems that what happened would not be in compliance with what is outlined in the Act.

For example, was there an offence of reckless discharge of a firearm under the Firearms Act? As it seems the activity was reckless, could this be a possible charge? There are significant issues of public concern. The incident has caused considerable trauma for many. In the public interest, we need a lot of answers to these questions.

Being a Deputy of the constituency of Cavan-Monaghan, I, too, have received a number of phone calls over the past few days from distressed citizens, some of whom are farmers who find themselves in similar financial difficulty. As the House will be aware, this is an issue for farmers not only in my constituency, but right across the island. The big concern after yesterday's events is that this has set a precedent. There are citizens right across the country facing evictions and repossessions. What is the protocol? Is this behaviour, which I could only describe as Wild West behaviour, to be adopted with citizens and their families in the community in the future?

As the House will be aware, farmers are on their knees due to many issues such as pricing, which affects them and their income. Most of them are put to the pin of their collar and find it difficult to survive. Many of them, as I said, find themselves in financial difficulty in trying to deal with the banks. Today, they need reassurance that this heavy-handed Wild West conduct will not be adopted in the future. I am looking forward to hearing what the Minister has to say, in particular, about the events that happened in my constituency in Monaghan yesterday.

On behalf of the Tánaiste and Minister for Justice and Equality, who cannot be here this evening due to official business, I thank the Deputies for raising this matter on the floor of the Dáil.

Deputies should be careful in rushing to judgment about this case or operating on the assumption that the various agencies involved - the official assignee, the Defence Forces, the Department of Agriculture, Food and Marine and An Garda Síochána - would have undertaken the action in question as anything other than as a matter of last resort and in the public interest.

The House will appreciate that it would not be appropriate for me to comment in detail here on the affairs of third parties who have been the subject of proceedings. The inevitable consequence of this, unfortunately, is that I cannot put on the record of the House the full facts surrounding the case. However, I can say that some of the public comment about the case, particularly offensive suggestions made about the role of the Defence Forces, has no basis in reality.

The Defence Forces carried out the humane cull of five animals on a farm in County Monaghan due to a significant concern for public safety. It is not correct, as has been alleged, that the cattle were treated inhumanely or that this case involved the operation of debt collectors. This operation was carried out at the request of the official assignee in bankruptcy, who is responsible for the herd of cattle on that farm, and it was done in conjunction with An Garda Síochána and with the Department of Agriculture, Food the Marine, as well as with the Defence Forces. While there is a long history to this particular case, I can inform Deputies that following failed efforts to round up the remaining five animals and in view of a significant concern about public safety, on 4 July at the request of the official assignee a decision was taken involving the Garda, the official assignee and the Department of Agriculture, Food and the Marine that the optimal course of action was that these animals should be culled. The protocol between the Department of Agriculture, Food and the Marine and the Department of Defence was invoked and the animals were culled by Army personnel in line with the protocol.

I am aware that the official assignee has said publicly that the decision to proceed in the way he did with regard to the cattle was made very reluctantly and was made in the interests of the public safety of the local community. It should also be noted that this was a tuberculosis-restricted herd. The Minister for Agriculture, Food and the Marine has confirmed that the carcasses of the five cattle have been removed and are now excluded from the food chain.

For the information of Deputies, it is relevant to recall the status of the official assignee and the specific statutory duties that he has to discharge. The official assignee in bankruptcy is an officer of the court, as provided at section 60(6) of the Bankruptcy Acts, and as such is independent in the performance of his duties. However, in doing so he is required under the Bankruptcy Act 1988 to observe and obey such directions as are given to him by the court. Obviously, the bankruptcy assignee is also subject to all laws of the State.

The official assignee also has specific statutory responsibilities and duties under the Bankruptcy Acts. First, when a person is adjudicated bankrupt, all of his or her assets transfer to the official assignee under section 44 of the Act. The primary duties of the official assignee, under section 61(2) of the Act, are to get in and realise the property, ascertain the debts and liabilities, and distribute the assets in accordance with the provisions of the Act. However, the transfer of the assets to the official assignee also has the important consequence that the duties as well as the rights of the bankrupt person transfer to the official assignee along with the assets. The assignee, for instance, can be sued for any breach of legal obligations arising from those assets, just as the bankrupt person could have been. For example, when a person who owns a herd of cattle becomes bankrupt, the ownership of the cattle transfers to the official assignee. However, the duties associated with those cattle also transfer to the official assignee, including responsibility for their registration, testing for tuberculosis, and compliance with Department of Agriculture, Food and the Marine certification required for removing cattle. The House will, therefore, appreciate that the official assignee has particular legal responsibilities to discharge.

It is clear that very specific and difficult circumstances arose in this case and that it was a matter for the official assignee to discharge his legal responsibilities as best he could in those difficult circumstances. In doing so, he relied on the services of other State agencies which performed their functions in accordance with their remit. It is clear from the comments that he has made, and after consulting with various agencies, that he did not believe any alternative viable strategy could be adopted. This House will, moreover, appreciate that cases where the official assignee is discharging his legal responsibilities as an officer of the court are not ones in which it would be appropriate or open to the Tánaiste to intervene. I accept, of course, that it is a matter of regret that it did not prove possible to dispose of the cattle in another manner. I hope Deputies can appreciate that the actions taken in this case by the various agencies involved would not have been taken lightly or where realistic alternatives existed.

I thank the Minister of State for his response. I have to say at the outset that it is what I expected. I had no doubt coming in here that the response would be one that answered none of the questions asked.

The Minister of State stated that "the optimal course of action was that these animals should be culled". Five Limousin heifers were shot dead by the Defence Forces at the request of the official assignee, and it was done under the pretext of safety. One could tell that to people who know nothing about farming, but the Minister of State comes from a rural area and he knows well I speak the truth here. Anybody worth his or her salt who lives on a farm or has worked in farming cannot tell me that one cannot get five animals into a yard and loaded onto a cattle truck. That is the reality of it.

The Minister of State stated in the reply that the herd was a TB-restricted herd. Was the person who owned the land, Mr. John Hoey, served with a restriction order? We need to know that. John Hoey states that his farm was not locked down. He tested the cattle in December last, they passed the test, and all of a sudden he is restricted. Does that restriction come from the 30 cattle that were taken previously and that had been tested, killed and, obviously, retested?

I have been sitting here thinking about this - a family farm and armed men coming into it and shooting five of his cattle dead after confiscating 30 of his herd before that - along with what happened to Tommy Collins in Clare, where the State is being used as an agent of the assignee in order to implement what the assignee wants done. That is what is happening here.

If I am not getting answers, I want to see an independent investigation into this - the Minister can appoint a Garda superintendent or whatever - to ascertain the facts here, because this is not acceptable. It is wrong. It was wrong in Tommy Collins's case in County Clare and it is wrong here.

The Minister of State might be surprised but I appreciate his comments and where he is coming from on the issue. I am prepared to say that I find it unbelievable that the information in the public domain is the full story. The whole issue is entirely unsatisfactory but I have heard what the Minister of State has said about the legal responsibility of the official assignee that he or she must discharge his or duty and he or she has certain legal obligations. I have heard his comments to the effect that he did that and that he would not necessarily have anything to gain by wilfully destroying cattle in this way.

However, and I genuinely make these points, this information is in the public domain and it has caused enormous disquiet among farmers, people being threatened by the banks, animal lovers everywhere and people who are concerned by the manner in which the State discharges its duties. Those points must be answered. The Minister of State indicated the so-called offensive suggestions made about the role of the Defence Forces have no basis in reality. I do not know what those so-called offensive suggestions are. The information is that these animals were shot while running around a field in a wilfully unco-ordinated way rather than in the proper manner. The only humane way to kill cattle is with a single bolt to the head. The information is there and if it is true, it is not offensive. It amounts to inappropriate action by the Defence Forces that must be investigated.

We have spoken about a protocol between the Department of Agriculture, Food and the Marine and the Department of Defence, but we need more information on that. We need answers about the health of the herd and the state it was in. It is a very important issue. What were the public safety issues called into being that we needed to send in the Army? How often is the Army sent in with such cases? These are very valid questions that must be answered. The issues are out there and will not go away. I support Deputy Ferris's call for some form of independent investigation into this and into the wider use of State forces in these scenarios.

I accept most of what the Minister of State has said, but I take issue with the conduct of those involved. I do not like to repeat myself but I am doing so. I accept the Minister of State's comments about the role of the agencies, etc. The problem is the manner in which these animals were culled. I do not come from a farming background but I am sure I should have heard about something like this happening before. I have never heard of the manner in which this was done. The media reported that there were family members within earshot of the gunshots fired on the farm. I heard the man's son may have been within earshot.

It is not acceptable for a child to be in earshot of gunshots being fired, with people racing around a farm. It paints a very poor picture of society in Ireland in 2016.

I thank the Deputies for raising this matter and I acknowledge the concerns expressed by them. We are all concerned that cattle should be treated humanely. Some inaccurate comments in circulation have undoubtedly contributed to the level of public concern about this. I underline, however, that it is clear from the facts that this is a very exceptional case, where five cattle from a herd restricted due to tuberculosis were culled as a last resort due to very specific circumstances.

The cattle at the time were in the ownership of the official assignee in bankruptcy into whose name the herd had been transferred. The official assignee was responsible for health and safety matters relating to the cattle and for compliance with relevant Department of Agriculture, Food and the Marine regulations, including those regarding tuberculosis. The culling was carried out by trained Army personnel in the presence of An Garda Síochána and in accordance with the detailed protocols in operation between the Department of Agriculture, Food and the Marine and the Department of Defence. It followed extensive and ongoing consultation between the assignee, the Department of Agriculture, Food and the Marine, the Garda Síochána and the Department of Defence.

As I indicated, it would not be appropriate for me to comment here on matters relating to third parties and, in particular, an individual involved with this case. I note that in previous comments, the assignee indicated there were reasons it was not possible to remove the cattle or contain them by other means. I underline that the culling of cattle is considered as exceptional and a last resort by all the public bodies concerned, and that this is an exceptional and complex case with particular facts.

Insurance Costs

I appreciate the Minister being in the House to listen to the issue I am raising and give me a reply, as I know he has an extremely busy schedule. I am not bringing this up to have a go at the Government in any way but because we need to tackle the insurance business, as the Minister knows. We recently had a major discussion in this House about the cost of motor insurance in particular. There was widespread agreement on the motion brought forward by Deputy Michael McGrath and that something needed to be done. The Government did not oppose it.

Recently, I was contacted by a constituent with a serious problem gaining an insurance quotation for a new wheelchair-accessible taxi. Last December, he was quoted €1,250 and he applied for a grant scheme made available by the Government to enable him enter the business and provide a badly needed wheelchair-accessible taxi in the Roscommon-Leitrim area. He recently tried to gain insurance after being granted the public service vehicle, PSV, licence but found that no insurance company in the country was willing to insure a new wheelchair-accessible taxi or a new PSV licenceholder. I will not name companies but I am told one of them is the sponsor of the Irish Paralympic team, which makes the story worse. That company is not willing to quote a driver of a new wheelchair-accessible taxi. It is important to point out the gentleman in question has an impeccable driving record, with no blemish whatever. His history is second to none.

I spoke to the Irish Wheelchair Association about this and it confirmed that the problem of a lack of insurance for vehicles is causing untold hardship for wheelchair users. My constituent contacted the Irish Insurance Federation and, with the help of my constituency office, forced an insurance provider to give him a quotation. In December 2015, the man was quoted €1,250 but after much effort, he received a quotation of €12,100. That is so great, the man can only pay it with monthly instalments.

The Irish Wheelchair Association told me there are 30% fewer wheelchair-accessible taxis on the road now because of an untenable insurance cost. On the one hand, we give a grant for people to enter the wheelchair-accessible taxi business to provide a better service for wheelchair users but, on the other, we are letting insurance companies away without providing insurance for badly needed taxis.

A side issue arose while we investigated this. Bus Éireann has invested quite considerably in wheelchair-accessible buses but there is no wheelchair-accessible bus stop outside Dublin. I appreciate that the Minister's office has given me a comprehensive answer on that issue. The main issue is the scandalous way insurance companies are carrying on. I was told recently that the claims issue has reduced considerably over the past year or so. It should not, therefore, be a major factor. I await the Minister's reply and thank him for it.

I thank Deputy Eugene Murphy for raising this very important issue.

It is very useful to get specifics in the way the Deputy has given them. I share the Deputy's view of the insurance industry, if my understanding of his view is correct. Its behaviour in certain areas is inexplicable, as is the way companies are putting up premiums for reasons that are not quite apparent. The reasons they are giving for this are less than convincing. It is very helpful to talk in specifics like that. I am not sure whether the Deputy was talking about the same person when he spoke about someone whose premium was €1,250 being subjected to an increase that brought it straight to €12,100-----

-----but if that is the case it is absolutely outrageous. I assure the Deputy that, while I know there is a task force looking at it, the Department of Transport, Tourism and Sport is also looking at it, consequent to a meeting, although this is basically a finance matter. The Minister for Justice and Equality and I are also planning to meet Insurance Ireland and the insurance industry to challenge them on issues such as that. I would be very happy to bring that along to our first meeting if Deputy Murphy would give me the example. It is a stunning example, with the price being multiplied by ten, so it is something we can challenge them on. If we could use the name in the example, I would be grateful, but if we cannot, we will just use the example. I do not doubt the Deputy's bona fides at all and it is very useful to get something quite so personal and obviously unjustifiable. One cannot possibly justify putting up insurance premiums by ten times in such a short period, whatever has happened in the meantime.

Let me first discuss the motor insurance issue which is affecting all drivers and having a particular impact in the taxi and hackney market. The Deputy will be aware that the Minister for Finance has established a task force to review policy in the insurance sector. As part of its work, the task force is examining the factors that have led to significant increases in motor insurance costs in recent times and will be recommending steps to influence the situation. The Deputy may also be aware that Insurance Ireland operates a declined cases agreement and that the Central Bank requires all motor insurers in Ireland to sign up to this agreement as part of their authorisation process for running an insurance business. Insurance Ireland also operates a free insurance information service for people who have queries or difficulties in obtaining insurance. If someone cannot get a motor insurance quotation or feels that the premium proposed or the terms are so excessive that it amounts to a refusal to provide motor insurance, he or she should contact Insurance Ireland. I do not know whether the person did so in this case, but it would be interesting to know what happened if so. This is a case of charging so much that it is akin to refusing insurance.

The National Transport Authority, NTA, as the statutory regulator of the taxi and hackney industry, is aware that the rising costs of motor insurance for drivers generally are also affecting the taxi and hackney industry. There are reports of large increases for existing policy holders and significant difficulties in obtaining insurance for new operators. The NTA understands that some insurance companies are seeking that drivers have a number of years’ experience operating small public service vehicles as a policy condition, which creates a major impediment for new entrants. In addition, the information available to the NTA suggests that quotes for new policies, where available, can be several thousand euros. According to the NTA, the issue does not relate to the vehicle type but relates instead to new drivers who wish to enter the industry. As practically all new taxi or hackney licences are issued for wheelchair-accessible vehicles, most intending new operators will be looking to insure a wheelchair-accessible vehicle. The number of companies providing insurance to the taxi industry in Ireland is low and there are fewer than existed some years ago. A UK entity commenced issuing insurance policies in the taxi area earlier this month on a pilot basis, and this is a welcome development, as it will add competition to this market and provide an additional insurance option. I suspect that is on a very small scale at the moment, but I do not know. The implications of the current insurance difficulties are of concern. The State has invested in a grant scheme to support more wheelchair-accessible vehicles in the fleet, so the difficulty experienced by new operators in obtaining insurance is very unhelpful. I will finish up. Can I go on?

The Minister has half a minute, because we are over time.

I am sorry. I will take half a minute. I welcome the confirmation by my colleague, the Minister of State at the Department of Finance, Deputy Eoghan Murphy, during a Dáil debate on a Private Members' motion in June that the issue of motor insurance for taxi and hackney drivers will be addressed by the task force. That task force will carry out its work in consultation with bodies such as the Central Bank, relevant Departments, and other stakeholders. My Department is arranging for the NTA to provide all relevant information on the taxi sector and assistance to the task force in its work.

I welcome the Minister's honest and frank answer here this evening. I also welcome his use of the word "challenge" in respect of the insurance industry, because that is what we need. The Minister is correct. The client who was quoted €1,250 in December 2015 for a wheelchair-accessible taxi is the same guy who, a few weeks ago, was quoted €12,100, after serious pressure from the Irish Insurance Federation. I will have no difficulty in handing this over to the Minister to use at whatever meetings he will be attending.

To repeat what was said on every side of the House when this debate came up in recent weeks, we have an enormous difficulty with the insurance business. The Minister knows this himself. I am sure he has constituents who are being quoted outrageous figures for insurance. Young people, in general, go through a very rigid test in this country. They have to do their theory test and their driving lessons and then they have to sit their test. Before they ever have an offence, they are being quoted €4,000, €5,000 or €6,000 to insure a vehicle. It is outrageous when these are people who do not have a blemish on their record. That is something that should be challenged as well.

Also, the wheelchair-accessible taxi insurance business is being very badly hit. I have no doubt that the Minister will pick this up, fight it and seek changes, but in one respect the Motor Insurance Advisory Board that was there did a pretty good job, and maybe when we get this debated a situation could arise whereby we could get that board back in place. We need to do something with the insurance companies. They are out of control. In respect of wheelchair-accessible taxis, one of those insurance companies is the sponsor of the Paralympics and it still will not give a quote for insurance to a wheelchair-accessible taxi. It is outrageous.

The Deputy has pointed out a very interesting and telling second example. If that company is the sponsor, it is quite extraordinary. It is a good discovery. I am not quite sure what we can actually do with that except publicise it and ask them about the inconsistency in their position, which is obviously true. I will take that example from Deputy Murphy, or he can send it to me, and I will certainly use it, because it is such a stunning example. The insurance industry does give plenty of reasons as to why it puts its premiums up so much. Many of them look to me like camouflage and that is why the Government has set up a task force. It is imperative that we get to the bottom of this and find the real reasons, because they seem to be confusing. Nobody has been able to put his or her finger on one reason and say "This is it", which makes one very suspicious that there is something not particularly acceptable going on.

The Deputy also asked about accessible bus stops. Accessibility improvements to public transport services are being advanced in the context of my Department's sectoral plan under the Disability Act 2005, Transport Access for All. I understand the Deputy’s point about the need to increase the number of accessible bus stops on the network, particularly in rural areas. It is a fair point: accessibility is far better in the cities than in rural areas, and we will have to address that gap. This is something the NTA and Bus Éireann are working on to deliver now that a very high proportion of the bus fleet itself has been made accessible. During 2016 the NTA is beginning the installation of wheelchair-accessible bus stops across the Bus Éireann network. The long-term objective is to install a wheelchair-accessible bus stop in every town in the State. The NTA is rolling this out on a route-by-route basis. The first routes are Bus Éireann routes 30, Dublin to Donegal, and 32, Dublin to Letterkenny. More generally, on public transport accessibility, there has been considerable progress in upgrading the infrastructure and facilities, including the fact that full accessibility is built into all new public transport infrastructure projects. One hundred percent of the Dublin Bus fleet is wheelchair-accessible; 100% of the Bus Éireann city fleet is wheelchair-accessible; approximately 80% of Bus Éireann PSO coaches are wheelchair-accessible by lift, and this will increase as the coach fleet is replaced; and 79 of the 143 railway stations have received accessibility upgrades, with ongoing work at four stations and a programme to improve accessibility across a further 54 stations.

Foreshore Licence Applications

I welcome the extension of the time for a public consultation until 1 August. However, my request is for the Minister to ensure a public meeting is held within that time. There was one public meeting on a Tuesday night, of which residents were aware. Some turned up and expressed their complete dissatisfaction at the time limit whereby submissions had to be in by the Friday of that week, three days later. Since then they have contacted all Deputies in the area, something of which the Minister will be aware. I ask the Minister to ensure a public information meeting is held because of our obligations under the Aarhus Convention, which we have signed and ratified and whose three pillars are access to information, public participation in decision-making and access to justice. There has not been compliance with that convention in terms of access to information or full participation in the decision-making process. I met with the Minister for Communications, Energy and Natural Resources, Deputy Denis Naughten, recently on the subject of renewable energy, and I support the concept as I think it is the way forward in Ireland. However, we cannot do this without consultation with the people and without having them on board. We need real consultation, not just a meeting.

The first lease was just for ten years but the current application is for a 35-year lease. The original ten-year lease was an application for a foreshore lease for the construction and operation of a demonstration offshore electricity generation station. That has now changed into an application for a foreshore lease to construct an offshore electricity generating station. It has changed from wave energy to include wind energy and windmills. The fact that one application gave a 60 m height for the wind turbine but the revised application by Foras na Mara had lower heights has not helped the process of trust. In these circumstances, the minimum requirement is that a public meeting be held to give out the maximum information and so that we can explain to the public what is involved and hear their views. It will also enable us to comply with our obligations under the Aarhus Convention.

I was in Galway on Friday, where this issue was raised with me. In March 2006, the Marine Institute was granted a foreshore lease for a period of ten years for the purpose of developing and operating a national quarter-scale test facility in Galway Bay, which I went out to see by boat, for the testing of wave energy devices in accordance with plans and drawings submitted at that time. That lease expired in March 2016 but, to ensure the test site continued to meet key objectives set out in the offshore renewable energy development plan, Harnessing our Ocean Wealth, the then Minister consented to a lease extension of 12 months, bringing the expiry date to March 2017.

The test site is required to underpin the Government's stated objective of producing 50 gigawatts of energy from the ocean by 2050. It provides a test facility where wave energy converters can demonstrate their survivability in harsh ocean conditions. This testing is a necessary phase before commercial-scale ocean energy development can proceed. The consent to extend the lease allows the Marine Institute to operate and utilise the test facility to the extent permitted under the original lease only until such time as a new application to extend the scope and nature of the facility has been determined or until March 2017, whichever is the earlier.

In March 2016, my Department received a fresh application for a lease under section 2 of the Foreshore Act 1933 from the Marine Institute in respect of the project. The application for a new lease is for the purpose of testing prototype wind, wave and tidal energy devices and does not relate to a commercial site, whereas the current lease permits the testing of wave energy devices only. The application was originally put out to public consultation on 19 May 2016 with a closing date of 17 June, a period of 21 working days. Where a foreshore application is not accompanied by an environmental impact statement, EIS, or an EIS is not required, the standard duration of the public consultation period is 21 working days. However, following representations, including from the Deputy, in respect of the public consultation deadline, I decided to extend the deadline to 2 August 2016, which is more in line with the consultation period required in EIS cases. Notices in both Irish and English advising the public about the extended consultation period were placed by the applicant in several newspapers, which I have given in my written answer. All application documents continue to be made available to the public in paper form at Salthill Garda station, Spiddal public library and other places.

This is about increasing the capacity for test projects, on a site that was purely for wave energy, to include wave, tidal and wind, but it is only a test facility. It is not about building full-scale commercial projects on that site. I take the Deputy's point about public consultation, but the point of extending the deadline was to allow an opportunity for people to ask questions about the project and to hear from the Marine Institute what it is all about, which hopefully will allay concerns and fears. The research that has been taking place in Galway Bay relating to quarter-scale wave energy test models is very exciting and I would like to see Galway Bay continuing as a test bed into the future. However, I will not make any comments on the specific application, though I will read and listen to any objections that come into the Department about the site and we will take them seriously. We will make a balanced and reasonable decision on the foreshore application in due course.

I am very disappointed with the Minister's answer. My specific question related to a public information meeting as the most basic requirement in a consultation process. The Minister has not answered that, so I ask him again to confirm that it will happen.

There are serious concerns in the area about a number of matters and, while the documents may well be available now, they were certainly not available in totality before this. Nor were they available in Irish, although this is a Gaeltacht area. There are serious concerns that certain structures have gone up without a licence. Finally, there are serious concerns that project splitting is taking place. Galway Bay has many areas of special designation and there is also an application for an extensive development of the docks. I am reluctant to use the word "mess," but that is what has been made of the consultation process. Can the Minister at least confirm to the Dáil tonight that a public information meeting will take place? This should happen even if it is for no other reason than to rectify the damage that has been done to public confidence in this process and in the project generally.

The changes and extensions were given because Deputies exerted pressure. I thanked the Minister for the extension, but the pressure came from the people in the area, who are seriously concerned at what is going on. It is necessary so that we can go forward and so that people can bind into this project. I do not know why a 35-year lease is necessary, as it is a big jump from ten years. A public meeting in our official language in the Gaeltacht is the least we require at this point, so I ask the Minister to confirm that this will be held.

It is important to say to the Deputy that I am not the applicant. An applicant for a foreshore licence has the responsibility to ensure that proper public consultation takes place and that if meetings are appropriate, they also take place. I am the person who has to make a decision on the application so I cannot become involved in determining what is and is not appropriate in terms of trying to assist the process of getting the application done. My role is to ensure that a process is followed, that an appropriate decision is made at the end of that and that I take account, using the expertise available to me in my Department, of people's concerns, objections and observations. If the applicant fails in terms of its responsibilities regarding notice, consultation and so on, that has to be factored in when we make decisions. However, it is not my decision as to whether they apply for ten years or 35 years. That is up to the applicant - the Marine Institute - to make that decision. If I was to be involved in that choice, I would be accused of trying to manage a process and have an outcome determined before the application was considered. As the person who must make the decision on whether the application should be granted, I need to stay separate from the process.

The Deputy is right that people must have their say. There is a need for reassurance here. The test site has been in that location for some years and I am sure many of the questions people have can be answered and reassurance given, but that is a matter for the applicant. My job is to ensure that the law is enforced in terms of the role I have as an independent decision maker on the basis of an application. The Marine Institute, which is State-owned, is making the application but that is all the more reason I do not try to micromanage this.

I take the point the Deputy is making. I expect the Marine Institute will be listening to this debate and will respond to it but it would be dangerous for me to start getting involved in telling it what it should do in respect of an application on which I have to make a decision. I hope the Deputy understands where I am coming from on this.

Deputy Connolly rose.

I am sorry, Deputy Connolly, but we must move on to the next business.