Topical Issue Debate

Library Services

I wish to raise a very important issue that will affect every county in due course. It concerns an initiative by the Department of Housing, Planning, Community and Local Government called the Open Library service. Essentially, the Department is providing funding to local authorities for opening libraries in cities and towns throughout the country on the basis that there would be no staff in those libraries during certain hours.

On the face of it, the Department is saying it is a good initiative because the openings hours are late in the evening or early in the morning, thereby affording some people an opportunity to get to a library who might not otherwise have one. Pilot schemes were carried out in Offaly and Sligo. The pilot scheme has been reviewed and it is now intended to roll out the service throughout the country. It was to commence in a number of counties between now and Christmas.

The elected members of Laois County Council voted unanimously last Monday, two days ago, to postpone or reject the initiative, which was intended to be commenced in Portarlington in the next couple of weeks. It has been postponed.

Library users and staff whom I met stated the pilot report is deeply flawed. It is important that people know this. To use a phrase, there is a bit of bribery involved on the part of the Department and local authority senior staff to have the system rolled out. There is €2.3 million available for it. A recommendation of the scheme is that all newly developed and refurbished libraries under the library capital investment programme should be required to incorporate Open Library capability and should be required to provide the Open Library services from first opening or reopening of a refurbished building, as appropriate. In other words, if one is not willing to go this route, one will get no money for a new library or an upgraded library. This is a scandalous approach by central Government to democratically elected county councils throughout the country. People will be shocked to know that this is written into the conditions.

A number of people have concerns about libraries being open after hours when there are no staff available. The first point that obviously springs to everybody's mind is that of anti-social behaviour. It is not that there would be a lot of it but there is a fear of it. The programme has already commenced in countries such as Denmark and the United Kingdom as part of cost-cutting and staff-reduction measures. In those areas, it has been noticed that 90% of users after hours are men. What woman wants to go into a locked library at 9.30 p.m. on a winter's night not knowing who is coming in the door behind her? While there might be CCTV cameras, there is no live monitoring. If an incident happened, one could look at the CCTV footage the next day, but that would be a little too late.

Furthermore, the survey showed that the majority of people in other countries who attended the out-of-hours service with no staff were between 18 and 35. I refer to the younger, enabled people who are good with IT and know how to work the computer systems in the library. Older people, many women and many others would not want to go. There are many factors that should be taken into account before this programme is rolled out. They have not been addressed at all in the review of the pilot projects. The pilot projects review is flawed and it is not a basis for rolling out the programme any further.

It goes without saying that it is the thin edge of the wedge for staff. The initiative will lead to staff not being replaced in due course. There are no staff reductions as part of this problem today but it means that one will be told in a rural area that while the library will be open, there will be no staff present in the afternoon. On it will go. We are now in a set of circumstances in which the local authorities will be another set of faceless institutions, such as the banks. One will do one's business with a machine and go out the door, with nobody wanting to talk to you. We have had cutbacks in post offices, Garda stations, banks and the councils. The Department should not be making cuts affecting our libraries.

I am thankful for the opportunity to engage in this discussion and bring some clarity to the matter. I am disappointed with the way the initiative has been portrayed in some places but I understand information can take off in that way. I attended the launch of the initiative in July with a Fianna Fáil colleague of the Deputy from Tullamore, the new mayor or chairperson. There was great excitement because it is a very positive initiative. All would have regarded it as that.

I appreciate that the Deputy is raising genuine concerns and is not alone in that regard. I have heard from other sources also that this is a negative story but, in fact, we should be celebrating it as a positive one. My comments in this regard are genuine.

My Department, in collaboration with interested local authorities, is extending the initial pilot phase of Open Library. It is for those who are interested; it is not forced on anybody. There was a competition and libraries were asked whether they wanted to participate. The initiative is under Opportunities for All, the national library strategy for the period 2013 to 2017. The extended pilot phase will see the Open Library service trialled in some 20 participating branches from January 2017. There is actually considerable competition. Trim, Navan and other places in my county wanted to participate. Trim got the service and it was very positive. People want this.

The aim is to gather further learning and develop a model that may be rolled out on a mainstream basis in the longer term. The purpose of the Open Library service is to increase access to library services by extending opening hours to library members during unstaffed hours while continuing to have regular staffed periods for the ongoing delivery of library services. It is a question of increased access and opening hours, at night and weekends. Even on Christmas Day, if one wants to go to the library one has the option. This was not the case before now.

Everyone agrees that it is always best to have staff present when possible. The number of staff is not being reduced. The new service is an extra service that has been welcomed. It is quite common in other countries. It is quite common to have libraries that may be accessed by a PIN card in educational institutes.

When implemented, participating branches will be open from 8 a.m. to 10 p.m. seven days per week. Access will be available to members aged 16 and over who sign up for the service. In addition to the traditional book-lending service, the services available will include study facilities, meeting rooms, Wi-Fi access and printing. Meeting rooms will be available for community use. In some places, our libraries are the centre of the community and are very important. It is a case of trying to make the services and meeting rooms usable after hours in addition to normal hours.

Staffing levels and staffed hours will not be reduced as a result of the service, either in the short term or long term. The service will operate only outside the normal staffed hours, which are set out in the Department's public library standards and benchmarks document.

We are extending the pilot given the success of the initial trial of the service in Tullamore, Banagher and Tubbercurry. Feedback from users in these branches has been very positive to date. The service continues to operate in these locations with the full support of staff.

There were a couple of hundred people at the launch of the event. I met numerous people, both staff and users, who were very happy with the service.

They have nothing negative to say about it. I am surprised that we are only getting a negative view today.

The open library service has attracted a considerable number of new users and is particularly popular with leaving certificate students, who make use of the increased availability of study facilities, and community and other groups, which have access to community facilities that would not otherwise be available. Use of the library on Sundays, bank holidays and over Christmas, when libraries would traditionally have been closed, has also been very popular.

In short, the service provides access to a broad range of library services which uses may not otherwise have had access to. It is an expansion, rather than a contraction, of the service. I am confident that the extended pilot scheme will prove to be equally popular and will be fully supported by staff in the participating branches.

The public library service is the heartbeat of many communities. The Government is committed to enhancing and developing the service, first in ensuring appropriate levels of professional staff in our libraries and guaranteed staff hours, second in range of services provided and finally in ensuring access to libraries for as many individuals and communities as possible.

I again thank staff involved in the library service throughout the country. They have embraced change in many areas of what they do. This is one initiative but many others have been rolled out and staff have tried to increase the numbers attending our libraries. They provide an excellent service, including a range of services for enterprises and businesses.

I thank the Minister of State and appreciate that he has taken the time to reply to this matter today. I agree with some of what he said. There are benefits to the initiative but I do not think people considered the possible difficulties. Any assessment of a pilot scheme should consider the benefits and downsides, and the downsides were not considered in this process.

This new initiative will contribute to isolation. People who are alone at home on their laptops can now access the library service without speaking to anybody and work in isolation. That is not good for people. This initiative excludes a lot of people who need assistance. Many people who visit libraries during staff hours need to speak to somebody in order to find out where they can find something or go to work, or are not familiar with the system. This service is for those who are IT literate, know how to work the systems and have their library membership card and PINs to gain access. All the older people who do not have such abilities will not be able to use the service. It is for a narrow coterie of people. We need to consider the number of people who will be isolated from using the new service before we satisfy those who will use it and like it. Many people will not be able to avail of the service.

I want to provide the Minister of State with the timescale for the pilot study review. A sample overview of the daily structure states that at 8 a.m. lock releases operated on a timer on the doors of buildings and equipment will be powered up, lighting will come on and alarm sensors will be turned off. The staff will come in two hours later. At 5 p.m. or 7 p.m. staff will leave, having checked that no windows or doors were left open. At 9.40 p.m. loudspeakers will alert those in a building that it is time to leave and at 9.50 p.m. loudspeakers will alert people to the fact that PCs, printers and user equipment will be turned off. At 10 p.m. lights will be lowered, doors will be locked and all remaining equipment will be powered off. What about somebody who is in the toilet? He or she will be locked in for the night. What about antisocial behaviour in the toilets where there will be no CCTV cameras?

Staff are concerned that instead of doing their daily work when they come in, they would have to spend time reviewing the CCTV footage from the previous night to see whether anything happened and tidying up because they will not know who has been there the previous night. Many people may have a bad experience as a result of staffless libraries. That might put people off using libraries.

It is weird to claim that we are isolating people by increasing service hours. Nobody is being isolated or missing out. In fact, we are increasing the opening hours of libraries. If people use the service and have concerns that need to be addressed or require help from staff, that may give us the evidence we need to have more staff working increased hours. I see that as a positive.

To claim that these changes are a cutback or will add to isolation is a strange way to approach this. People feeding the Deputy information may have a different agenda. All the staff involved in the three pilot cases did not raise these concerns. Everything went quite smoothly and any concerns were dealt with. Reports are available. It was a positive experience.

One would have to scrape the barrel to make this out to be a negative experience. I am surprised that people are finding negative elements to these changes. The library service is aware of all concerns and they will be addressed. Nothing dramatic happened over the three years of the pilot scheme. Many services operate in this way.

This is increasing the availability of library services. It is a positive initiative and using our assets more. I cannot understand how people can see anything negative in these changes. There are other concerns about libraries but they are a different matter. People may use this agenda to fight a different battle, which is a shame and spoils a positive new story. People want some good news stories.

The Deputy asked about the conditions pertaining to future libraries. They will be in a position to be able to avail of the scheme. Decisions may be made at a local level as to whether to provide the service but if libraries are being built or upgraded, it would make sense that they are ready for the scheme. We genuinely see this as a positive enhancement of services rather than a negative initiative. I am disappointed that the Deputy is taking this view.

Garda Accommodation

I thank the Minister of State. This is a very important issue for the people of Sligo, the gardaí who work in this station day and night and me, as a public representative who was elected to represent my constituency. This issue is so serious that I felt I must raise it at the highest level in order to try to seek urgent action so that the situation in Sligo can be alleviated. On this basis, I ask the Minister of State to advise me on the plans, if any, the Garda has in place to address the current unsafe and outdated working environment in the Sligo-Leitrim Garda regional headquarters in Sligo town.

I express to the Minister of State my fears and concerns about the serious health and safety failures in the building and highlight the urgent need to address them. Last month he will have received from me a copy of a report produced by consulting engineers Michael Reilly and Associates which had been commissioned by the Garda Representative Association, GRA, earlier this year to evaluate the overall health and safety problems at the Garda station. Quite simply, the findings made in the report are shocking and raise several issues of serious concern which must and can be addressed from today if there is the will to do so.

The Minister of State will be aware that the report identifies serious health and safety issues which include rodent infestation, ventilation problems, poor heating and dampness, limited and inadequate toilet and shower facilities, leaking toilets, failures in building compliance and fire safety, as well as in HSE health and safety procedures and requirements, hazardous safety issues, cramped public space, limited and outdated cell accommodation and inadequate canteen facilities, a lack of interviewing rooms and the fact that there are no garage facilities and poor office accommodation. The report states, "The existing facility is far too small, outdated, not fit for purpose and constitutes a totally unacceptable hazard on a number of acute levels from a health and safety perspective alone". In reading the report it is clear to me that gardaí in Sligo are not being given the tools and resources required to do their job effectively. However, there is action which could be taken to help to alleviate the problems in the short term. The report identifies the moving of the regional office at the station and the assistant commissioner's office, which would give some relief and would in the short term address the current overcrowding problem in the regional office that occupies 30% of the facility. This action should be considered by the Minister of State, the OPW and the Garda as a matter of urgency.

On behalf of the Tánaiste and Minister for Justice and Equality who, unfortunately, cannot be in the Chamber for this debate, I thank the Deputy for raising this very important matter. The Tánaiste is aware that a number of significant fire and health and safety issues have been identified in Sligo Garda station and believes the necessary remedial action should be taken without delay to rectify the situation. The Deputy will appreciate that the Office of Public Works has primary responsibility for the provision and maintenance of Garda accommodation and works closely with the Garda authorities in this regard. In that context, I understand the Garda authorities have made the Office of Public Works aware of the situation with a view to ensuring remedial action will be taken.

The Deputy will be aware of the significant efforts being made by the Government to enhance the working environment generally for members of An Garda Síochána and the major investment committed to under the capital plan for the period 2016 to 2021 to upgrade Garda premises, the Garda fleet and Garda ICT infrastructure. A Programme for a Partnership Government also commits the Government to increasing the strength of An Garda Síochána to ensure a strong and visible police presence in the community. In summary, the Government is committed to continuing the accelerated recruitment programme with a view to increasing Garda numbers to 15,000, doubling the Garda Reserve and increasing further civilianisation to free up more gardaí to focus on front-line policing services.

The programme also recognises that members of An Garda Síochána must have the modern technology and other resources, including fit-for-purpose buildings, necessary to do their job and notes that the capital plan for the period 2016 to 2021 secured resources in this regard. In October 2015 the Tánaiste announced, in conjunction with the Minister of State at the Office of Public Works, details of An Garda Síochána’s building and refurbishment programme for the period 2016 to 2021 which includes over €80 million of Exchequer funding as part of the Government’s capital plan for the period 2016 to 2021, as well as a major public private partnership project which will include the delivery of a new Garda station in Sligo. Unfortunately, as the Tánaiste recently advised the Deputy, negotiations on the acquisition by the Office of Public Works of a site originally identified for the purpose of providing the proposed new station in Sligo did not proceed to a successful conclusion and efforts will now be made to identify an alternative site for acquisition in order that the development can proceed.

The projects comprehended by the building and refurbishment programme are in addition to the major projects under way, including the three Garda divisional headquarters which are under construction in Galway, Wexford town and Kevin Street in Dublin, at a total cost of €100 million, and which are scheduled for completion in late 2017 and early 2018. This major investment underlines the Government’s commitment to the provision of a modern working environment for gardaí, as well as fit-for-purpose facilities for visitors, victims and suspects.

I now return to the situation in Sligo. In the short run the solution lies in addressing the particular issues that have arisen at the existing station and, in the long-run, the construction of a new state-of-the-art regional headquarters in Sligo. I assure the Deputy the Tánaiste will do everything in her power to support both An Garda Síochána and the Office of Public Works in delivering solutions to both issues.

I thank the Minister of State for his report. I have one or two questions to pose to him. Is he aware that gardaí in Sligo have given notice of their intention to vacate the dangerous building on 6 October? I have met the GRA and many gardaí who are operating from the station in Sligo on a daily basis and they have serious concerns. They have also notified what needs to be done in the short term. Perhaps the Minister of State might indicate the plans in place to relocate gardaí in Sligo to temporary accommodation until work on the new building is complete? I know that he has announced the provision of a new regional Garda station in Sligo. There are some hiccups, but this issue will have to be addressed by the Office of Public Works in the short term and in very quick time. It is vitally important that a site be identified for the regional headquarters of the Sligo-Leitrim division and that we move ahead with the development and building of this facility. I hope that in the short term I will other responses to allay my concerns. I am speaking on behalf of many of the gardaí who use the facility in Sligo. There are many other issues of which the Minister of State is well aware because I gave the Minister a copy of the report on Sligo Garda station and the divisional headquarters for Sligo-Leitrim on Pearse Road which was asked for by the GRA. It is important that this issue be addressed in the short term. In the context of the announcement made on the new development, perhaps the Minister of State might like to respond.

I again thank the Deputy for raising this very important matter. The Tánaiste looks forward to the issues raised about the Garda station in Sligo being resolved as soon as possible by the Office of Public Works, in conjunction with Garda management. She also looks forward to the building of the new station in the town, construction of which should proceed at an early date. She will do everything in her power to support An Garda Síochána and the Office of Public Works in delivering solutions to both issues. The Government is fully committed to proceeding with its major investment programme that aims to provide new Garda stations and modernise older stations at key locations across the State, thus ensuring a safe, modern working environment for gardaí, as well as fit-for-purpose facilities for visitors, victims and suspects. This investment has been designed to ensure we will have a 21st century network of fit-for-purpose Garda stations which is critical in delivering an effective policing service and tackling crime. I will bring the Deputy's concerns to the attention of the Tánaiste this evening and relate to her what he has said.

I thank my colleagues for accommodating me.

The Deputy also accommodated the House in that we did not have Ministers present.

Hospital Services

I know that the Minister for Health has said he cannot be here, which is unfortunate, given the issue raised. The Minister of State, Deputy Helen McEntee, will know that this is a very important issue for the people of the south east. There was big disappointment when the Herity report was published and the favourable recommendation for which people were hoping for did not materialise. Five of the six Oireachtas Members for Waterford have sought a meeting with the Minister for Health and hospital consultants. To date, the Minister has not responded, despite the fact that the request was made two weeks ago. He has acknowledged receipt of the letter, but he has yet not agreed to a meeting and is not here to take the motion, which is unfortunate.

The Minister has said over and over again in his response to the media when questioned on this issue that he will accept the recommendations made in the Herity report. I am someone who passionately believes health care should only be provided based on clinical and medical need. There are questions the Minister has to answer.

The HSE and the Department both describe UHW as the regional hospital for the south east. They outline the regional services that the hospital provides, the first of which is the cardiology service. They say the service coves not part of the south east, but the entire region.

The Higgins report recommended a reconfiguration of hospital services in the south east and elsewhere. A clear assurance was given in that report to the people of the south east that UHW would continue to be the provider of invasive cardiology services for the population of the entire region. How did a report commissioned to look into expanding services not have in its terms of reference that the hospital was the regional provider of cardiology services? Why did it use as a basis for its findings an effective population of just more than half that of the south east region? This is what is upsetting hospital consultants in Waterford, clinicians, us as Oireachtas Members from across the region and the people who came out onto the streets last week. We need to hear from the Minister for Health whether he believes that UHW is the regional hospital that provides regional cardiology services. If he does, the logic of that is that he cannot accept the conclusions of the Herity report.

I have submitted this Topical Issue matter in a bid to ask the Minister for Health directly to meet with cardio consultants at UHW who dispute the findings of the recent Herity report. The Minister indicated straightaway that he was accepting the findings of the report. However, there is a clear view in Waterford that a second opinion is required and that the Minister should listen to it. Consultant cardiologist Dr. Patrick Owens said that lives were at stake as the method used to determine the catchment for the laboratory was wrong. Dr. Owens went on to say that the issue should be revisited by the Government in consultation with local consultants and Dr. Herity. The consultants believe the review is flawed and they completely reject the findings of the report. The consultants pointed out that the report wrongly based its estimate of the catchment population for cardiac services in the south east on patient flows in the unit to Waterford. It did not take into account the constraints on capacity. They believe its recommendations were invalid because of this. Dr. Rob Landers also criticised the clinical review that suggests another catheterization laboratory is not needed at UHW and said that the south east of the country is uniquely disadvantaged when it comes to cardiac care. This is not parish pump politics.

This issue is overwhelmingly one of clinical safety for the people of Waterford and the south east. The Minister for Health says that he will not deviate from the report's recommendation. When a consultant says that a report the Minister is committed to implementing is flawed and that the Minister's decision could compromise clinical safety and that patients will die, and when the Minister says that he does not have a duty to meet with the consultants in Waterford, do they not at least deserve to be heard? I have already written to the Minister on behalf of the Oireachtas Members of Waterford and on behalf of the consultants. We are still awaiting a reply.

The Minister for Health, Deputy Simon Harris, is unable to be here today due to a pre-arranged meeting which could not be rescheduled. He sends his apologies.

The Minister received the report on the independent clinical review of the need for provision of a second catheterization laboratory at UHW on foot of the programme for Government commitment. The report was completed by Dr. Niall Herity, a highly-respected Belfast-based cardiologist. It is a comprehensive report which reflects the fact that Dr. Herity consulted widely and met with all of the key stakeholders, including the management and staff of both UHW and Cork University Hospital. Dr. Herity’s calculation of the catchment population for the UHW catheterization laboratory has been challenged since publication of the review.

In his report, Dr. Herity rightly points out that it would be a mistake to assume that the catchment area of UHW is represented by every resident in Waterford and its surrounding counties. Dr. Herity therefore determined the effective catchment population by looking at regional patient flow data and combining this with 2016 census data in regard to the population of Waterford and surrounding counties. Dr. Herity has provided robust evidence that a second cardiac catheterization laboratory at UHW is not justified. However, he recommends increasing the number of weekly sessions currently provided, along with the requisite additional staffing for the increase in sessions, in order to address waiting times and to provide improved access. He also recommends that new specialist equipment be provided to improve contingency for radiological equipment failure during a procedure. The Minister is happy to provide the additional resources necessary to implement these recommendations and as such significantly improve services for patients at UHW. This investment will be reflected in the HSE national service plan for 2017.

During this period of investment and enhancement of services, the situation will be closely monitored. A further independent clinical review will be carried out in early 2017 to assess the impact that these improvements have had on the volume of patients attending the catheterization laboratory in UHW. Dr. Herity has recommended that the UHW catheterization laboratory should operate as an elective laboratory which provides all specialised cardiac services except interventional treatment for patients who are having heart attacks. Dr. Herity has also recommended that the current 9 to 5 provision of these services should cease to allow the hospital to focus on the much larger volume of planned catheterization laboratory work. The Minister has to be certain that any change to how a service is delivered will result in improved services for the patients using it. Therefore he has asked the Department to address the implications of this recommendation by undertaking a national review of all primary percutaneous coronary intervention, PCI, services with the aim of ensuring that as many patients as possible have access on a 24-7 basis to safe and sustainable emergency interventions following a heart attack. It is expected this review will be completed by the end of July 2017. The Minister intends to visit UHW in the coming weeks and will take the opportunity to speak with staff and management on a broad range of issues.

The response of the Minister of State is extraordinary. I know it is coming from the Minister for Health himself. The response says that Dr. Herity rightly points out that it would be a mistake to assume that the catchment area of UHW is represented by every resident in Waterford and its surrounding counties and goes on to say that he therefore determined the effective catchment population by looking at regional patient flow data. How does that sit with official HSE and Department policy that UHW is the regional hospital for the south east? Has policy changed? Is the Minister for Health now saying that UHW is no longer a regional hospital and is some sort of glorified general hospital? If one logs on to the HSE website or Googles UHW one will find that UHW is a regional hospital providing regional services, including cardiology. Was Dr. Higgins lied to when a commitment was given that the Government would continue to provide invasive cardiology services to the people of the south east? Were the people of the south east lied to? Were hospital consultants lied to? That is how it seems to me when I read this response that says he was right to "assume". Why should he assume? It is either policy or it is not. He has no right to assume. Nobody has a right to assume. It should have been based on medical, clinical need and existing policy. In my view, the existing policy is that UHW is a regional hospital. The Minister needs to explain to the people of the south east whether that policy has changed.

In Waterford city last Saturday, in excess of 2,000 people marched in miserable weather of wind and rain to voice their anger and dismay at the lack of 24-7 cardiology cover in Waterford. The Minister for Health, Deputy Harris, has consistently stated that he was accepting the Herity report because it was an independent clinical report. I need the Minister to answer the following question. A note was prepared by the HSE's acute hospital policy unit 3. This note was given to Dr. Herity and it referred to the growing public and political pressure in the Waterford region to build and staff an additional catheterization laboratory at the hospital and to expand the existing services to 24-7. The note states: "However, it has been the view of the Department that providing additional facilities and extending PPCI (angioplasty) services, in a geographical area which does not have the population base to justify such a service, would be wasteful of very limited resources". The Minister tells us that this was an independent clinical review. In my opinion, this is gross interference by the HSE.

I reiterate that the Minister for Health, Deputy Harris, has to be certain that any changes to service will deliver the results that will improve services for the patients using them. The fact that the Minister has indicated that he intends to visit UHW in the coming weeks and meet with these organisations will give the Deputies an opportunity to raise many of the questions they have asked here and go into them in more detail.

Cereal Sector

I am informed that the Minister may arrive in two minutes. Deputies Anne Rabbitte and Michael Fitzmaurice have been waiting for a long time. I propose that we suspend proceedings if the Minister has not arrived in two minutes.

I ask that it be noted in the Official Report that the Minister did not arrive at the appropriate time and that Deputy Fitzmaurice and I were left waiting. It is 3.40 p.m. and all the other matters have been discussed.

The Minister has arrived. Deputies are not happy because this Topical Issue should have been discussed 24 minutes ago. I understand there was some breakdown in communication. The Minister will have an opportunity to explain in a moment.

I thank the Minister for coming to the House; it is better late than never. As he will be aware from media reports and photographs, conditions in the west are ferocious for farmers trying to cut corn. The problem affects west Cork, from where the Minister comes, south County Wexford, and all the western counties from County Kerry as far as the Leas-Cheann Comhairle's area of County Donegal. Parts of counties Offaly and Longford are also affected. I visited one of the affected areas at the weekend with some Members of the European Parliament. It is possible to pull crops out of the ground by their roots. People involved in farming will understand me when I say the ground is "scalded". Moisture levels are so high that the gearboxes of combine harvesters are being broken when farmers try to transfer grain from the bins of the harvester to their trailers. Crops have also been destroyed.

I met members of the Irish Farmers Association last Saturday. The IFA is asking people to contact Teagasc to ensure we get the figures involved. Family farmers, especially in the west, are being wiped out. They have spent between €400 and €500 per acre on inputs. Some of them are renting land and they are experiencing total devastation. I have seen farmers crying because they do not know what will happen next. I have contacted MEPs about the issue. I ask the Minister to work with MEPs to ensure an Irish or European fund or a combination of the two is established to provide assistance. Something must be done for the affected farmers.

In some parts of County Leitrim, silage has not been cut yet. People will not believe this given the drought experienced in other areas. In addition, prices have fallen to an all-time low. I ask the Minister to extend the slurry season and establish immediately, as opposed to in six months' time, a fund for tillage farmers whose livelihoods are being lost.

The Minister's absence for 24 minutes has been noted and recorded. While we can all run late, to say I am disappointed is to put it mildly.

The Fianna Fáil Party has called on the Government to establish a crisis fund for farmland badly damaged by recent weather. Such a fund would be one element in the effort to address problems being experienced by tillage farmers.

As Deputy Fitzmaurice noted, this is not a local issue affecting east County Galway but a problem that extends from counties Cork and Kerry north to County Donegal. Tillage farmers have been in crisis since 2013. Silence is condolence. The farmers in question are facing their banks and suppliers because crops have not been harvested and they face a cash crisis.

As Deputy Fitzmaurice very ably explained, crops cannot be salvaged or delivered to merchants. The price paid to farmers for their crops is substantially lower than the cost of production. The position is not sustainable. Without a dramatic increase in cereal prices, the problem is unlikely to be resolved. Will the Government support Fianna Fáil's proposal to establish an emergency fund? Will it establish a national tillage forum, as called for by the farmers' organisations, made up of industry representatives, farmers and other stakeholders, with the task of finding solutions for those who are in crisis?

The Minister is best positioned to address this problem. He visited the ploughing championships last week and has spoken to representatives of the various farming organisations. The tillage sector is one of the few sectors that believes its voice has not been heard. The beef and dairy sectors have been looked after but the tillage sector cannot access the €11 million in matching funding announced recently. What hope does it have?

I apologise to the House for my delayed arrival. The Department experienced a technical glitch and we were unaware that this matter had been selected for discussion until 15 minutes ago.

I acknowledge the case made by Deputies Michael Fitzmaurice and Anne Rabbitte. I am aware of the issue they raise, which affects counties along the western seaboard from Malin Head to Mizen Head, although it is not confined to the west. I have met leaders of farming organisations both nationally and locally. I visited County Donegal on Monday where I met farm leaders from counties Donegal, Leitrim and Sligo who conveyed to me in a practical and an effective manner the reality on the ground for tillage farmers. The sector's difficulty with the weather has been compounded by low prices, which has been a problem for several successive years. Unfortunately, these problems have also coincided with a series of bumper harvests globally. Factors such as the lifting of the export ban on Russian agricultural products have resulted in a flood of produce on the market, which is driving down prices. In that context, I and my colleague, the Minister of State, Deputy Andrew Doyle, are acutely aware of the difficulties associated with this issue.

As a consequence, we decided some weeks back to convene on 6 October, in conjunction with all of the stakeholders in the tillage sector, a round table in my Department to discuss all of the issues associated with this matter. Rather than I being prescriptive in advance of that stakeholders' meeting, and we have done considerable work in the Department in looking at the issues around this matter, I did not want the forum to be the Department telling the industry what to do but to be a real round table, where we could hear and listen to the concerns of the industry.

Unfortunately, these are not just immediate difficulties associated with the weather but, in many respects, they are more structural than that. There are the challenges caused by multiple years of low prices compounded by this year's weather and I accept that, for many involved in the industry, this is a tipping point. As I said, the stakeholder round table will take place on 6 October.

I also appreciate the points made in respect of the cash crisis in the sector at present. Since 6 May I have put considerable emphasis on the pillar banks and how they are engaging with the farming community, not just on the tillage side but also in the dairy and beef sectors, given the difficulties all sectors are currently facing. I have asked the CEOs of the pillar banks to engage in forbearance in respect of the financial liabilities of the industry because, in the longer term, all of these sectors have a viable future. We got a good hearing from the pillar banks. I am also conscious of the associated issue of the cost of working finance to the industry generally and the tillage sector specifically.

In the context of the €500 million rescue package that was announced by the Commission, we are currently engaged in deliberations and consultations with farm organisations as how best to distribute that aid which, as Deputy Rabbitte said, is a scheme that currently excludes the tillage sector under the terms of the deal approved by the Commission. We are examining what alternatives we might be in a position to deliver. I am very conscious of the issue. As I said, I have convened a stakeholders' forum for 6 October and I hope something positive can emerge from that.

My apologies to the House for the delay. No slight was intended to either Deputy and I am sure they will take that at face value. I did not realise Deputy Rabbitte was watching the clock so critically, but I tried to contact both Deputies and managed to convey my apologies to Deputy Fitzmaurice.

The apology is accepted. The one thing we have to realise is that while we can have a forum to talk about tillage prices and the grain price, which I welcome, those people who have cut their grain have something to give a merchant to pay for concentrates, fertiliser and seed they got during the year, but others have nothing to send in to the mill because they cannot cut it. This is a section of people who need to be sorted now. The price of grain is fine for those who have something. However, this problem has moved on from battling for a better price for grain to having no grain, or to having it in the ground but not being able to cut it, or not knowing what to do with it because it is rotting at the buds.

There is another side nobody is talking about. While we can get grain in from Europe if we are in trouble with supply, we cannot get straw because we will not bring straw in from France or elsewhere to throw under cattle because it would not make economic sense. I ask the Minister to deal with that section of people immediately. I agree with the Minister in regard to the forum, where we can look at the price of grain and the bigger problem. I also ask the Minister to address the slurry crisis because farmers are panicking.

To follow on from Deputy Fitzmaurice, there is a crisis and people are panicking. It was welcome that the Minister of State, Deputy McEntee, was in the House because the farmers' wives are panicking and they are worried about what they are about to head into for the winter, given they feel their husbands are bottling it all up. A few weeks ago on www.thatsfarming.com, Claire and John Daly from Kilconnell in east Galway put up a fabulous video on which Claire spoke from the heart. These are farmers who have inherited farms and there is a huge burden on them to deliver and to pay the bills. They are under pressure and the wives are worrying about the long winters the farmers are facing into. The whole mental health aspect and rural isolation is coming into play in a big way. That is why I welcome the fact the Minister of State, Deputy McEntee, was present. This is what the family is worried about, and there is also a crisis in terms of family friendly farms. They are worried about the banks and the merchants but they are also worried about their health.

To deal with the latter point, one of the points I made to the farm organisation leaders in the north west on Monday evening last was that there are things the State can do and we are open to exploring all of those issues. However, people would not thank me much if I went in with the prescription ahead of having met the people directly representing those at the coal face of the current difficulty.

One of the points I made to the farm organisations in respect of things the State and others can do was in respect of mental health issues. I appreciate that if anyone is facing financial difficulties in an industry that is primarily practised in isolation inside the farm gate, there is generally a reluctance - among men in particular - to put their hand up and say they are facing a particular difficulty. There is a role the farm organisation members can deliver, as an outreach opportunity, to their neighbours and friends in these difficulties. It does not take an enormous amount of local knowledge to be able to identify those in current difficulty. I accept this goes beyond the tillage sector and applies to some areas where cattle have been kept in, particularly on heavy ground where rainfall has been quite high for June, July and August. Farm organisations can do that well.

In my Department, through its knowledge transfer groups, which reach some 28,000 farmers, I have always made the point that one of the great values of those schemes is not just in respect of the knowledge they impart to the group, which is facilitated by Teagasc or private advisers, but also the social outlet they give. That type of assistance and outreach is something the State cannot replicate but it is critically important. I encourage the good neighbourliness that is alive and well in rural Ireland in this regard.

I take Deputy Fitzmaurice's point about the current difficulties. As I said, we agreed some weeks back with the farm organisations to convene this forum, and it was decided for 6 October because it would give an opportunity to have a full overview of the harvest situation by that date. I appreciate that, almost since the date we decided to convene this, the weather has been rather inclement, with the exception perhaps of the past 48 hours. Nonetheless, it will give us an opportunity to discuss the bigger picture in regard to the situation on the ground. Given the weather, I appreciate we are looking at sprouting, high moisture content and a difficulty in baling straw.

On the broader fodder issue, I do not think it is an issue of not having sufficient fodder nationally, as was the case a number of years ago, but that we do not have the fodder in the right geographical locations. This is something my Department has knowledge of in respect of its previous involvement. I want to go into that forum with an open mind, to talk to all of the parties and see where we go after that. I thank both Deputies for raising the issue.

I wish to be associated with the issues and concerns my colleagues have raised.

You may wish to do so, but I cannot accommodate you.