Topical Issue Debate

Hospitals Funding

I very much welcome the opportunity to raise this matter as a Topical Issue because in March this year I tabled a parliamentary question due to my concern about a potential shortfall of €5.6 million in the budget of University Hospital Kerry. In the reply I received to my parliamentary question there was an explanation of the previous model of rolled-over funding and I was informed that there has been a switch to activity-based funding. Concerns had been expressed about that. There was a key line in the response, which I will outline to the Minister of State. I was told that, in summary, the projected spend for 2017 exceeded the allocated budget by approximately €5.6 million. The reason for the variance relates largely to unexpected costs associated with agency locum consultants and non-consultant hospital doctors, additional nursing posts, and the need for additional health care assistants, all of which are necessary to provide a safe clinical service. The reply went on to say that to identify a saving of €5.6 million, the hospital needs to look at the service and identify post and non-pay items that can be removed from the projected spend. It was stated that would clearly have a significant effect on service delivery and potentially could give rise to significant clinical risk. It is extremely concerning when the HSE replies to a parliamentary question and itself flags a potential significant clinical risk to the operation of a hospital.

We know the issues hospitals such as University Hospital Kerry face in regard to recruitment. When one has an over-reliance on agency staff, in particular agency consultant staff, agency non-consultant hospital doctors and agency nurses, sometimes costing in excess of five times what it would cost for staff under a standard recruitment process, the hospital in question will run into difficulties. At the end of 2017, will we ask University Hospital Kerry to cut back on elective surgeries, equipment such as surgical devices or drug costs? Those areas of expenditure are all critical factors in the successful running of the hospital. Until we address recruitment we will struggle to a significant extent with the funding of hospital services.

On foot of the work being done by a committee of which I am a member, the Committee on the Future of Healthcare, I hope the recruitment of all staff in future will be done on a hospital group basis. We might then be able to make inroads into the staffing issue. At the moment we are asking hospitals to meet their budgets. Their only recourse to proper staffing levels is through agencies, and then we beat them up for not meeting their targets. We are putting rural and peripheral hospitals such as University Hospital Kerry in an impossible position. When I get a reply to a parliamentary question which tells me there is a significant potential clinical risk facing us towards the end of this year, it gives rise to concern. We need to provide the necessary funding until such a time as the recruitment deficit that exists is made up and allows the hospital to function properly.

I thank Deputy John Brassil for raising this very important and serious matter and giving me the opportunity to inform the House on it. I also convey to him the apologies of the Minister for Health, Deputy Simon Harris, who is away on Government business at the moment.

An activity-based funding, ABF, system is being introduced in public acute hospitals on a phased basis. That represents a fundamental change in how health care is funded in Ireland. Implementation of the funding model involves moving away from inefficient block grant budgets to a new system where hospitals are paid for the actual level of activity undertaken, subject to budgetary limits. As such, there will be a shift from funding facilities and settings to funding episodes of care instead. Other key benefits from the introduction of ABF include increased fairness in resource allocation, improved efficiency and increased transparency.

January 2016 represented a major milestone in the implementation process because the ABF system was introduced for inpatient and day case activity in the 38 largest public hospitals. The ABF activity targets were initially identified at the hospital level and then combined to form overall hospital group activity targets.

Transition payments have also been calculated at the hospital level before being aggregated at group level. Transition adjustments are payments made to hospitals which are operating above the national average price to avoid financial instability. The level to which hospitals are operating above the national average price is calculated as part of an annual benchmarking process. For 2017, hospitals have been allocated 90% of the value of that calculation with the remaining 10% being provided to hospital groups. The hospital groups were provided with the overall targets and allocations and were then given the opportunity to adjust individual hospital activity targets and associated funding levels as well as the level of transition payments to apply to their member hospitals as long as they remained within the overall group allocations, with oversight for such changes from the acute hospitals division in the HSE.

With regard to University Hospital Kerry and the suggestion that the hospital has a €5.6 million shortfall due to the ABF process, the HSE has informed the Department of Health that the hospital was in fact allocated an additional €881,000 this year under ABF. It was also allocated an additional €2.5 million in structural payments to cover agency costs. Any budgetary shortfall therefore is not related to the ABF system and will have to be addressed by the hospital and the hospital group. University Hospital Kerry is part of the South/South West hospital group. The group has advised the Department that it will continue to work closely with University Hospital Kerry to support it in managing the budget situation. It has also advised the Department that while there are risks identified on the hospital's risk register, the group has confirmed that all risks are being mitigated to ensure the delivery of safe patient care.

I thank the Minister of State for his reply. Having done a very quick tot in my head, if the hospital was provided with €2.5 million and €881,000, that comes to approximately €3.3 million. In the reply I received to the parliamentary question I asked in March, the sum of €5.6 million was identified as a deficit. That still leaves a shortfall of €2.3 million. One part of the HSE has given me one figure and the Minister of State has given me a different figure.

From speaking to people involved in the hospital locally I know the real issue is that there is a significant shortfall and it has to be met. I have no issues with activity-based funding, better efficiencies and all that goes with that, but there is a transition period, this is the first year of the new system and the hospital in Kerry needs the shortfall to be made up in order that there is not a significant clinical risk, as was pointed out in the reply I received to my parliamentary question.

I hope there is not a significant clinical risk, but if one is dealing with a shortfall of €2.3 million, I do not see any other outcome.

I wish to apprise the Minister of the gravity of the situation. Both the hospital manager and assistant hospital manager in Kerry were operating in temporary positions for the last number of years. Both of them were doing an exceptionally good job in the circumstances. In March this year both those jobs were advertised as full-time permanent contracts, yet neither the acting manager nor the acting deputy manager saw fit to apply for them. They basically felt that given the circumstances and restraints, they would not be in a position to do the job properly. That, therefore, is the challenge facing us when two extremely efficient and capable people will not apply for permanent jobs when they become available. That challenge will continue until such time as we address staffing issues in all our hospitals.

There is a historic issue from the moratorium that was in place whereby voluntary hospitals continued to recruit because they were directed to do so by their boards of management. Public hospitals obeyed the moratorium, however. Now there is a huge imbalance which we will have to address. We have to get staffing up to a level that allows the hospital to function and does not cripple it with agency costs which result in budget overruns. In this case it is €2.3 million above what is allowed for.

I accept many of the arguments that Deputy Brassil has put forward. For example, he spoke about unexpected costs and agency staff issues. I have noted this in my own portfolio covering disabilities. If one does not have stable services, it costs more to bring in agency staff, so we must address that particular issue.

We also have to address the issue of recruiting administrative and medical staff, including nurses. There are difficulties in getting such staff. I agree with the Deputy that we have to clarify the figures involved. I will bring those concerns back to the Minister, Deputy Harris, and the HSE because we must have answers.

I am glad, however, that the Deputy accepts the model of activity-based funding is a new one. It ensures a fair system of resource allocation, drives efficiency and increases transparency. At the same time, if there are any funding or staffing issues during the transition period, we have to address them. We all want to reform the health services, but above all, we want to ensure patients are safe in hospital.

Special Educational Needs Service Provision

I thank the Minister, Deputy Bruton, for taking this serious Topical Issue matter. Gorey community school is the largest post-primary school in Ireland with 1,577 students. It is an inclusive school with 211 students with identified special educational needs. The school does a lot of good work and is not selective with regard to students with learning difficulties.

There are 40 students in the school with autism spectrum disorder, ASD, for 12 of which the school has applied for two classes comprising six pupils in each. That is the background to what Gorey community school wants to do to ensure these students have the best possible care and opportunity to learn and progress through education.

The application for an ASD unit went through the process but the school was informed that Creagh College, under the patronage of the Waterford-Wexford Education and Training Board, already has such a unit. The unit is in Creagh College but, amazingly, it does not have any students or staff to run it. The students and staff are in one school, but the ASD unit on the other side of Gorey has the physical facility. One could not make it up.

That is the background to where things stand. In a letter to the Department of Education and Skills, the principal of Gorey community school, Mr. Michael Finn, stated, "The fact is that while Creagh College has a physical facility, Gorey community school has the students enrolled and has the responsibility of addressing their [i.e. students with ASD] significant needs which are not being appropriately met in Gorey community school." A note attached to that letter, which also went to the Department, states:

There is no safe space or room available to remove students who present with extremely challenging behaviour. This is impacting on the school's ability to meet these students' complex needs, as in one instance a placement is in danger of becoming untenable.

That suggests to me that the school is doing its very best. It is not good enough for the Department to respond by saying they have spent the money and that the physical space is in another school where there are no students or staff. This matter needs to be brought to a conclusion, so I look forward to the Minister's response.

I thank Deputy D'Arcy for raising this matter. The briefing I have is not quite the same as the issue the Deputy has outlined. Perhaps we need to clarify some points. It has certainly not been brought to my attention by the National Council for Special Education, NCSE, which would have responsibility for placing children, that the needs of the children in Gorey community school are not being appropriately met. That is the case the Deputy is making, but that evidence is certainly not available in my Department. I will ask the NCSE to assess the matter.

The Deputy is right in saying that we have provided a new 1,000 pupil school in Creagh College. That is obviously a growing school, and as its numbers grow, it will be fully equipped and staffed both with teachers and SNAs as appropriate. Within that construction, it has been provided with a four classroom special needs unit, with a capacity for 24 students. As those students present themselves, they will be fully equipped with resource teachers and SNAs.

As I understand it, the position in Gorey is that there are 12 children in an ASD unit, so there is provision for an ASD unit in Gorey community college. Between both colleges we have six special needs units. At this point the Department is waiting to see the growth of requirements involved. I will investigate the case the Deputy has made that these children's needs are not being appropriately met. There is a process of appeal to the NCSE and a school would work through its local special needs organiser in respect of any requirement. In turn, the NCSE would identify the most appropriate support.

In a wider context there are 681 children with ASD needs in County Wexford. Some 216 of them are in special classes spanning early childhood, primary and post-primary. A substantial number of children on the ASD spectrum are catered for in mainstream education with appropriate support from resource teachers and SNAs and without necessarily having a specific, dedicated unit.

The most appropriate level of provision depends on the needs of the child as assessed by the NCSE. The response from my Department, which the Deputy will see, indicates that the NCSE advises that there is enough capacity to meet local needs. Obviously, if it is the case children's needs are not being appropriately met, that would be of concern and the NCSE would assess the position. It would not be a matter or issue on which I, as a Minister, would make a judgment. They would have to be assessed by the NCSE and, in turn, the Department would have to respond to what it identified.

I thank the Minister. It is kind of a funny space to be in that the Minister has been given a reply to this Topical Issue debate that is wrong. That is a little bit of my criticism. The NCSE tells him that there is capacity for 24 students. There is that capacity in the education centre in Gorey, but it is in the wrong school. The school in question, which requires two units for 12 students, does not have any space. The school is doing the best it can for those students in the circumstances in which it finds itself, but it is no longer acceptable for this to continue. I find it amazing and it is part of my criticism - the Ceann Comhairle has heard me criticise the responses that come back on some occasions - that what the Minister has been presented with is correct but it is also wrong. It is wrong because the students in the school that has staff have no physical facilities. There is a school located about a mile away that has the facilities, but it does not have any students and has no staff for the requirements. Something needs to give. I ask the Minister to bring this to a conclusion or to ask the NCSE to explain how it could give - and I am trying to be generous - an answer that is misleading in the extreme.

It is unfair to say that it is misleading. My understanding of this, which I will have to get clarified because there is obviously a difference of evidence, is that the Department has responded to the need. As the Deputy rightly says, this is the largest school in the country. The Department has built a new school. That school is to provide for 1,000 children. This is an area that is rapidly expanding. In order to anticipate the need, it built in facilities for 24 children in four ASD units. That is planning for an anticipated need.

It has not been presented to me that Gorey community school is seeking to expand its provision of ASD units. As I understood the matter, it has 12 children in an ASD unit and that is providing the appropriate service for them. That ASD unit was built some time ago, but there are new facilities and existing facilities. As the Deputy has said, there are children in one school whose needs are being met and there is quite a number of children with special needs. They will have resource teaching, SNAs and, where appropriate, ASD units as opposed to mainstream classes allocated to them as the NCSE identifies their needs.

On the advice of the NCSE, the Department has built an expanded facility to provide for the growth in the area and it is making provision for service. It is a bit simplistic to say that the Department is building in one location where there are no teachers and no students. It is a growing school and its enrolment has yet to reach its full level, but naturally, as a rapidly growing area, we would be expected to make provision to expand where needed. The net question that the Deputy is raising - and on which I will seek advice from the NCSE - is whether it is the case that the children in the community school are not being adequately catered for in the ASD units which I understood were there. That is a question that will need to be assessed by appropriate people on the basis of the evidence.

To clarify for the Minister, there is no ASD unit in Gorey community school. It is requesting that an ASD unit be built for 12 students in two classes. For the Minister's information, there is no unit. The teachers and students are working in spaces all around the school where they try to do their best. I just want to clarify that as a point of information.

I thank Deputy D'Arcy. We now move on to the third item, which relates to Deputy Michael Collins seeking to discuss the harvesting of kelp forests in Bantry Bay.

I thank the Ceann Comhairle.

No, we may wait. We do not have a Minister to take this.

Was our item not third?

We will take the Deputy's item-----

It does not matter.

I am sorry, Deputy Eugene Murphy's item was fourth. Is the Minister of State, Deputy Breen, taking the matter tabled by Deputies Eugene Murphy and Dara Calleary?

Yes. It is actually down as Topical Issue No. 3.

It is down in front of me as Topical Issue No. 4, but Deputies Eugene Murphy and Calleary may proceed.

Company Closures

As long we are getting the coverage, I will be happy. I thank the Ceann Comhairle for allowing us to raise this matter. I will be sharing two minutes with Deputy Calleary and giving a minute of my time to the Minister. I mean I will be sharing a minute with Deputy Fitzmaurice. I thought he went into Government last February. My apologies.

The recent announcement of the closure of the Exclusive Cigar Manufacturers Ireland, ECMI, plant in Ballaghaderreen really did not come as a surprise to many people. A number of the staff have been saying that the writing has been on the wall for some time. I feel that, because it was known for some months that there could be difficulties, the Government should have been on the ball and monitoring this situation. If it was not able to save those jobs, perhaps it could have had something in place in order to ensure that employment would have been brought into Ballaghaderreen to replace those jobs that are being lost.

ECMI was established in Roscommon in 1978 and is one of the largest private employers in west Roscommon. That might surprise some people, but it is the case. The jobs involve a specific skill set and many who are being made redundant will likely have to leave their county to find similar work, and we all know that Dublin is busting at the seams. IDA Ireland has visited County Roscommon only once in 2017 and nearly half the year is gone. From the information I have received, its representatives also only visited once in 2016. Ballaghaderreen has been dealt several severe blows in recent years. Going back 12 or 14 years, we had the loss of the United Meat Packers, UMP, meat plant, but we have also lost a hotel and several businesses. The reality is that community in Ballaghaderreen reacted. It built many units which are there for jobs to go into, but the Government has not delivered. There is a huge amount of talk about balanced regional development in the programme for Government but it is not happening. I know I will have an opportunity to come back. I will hand over to Deputy Fitzmaurice for tamall beag.

Go raibh maith agat a Cheann Comhairle. I thank Deputy Eugene Murphy for sharing time. I echo his words with regard to Ballaghaderreen having suffered a devastating blow. My understanding is that the Minister for Jobs, Enterprise and Innovation has said that the likes of Enterprise Ireland or IDA Ireland do not get involved with tobacco-related products. That was said to me in recent few weeks. Regardless of what they do or do not get involved in, the west of Ireland needs a balance of development. It is not getting it. Ballaghaderreen was once noted as a sort of gateway town, especially with Knock Airport located nearby. We need a focus on Ballaghaderreen as well as other towns in County Roscommon and, indeed, the west of Ireland because, sadly and as was noted earlier, these people will have to drive 90 or 100 miles to Dublin, which is not able to cater for those that are there already.

If one looks at all the plans, one will see that there is a focus on building railways out to the likes of the airport and such projects. There should be a focus on putting good infrastructure in place and on ensuring that it is attractive, especially for business people, to move to towns like Ballaghaderreen. I am not saying that people can be picked up by the neck and told to set up business there. The town lost the meat factory and it has lost other businesses. There is scope there. There are people in the area. That is one thing there is. The raw materials are there in respect of employment because of the number of people in the area. If we can get jobs in, it will be good for the west of Ireland and it will be good for Ballaghaderreen. It will also be good for the economy. I ask the Government to start focusing on this and making sure that the west of Ireland gets its fair share.

Is Deputy Calleary to speak?

We will bring Deputy Calleary in on the next round.

I thank Deputies Eugene Murphy, Fitzmaurice and Calleary for raising this issue.

It is an important issue that I have been following closely since I was first informed about the announcement. First, as a rural Deputy, I recognise the impact that job losses can have on a town such as Ballaghaderreen and my thoughts are with the workers and the wider community affected by this announcement. Thankfully, there have not been too many announcements like this in recent times. In fact, the trend is going in the other direction. When it does happen, it is dramatic for a town. I must highlight that Workplace Relations Commission customer services staff are available to meet the employees concerned to provide information and answer any questions they may have with regard to their current situation and statutory employment rights entitlements. In addition to this, the State provides industrial relations mechanisms to assist parties in their efforts to resolve any differences they may have.

ECMI received a number of supports under various schemes from my Department through Enterprise Ireland between 2006 and 2011. In January 2013, the Department of Health communicated to all Departments and their agencies the guidelines for the implementation of Article 5.3 of the World Health Organization Framework Convention on Tobacco Control. Specifically principle 4 of the guidelines states that "because their products are lethal, the tobacco industry should not be granted incentives to establish or run their businesses". As such, my Department and its agencies are no longer in a position to support companies in this sector. Let us be clear that this only applies to this sector.

That said, my Department will continue to concentrate on creating sustainable employment in all regions of Ireland through the regional action plans for jobs. The action plan for jobs for the west covers counties Galway, Mayo and Roscommon. It is designed to promote the region as a whole for economic development, which will in turn benefit all three counties. In 2016, the west was the second fastest growing region in terms of employment, with numbers employed increasing by 5.5% over the year. We are definitely moving in the right direction, so I am committed to working with the various agencies and stakeholders in the west to ensure positive trends continue and sustainable jobs are ultimately created.

I might point out to the Deputies the importance of indigenous industry in the area. The local enterprise offices, LEOs, in Roscommon created 121 jobs in 2016. Enterprise Ireland created 133 jobs while IDA Ireland created 34 jobs. From IDA Ireland's point of view, it is difficult because it tries really hard. One must understand that many of the new jobs announced by IDA Ireland are in existing IDA companies, so it is not a case of new companies coming in all the time. I am very encouraged by the LEO figure. I think the LEOs have a very important role to play in job creation, particularly in the counties concerned. There are 31 of them in the region. I am convinced that they along with Enterprise Ireland will play an active role in securing indigenous jobs in the region. If the Deputies are anxious for me to visit the LEO offices to see any plans for the future they have, I will be delighted to visit the LEO offices in County Roscommon and bring Enterprise Ireland personnel with me to see what we can do to improve the job situation in Roscommon. However, I am confident that with the regional and overall action plans for jobs, we will be able to grow in the regions, especially in Roscommon. I will elaborate on that in my further reply.

I thank Deputy Eugene Murphy for allowing Deputy Fitzmaurice and me to share his time. I bear the Minister of State no personal grudge but that response was completely inadequate. There is nothing specific in that response that relates to west Roscommon or east Mayo, the areas that are directly affected by the loss of these jobs. Knock Airport in east Mayo, which catered for 750,000 passengers last year, is completely underutilised as a base and asset for economic development. A very innovative food ingredient plant run by Aurivo in Ballaghaderreen has the potential to spawn more industry if focus is put on food and creating food jobs within Ballaghaderreen. We cannot keep ignoring the collapse in small towns. The ultimate irony is that Ballaghaderreen is the headquarters of the Western Development Commission whose outgoing chairman, former Fine Gael councillor Paddy McGuinness, declined to be reappointed because he called the Minister of State out, called the Government out and, more importantly, called permanent Government out for their complete lack of interest in and lip service to the challenges facing regional Ireland. We want the Minister of State to come to west Roscommon and east Mayo and, in terms of Roscommon, focus on west Roscommon. The growth he speaks about is going into the area around Monksland. It needs to be spread across the county. Similarly, the action plan for jobs in the west is a plan for Galway city and the rest of us are being left behind.

I thank Deputy Calleary for highlighting this issue. Ballaghaderreen has a population of 3,000 people. A loss of 38 jobs is significant in such a region. They are all local people as well. However, I must put on record the work that has been done through the Action Plan for Jobs. The first progress report was completed in December. The statistics are there to prove that the number of people on the live register in Roscommon fell by 1,300 over the past four years, which is a decline of 30%, so it is not all doom and gloom in respect of job creation. My Department and I are very focused on the regions. The new Action Plan for Jobs, which we launched last February, has said that 200,000 jobs will be created by 2020, of which 135,000 will be in the regions. We have exceeded our expectations. In the first Action Plan for Jobs, we said we would create 100,000 jobs. We created 190,000 jobs. I assure the Deputy that the agencies under the aegis my Department and the Government are committed to Roscommon.

We had an initial allocation of €5 million in competitive funds for 48 local and regional initiatives. We had two calls under the competitive fund and the community enterprise initiative. Eleven projects in the west were successful in securing funding. Five of those involve partnerships with organisations in Roscommon and aim to benefit and support local business and entrepreneurs. The unemployment rate in the west is 7.9%, which is a bit above the rest of the country, but efforts are being made by agencies.

I must again point out the work being done by the LEOs. Foreign direct investment, FDI, will not go into every area. It tends to go into clusters. It is important to encourage entrepreneurship and we are doing this. Despite the challenges, the LEOs succeeded in creating more than 3,500 jobs last year. When we look at the LEO figures in Roscommon, we can see the figure in 2015 was 145, which was double the 2014 figure. The figure fell back slightly in 2016 but I am anxious that we continue to ensure Roscommon is well served. Enterprise Ireland is doing that and is working in collaboration with the LEOs as well. A total of 133 jobs were created in Roscommon last year, while in 2014, 311 jobs were created.

With the agencies and the support of the Government, I am confident we will secure alternative employment for Ballaghaderreen. There are 3,000 people living in Ballaghaderreen, so losing 38 jobs means a lot, particularly for young families that may have mortgages, etc. We are very conscious of that. Last year, we made €150 million available to IDA Ireland to support a regional property programme to drive jobs in the multinational sector in rural areas. The resources are there. We got resources in last year's budget. Rural Ireland is very important to us and will continue to be important to my Department. I am very conscious of the concern raised by all three Deputies and will visit Roscommon in the near future to see at first hand what is happening with the agencies there.

Seaweed Harvesting Licences

I wish to discuss the ten year kelp harvest licence issued by the Department of Housing, Planning, Community and Local Government to BioAtlantis in Tralee to harvest mechanically 753 hectares, or 1,860 acres, of native kelp forest in Bantry Bay in west Cork. The licence that allows BioAtlantis to harvest mechanically vast amounts of kelp in Bantry Bay is experimental and the effects could cause huge damage to west Cork. This is the first licence in Ireland or Great Britain to allow the mechanical harvesting of seaweed and the effects could be detrimental to wildlife, tourism and employment in Bantry.

The mechanical harvesting of kelp will affect birds, fish, flora and invertebrates in the area and also the local fishermen whose living depends on the bay and its resources.

There is much anger and unrest in west Cork as a result of this licence being issued and there is huge concern for the local ecology and economy. Bantry Bay is a crucial resource in terms of the environment, tourism and local jobs. This licence, which has been granted without essential input from key stakeholders, is seen as a serious imposition on the people of Bantry. They feel that the granting of the licence was grossly unfair and see no benefit accruing to the Bantry area. Instead, there is significant fear of the negative implications it will have.

There was a lack of adequate communication between the Minister of State's Department and the people of the Bantry area on this issue. The Department has an obligation to support Cork County Council and provide information on proposed developments in the locality in order for the council to be able to disperse this information to the public and allow the public to have an input. Cork County Council was not consulted about the granting of this licence, which will have an enormous impact on the people of Bantry and the wider community.

In 2010, the local community, regulatory bodies and other agencies with an interest in Bantry Bay developed the Bantry Bay coastal zone charter in order to safeguard our bay. The project was initiated by Cork County Council to address the challenge of successful coastal zone management around Bantry Bay. The stakeholders' charter is based on the understanding that regulatory agencies need to work in partnership with the local community for the successful management and development of the area. It explores the use of consensus, whereby all stakeholders work together to develop a single agreed approach to its development.

Key aspects of the charter include that local people have a role in decision-making in their local area. It states that all regulatory agencies must ensure that the public can understand how they operate and take decisions. The public must be able to have an input into the decision-making process and have full information about decisions made and appeal procedures. Where appropriate, all developments should involve all relevant organisations and individuals working together. Wherever possible, decisions affecting the Bantry Bay coastal zone should be taken on the basis of consensus, where general agreement among the local community is reached. This is to ensure that the decisions will have the strongest community support possible. The environment of Bantry Bay is unique and valuable and should be protected. All proposals for the Bantry Bay coastal zone should minimise the possible negative impact on the environment and, wherever possible, should improve the environment. The necessary requirements for local traditional livelihoods to survive and be successful should be respected in all proposals for the Bantry Bay coastal zone.

The Department has completely ignored the Bantry Bay coastal zone charter which stakeholders in our community worked so hard to develop. I ask that the Minister of State revoke the licence issued to BioAtlantis Tralee without delay on the basis that the Department did not advertise this licence with sufficient detail, it did not engage in consultation with local stakeholders and it failed to respect the Bantry Bay coastal zone charter.

I thank Deputy Collins for raising this matter and giving me the opportunity to set out some background and context to the licence and the concerns that have recently arisen. My Department regulates seaweed harvesting in accordance with the Foreshore Act 1933. It aims to ensure that wild seaweed, which is a valuable resource, is managed appropriately to ensure that it remains sustainable and that the marine environment is protected. The use of wild seaweed has the potential, if sustainably managed, to feed into the development of new products or to enhance existing products or services and stimulate further economic activity in rural areas. Seaweed has been harvested by hand from the foreshore for generations and its harvesting and processing have been important components of some coastal communities' way of life for many years. It is economically and culturally very significant and I understand, therefore, the genuine concerns that have arisen in regard to this licence.

I want to give some context to decisions that have been made in this case. There have been a number of applications over the years to mechanically harvest seaweed but this is the first application to be granted a licence. Until the monitoring data that the licensee must provide is analysed, it is not envisaged that further licences to mechanically harvest seaweed will issue. The indigenous Irish company that has been granted this licence had previously applied to harvest in Kenmare Bay. No licence issued in that case because the expert view at the time was that any future application should focus on an area outside of a special area of conservation and also include a commitment to conduct a detailed programme of monitoring. The licence to harvest in Bantry Bay, originally received in June 2009, met with that criteria and was processed in the same way as other foreshore lease and licence applications received around the same time. Normal public consultation procedures were followed. The marine licence vetting committee recommended that a licence should issue and approval, in principle, was given by the former Minister, John Gormley, in 2011. In 2014 the final legal papers giving effect to the decision were authorised by then Minister for the Environment, Deputy Kelly, the direct predecessor of the current Minister.

The licence is of a trial nature and was granted for a period of ten years which commenced on 21 March 2014. It allows for the mechanical harvest of kelp species laminaria digitata and laminaria hyperborean within five specified zones but with only one zone to be harvested in any one year. The planned rotation is four years with the fifth zone being a stand-by zone to be used only if weather prevents access to a zone in any particular year. The stand-by zone is almost 100 ha, reducing the overall area for harvest to a maximum of approximately 650 ha. The licence is subject to strict monitoring and control provided for in the specific conditions attaching to the legally binding agreement of both parties.

A baseline study prepared by the licensee has been submitted to my Department for approval and is still under consideration in conjunction with marine experts. The agreed monitoring programme is available to view on my Department's website. In addition, the licensee is required to submit an annual report of harvesting activities to include the area and quantities harvested and measured regeneration rates of the seaweed. Should unacceptable impact on the environment be observed, I will have no hesitation in exercising my right under the licence to modify or restrict harvest practices and schedules as necessary.

I thank the Minister of State for his reply. Kelp forests are one of the most ecologically dynamic and biologically diverse habitats on the planet. The importance of kelp not only as a habitat but as a food resource for birds and fish has been highlighted by numerous studies. Kelp forests provide a foraging habitat for birds and fish. Kelp habitats are important nursery and refuge grounds for juvenile gadoids and salmon. It is preposterous to assume that the destruction of these kelp forests will not have a negative impact on the ecology of Bantry Bay.

While the Minister of State says that the normal public consultation process was carried out, this process was wholly inadequate. Residents of Bantry and the surrounding area were totally unaware of this application. There was no public oral hearing for the granting of the licence. I take issue with the level of advertising in respect of the licence. There was only one advertisement in a local paper and one flyer in the local Garda station for it. There is no mention in the advertisements of a mechanical harvest, nor of the size and scale of the licence. The licence for a project of this scale should not be advertised with such vague details. The advertisement gives the impression that the Department was only granting a licence to hand harvest a small amount of seaweed. The Minister of State must admit that this is unacceptable.

On behalf of the people of Bantry and surrounding areas, I am pleading with the Minister of State to rescind this licence immediately until proper consultation has taken place with the people of the area and until adequate research has been carried out on the effects of large scale mechanical harvesting of kelp in Ireland. I invite the Minister of State and the Minister for Housing, Planning, Community and Local Government, Deputy Coveney, to come to Bantry. The community and the area have experienced severe hardship in recent years. Things have been just about turned around, with a lot of positive developments currently taking place in Bantry. If the Minister of State sees the beauty of Bantry Bay and the damage this harvesting will do to the people and the surrounds of the bay, he will rescind this decision.

I am aware that living seaweed acts as an important habitat for marine and coastal species and can provide spawning and nursery grounds for various species of marine life. Deputy Michael Collins mentioned how significant it is to Bantry. However, as the Deputy stated, we cannot forget that supporting quality employment in coastal communities, in particular along the western seaboard, is of great importance. Seaweed can play a valuable role in ongoing economic recovery in those areas. As I stressed earlier, it must be managed in a sustainable way. This indigenous company located in the south-west area was granted this licence a number of years ago and has, in good faith, made significant investment in a harvesting vessel, an assessment of the potential impacts of harvesting, and the baseline study. It has also committed to further expenditure in regard to the agreed monitoring programme.

These data will feed into policy formation and proposals in the general area of seaweed harvesting.

Given the overall circumstances I have outlined, I regret that I must inform the Deputy that we do not propose to accede to his request to revoke the licence granted in 2014. To be clear, the final legal papers giving effect to that decision were authorised by the then Minister, Deputy Kelly, in 2014 so it is not possible to rescind that decision. I understand the Deputy's concerns as he has raised them and I take note of his concerns in respect of the advertising around a licence such as this. I have no problem in discussing this with our officials in the Department to bear in mind for future applications. It is a conversation we have on general planning applications as well, and we certainly must go to all the right ends we can to ensure that people are informed of potential applications for planning permissions or licences etc. If that is something we can improve upon, then I will raise it on Deputy Collins' behalf with officials in the Department regarding future licences. As I said earlier, there are no plans to grant any more licences until all these data have been monitored. I believe this will be a useful prototype to be able to monitor and in making decisions for the future. I give my assurances that it will be done to the highest standards.

We do not want to have to be making the case here.

The Deputy has told me that but he must understand that I cannot go backwards to something that happened nearly six years ago. All I can give the Deputy is a commitment that the Department will monitor this and work with the company involved. No doubt the locals will have a view on the monitoring arrangements. The advertising arrangements will also be reviewed for future reference. I thank Deputy Collins for raising the matter today.