Topical Issue Debate

Parking Regulations

Before the Minister and the Ministers of State leave, I congratulate everyone who was reappointed.

Dementia is a deeply distressing condition for those suffering from it and for their families. It presents a significant and growing challenge to health and social services. As our population ages, the number of people with dementia will increase. Progressive increases in investment towards support for people with dementia and Alzheimer's disease will be required in the years ahead.

Supporting the provisions of disabled persons' parking cards, also known as European parking cards or disabled parking badges, for dementia and Alzheimer's disease suffers would make such a difference to their lives.

The World Health Organization has described dementia as one of the most serious social challenges facing the world today. Currently, a total of 55,000 people are living with dementia in Ireland and over 5,000 people have early onset Alzheimer's disease. Many more of them still drive, thankfully.

The Alzheimer Society of Ireland has made the point that the majority of people with dementia, over 63%, live in the community and wish to continue to live at home as a first option.

Insufficient provision for home help and home care packages channel people to long-term care causing the institutionalisation of people with dementia. However, people with dementia prefer to remain living at home for as long as possible. With the right supports, this is possible for the majority of the people concerned.

We should not underestimate the difference we can make by implementing simple measures, such as issuing parking cards, that would make life easier for those struggling as the illness takes hold. The proposal is simple but practical. It would be a step in the right direction and Ireland could be a world leader for dementia care and support. Everyday challenges differ for people with Alzheimer's disease and dementia. Small things can make a major difference. People are living longer and will need more supports as they age.

In 2014, the National Assembly for Wales passed the Disabled Persons (Badges for Motor Vehicles) (Wales) (Amendment) Regulations 2014. The regulations allow those with a cognitive impairment, that is, people who cannot plan and follow the route of a familiar journey, to be eligible for a blue badge as of January 2015. The regulations do not give automatic entitlement to a blue badge. According to the blue badge scheme criteria in Wales, a person needs to provide a letter of support from a relevant health care professional explaining the diagnosis.

I am calling for a change in the criteria such that people with dementia can be eligible to apply for the disabled person's parking card based on an assessment by their general practitioner to verify the need. This will help to resolve the difficulties faced by people with dementia and their families in carrying on activities of daily life. Activities that many of us take for granted, like visiting the shop or attending GP appointments, can become physically challenging and the associated journeys can be daunting for people with dementia and Alzheimer's disease. I hope the Government will consider this change in order that people are able to continue doing the things they enjoy and maintain their independence for far longer.

People with dementia have the right to maintain their independence and to remain and be active in a familiar environment linked to their communities. To do this, they need access to supports that reflect the complex and changing needs of the condition.

The disabled parking permit scheme was born out of a basic necessity to maintain independence for people in Ireland living with a permanent disability, medical condition or severe mobility difficulties, as well as for people who are registered blind, whether they are drivers or passengers. A person with a disability requires access to a disabled parking bay because of access to amenities and facilities. Accessible parking bays are located near amenities for people to access work, education, public transport, post office, shops, banks or social events as well as hospital appointments.

I am aware of a lady who dropped her husband off at the door of the hospital while she went to park. Her husband suffers from dementia. When she got back to the hospital door, her husband was missing. Luckily, with the help of the Garda, she found him a mile and a half away. The man could have walked out in front of a lorry or car. He was simply not capable of managing on his own.

The value of these cards cannot be underestimated. Their availability supports people's right to inclusion. European parking cards can be used by disabled people within the European Union and are recognised in the United States and Canada also. This means when people travel abroad, they can bring their cards with them. Extending the scheme would ensure independence dignity and choice for people with dementia and Alzheimer's disease, as well as their carers.

I thank the Deputy for his kind remarks. I congratulate him on bringing forward this subject. I am sympathetic. I am not going to grant his wish today but I think he has made a good case for what he has put forward. The matter is probably somewhat more complicated than the Deputy has said but I take it that the issue is brought up a sincere fashion and the case the Deputy has made is undoubtedly a strong one.

The provision and use of the disabled parking permit scheme is set out in section 35 of the Road Traffic Act 1994 and the Road Traffic (Traffic and Parking) Regulations 1997, Sl 182 of 1997, as amended.

The scheme is administered by the Irish Wheelchair Association and the Disabled Drivers Association of Ireland. The disabled parking permit is available to people living in Ireland whose mobility is severely and permanently restricted, whether they are drivers or passengers, and to people who are registered blind. The permit is designed in accordance with EU legislation and is recognised in all EU member states. The permit is valid for two years from the date of issue.

In 2010, the Department conducted a review of the disabled parking scheme in consultation with various stakeholders. One of the issues looked at was eligibility for the scheme. Disability groups were unhappy at the fact that some people were being issued with disabled parking permits because they had a particular condition rather than a mobility impairment. For example, cardiac conditions that can severely limit mobility entitled people to a permit at that time. However, not all sufferers of the condition have a mobility impairment. As a result of the review, the scheme was revised such that permits are now given based on the level of mobility impairment rather than diagnosis of a particular condition.

The medical criteria for issue of the permit are strict and only persons whose mobility is severely and permanently restricted qualify. Therefore, people living with dementia and Alzheimer's disease would not necessarily qualify for a permit unless their mobility was severely and permanently restricted.

The primary legislation for the purposes of EU parking permits defines a disabled person as a person with a permanent condition or disability that severely restricts the ability of the person to walk. This definition was introduced into the Irish regulations by the Road Traffic (Traffic and Parking) (Amendment) Regulations 2011, Sl 239 of 2011. Primary medical certificate holders are considered to qualify having already met the criteria and are only required to submit a copy of their certificate with the application form. Similarly, those who are visually impaired are only required to submit confirmation that they are registered blind with the application form. For all other applicants, a medical practitioner must complete the medical section of the application describing the applicant's level of mobility and certifying the accuracy of same.

My Department remains in ongoing contact with the Irish Wheelchair Association and the Disabled Drivers Association of Ireland. Due to arguments made by the Deputy and others, I remain open to considering improvements to the scheme that may be needed in the future.

I thank the Minister for his response. However, I am a little disappointed because while people with dementia and Alzheimer's disease are not disabled in one way, that is to say, physically, they are certainly disabled mentally.

Their carers have great difficulty. In the case of the lady who dropped off her husband at the hospital door, it was very fortunate that the man was not killed walking down into Sligo town, a mile and a half from the hospital. These are the problems people face when trying to get loved ones to appointments or even when going about their daily business. The person with dementia or Alzheimer's disease might be sitting in the car while the carer, husband, wife or whoever goes off to do a small bit of shopping. It is a serious concern. They worry that the person might leave the car. Access to disabled parking would be helpful for the people concerned. The Minister should give serious considerations to this matter. It would be a step in the right direction to make life easier for those who care for loved ones with Alzheimer's disease and dementia.

I thank the Deputy for his response. I know that he is disappointed. I am disappointed myself that I cannot do this at this stage. The overriding criterion is mobility. Until we change that criterion, to grant it to other cases, however deserving - I do not dispute for one moment how deserving they are - would be changing the criteria back to when they were changed to their current form in 2010. I can guarantee the Deputy that he is not the only one who has made representations on this matter, not just in respect of Alzheimer's disease and dementia but also in regard to other diseases, a diagnosis of which it has been suggested should qualify people to use disabled parking spaces. I will keep it under review. The numbers the Deputy mentioned are huge. To open it up to everybody suffering from diseases which are not mobility-affected would be impossible to implement. There just would not be enough spaces. The case the Deputy has made on behalf of those two particular groups is something I will look at again in the next few months.

Hospital Accommodation Provision

There is a huge bed capacity deficiency at South Tipperary General Hospital. Put very simply, there are not enough beds to cater for the demand for services at the hospital. This has been accepted in recent years by local hospital management, HSE regional management and the management of the south-south west hospital group of which South Tipperary General Hospital is part. The preferred option for a medium-term solution to this bed deficit is a 40-bed modular or hotel-type accommodation. In October of last year, the senior Minister, Deputy Simon Harris, visited the hospital and described the conditions there as utterly unacceptable. He further said that solutions must be found. He promised that a decision would be made before the end of the year. We are now six months into the following year and we still have no decision on this very urgent and immediate problem.

As the Minister of State knows well, the hospital is a progressive hospital, forward looking and very efficient. Despite the best efforts of staff, there is horrendous chaos almost on a daily basis, with significant numbers of trolleys on the corridors. The month of May saw a huge number of trolleys and we have had as many as 31 trolleys in the corridors in the current month of June. If this is the case in May and June, what will the situation be like in the coming autumn and winter?

Patients on trolleys have no dignity or privacy and lack access to adequate bathroom and washing facilities. Staff are run off their feet and are struggling to provide a safe service in a highly pressurised atmosphere. South Tipperary General Hospital has been effectively in crisis for more than five years. It has experienced savage budget cuts to funding and staffing while, at the same time, it has increased hospital activity at emergency department, outpatient and inpatient levels. The hospital is bursting at the seams, operating at 130% capacity. The medical department is at the even higher rate of 150% capacity. I remind the Minister of State that full occupancy is defined as 85%. As a priority, the hospital needs 40 additional beds immediately. I ask that the Minister for Health, Deputy Simon Harris, fulfil the promise he made when he visited the hospital nine months ago to approve and fund a 40-bed inpatient extension to ensure the hospital can deal reasonably and well with its patients on a daily basis.

On behalf of the Minister for Health, Deputy Simon Harris, I thank the Deputy for raising this matter and giving me an opportunity to update the House on the current position on South Tipperary General Hospital. I acknowledge the work of the Deputy on this matter and health matters generally. As the Deputy mentioned, the Minister visited South Tipperary General Hospital last year and is aware that there are capacity challenges at the hospital. However, work is under way to address this issue.

The HSE identified that the most immediate and effective response to alleviate pressure at the hospital is through the fit out of additional space for 11 trolley bays on the first floor. Accordingly, this work was prioritised for funding and has been completed recently. A recruitment process is under way to provide additional staff for this new area. Subject to a successful recruitment initiative, it is anticipated that this additional capacity will open in September 2017.

Another option under consideration is the use of the national framework for alternative accommodation at hospital sites to provide additional surge capacity through a temporary inpatient solution at the site. This will receive further consideration in the context of the Estimates of 2018.

The Minister is advised that the south-south west hospital group, recognising that bed utilisation in the hospital has increased significantly in recent times, is conducting a capacity review. This review which is nearing completion will inform the precise level and nature of any additional capacity required to meet current and future needs. The Department of Health’s national capacity review will also help identify service requirements and inform resourcing priorities. It is noted too that the hospital group is preparing a brief for the procurement of a master plan for the hospital campus. The master plan will provide for the orderly development of the South Tipperary General Hospital campus, and ensure the site is not compromised in any way.

Looking beyond acute services, the Minister had asked the HSE to explore what additional supports Our Lady's Hospital, Cashel, could provide to alleviate pressure in south Tipperary. I understand the HSE has recently submitted a proposal for future service provision which is focused particularly on the development of the Cashel health campus to deliver integrated care for the population of south Tipperary through the collaborative efforts of the south-south west hospital group and community healthcare organisation 5. The proposal will have additional resource requirements including specialist staffing and will therefore need to be considered in the context of the Estimates of 2018.

The Department of Health and the HSE are engaged in a process to commence winter planning for next year and to achieve an improvement trajectory in emergency department performance. Alongside this process, the HSE’s special delivery unit continues to work closely with hospitals to identify improvements that can be made to support patient flow, reduce trolley numbers and improve patients’ emergency department experience.

On behalf of the Minister, I can assure the Deputy that there continues to be a very strong focus on reducing emergency department overcrowding both in south Tipperary and across the country.

This reply is desperately disappointing and unacceptable. It is effectively kicking the can down the road to the Estimates of 2018, which means there will be no movement on this until 2018 at the very earliest. It is condemning patients to life on trolleys in huge numbers over the next autumn-winter period. A trolley bay of 11 has been provided and while it is helpful it is not a solution. It is effectively hiding away the problem in a trolley bay and, worse still, it is robbing Peter to pay Paul because this trolley bay area was already identified for day procedures and minor surgery, so that is also being affected.

I understand a senior medical professional from the South-South West hospital group did a forensic analysis of the bed capacity requirements at the hospital recently. That official has confirmed that 35 to 40 additional beds are needed at the hospital. The report on this has been with the HSE for some time and is being held up at a very senior level in the HSE. Will the Minister of State confirm that this report, which is now with the HSE, will be published and when it will be published? Will he immediately request the senior Minister, Deputy Harris, who made a commitment and a promise in regard to this last October, nine months ago, to approve and provide funding for the 40 additional beds that are needed in this hospital?

I thank the Deputy for raising this issue. I agree with him that the trolley bay is effective but I also strongly agree with him that it is a temporary measure and not a long-term solution. I respect the fact that there is an issue regarding patients on trolleys and the Minister, Deputy Simon Harris, and myself would never find that acceptable. I give the Deputy a commitment that I will bring the issues he raised, particularly the bed capacity issue and the report indicating that 35 to 40 beds are urgently needed, to the attention of the Minister. I will follow up on that report and I will ask the Minister, Deputy Harris, about that issue. It is also important to realise that we have difficulties with staffing, nursing and other issues that are all out of our control. In the broader context of inpatient beds at South Tipperary General Hospital, I will convey all the Deputy's concerns to the Minister, Deputy Harris, and, hopefully, we will have action on them soon.

Military Neutrality

In what is seen as a massive step towards the creation of a standing EU army, the European Commission has stated it will now spend €1.5 billion a year on joint defence spending. This will be financed from the annual EU budget. It is the first time that money from the EU's budget will be directly used to buy military equipment and on joint defence capabilities.

People are aware of the need to improve domestic security considering the recent attacks in Paris, London and Manchester, but the creation of this external force is an extra financial burden and is not needed. The EU says it has no spare money for positive social and economic programmes such as youth unemployment projects, community regeneration, and improving public services like health care but it has €1.5 billion a year to spend on regressive military projects, especially considering the same budget will have a €10 billion hole in it when Britain leaves the Union.

I want to see Irish taxpayers' money being spent on health care services, on ending the trolley crisis, on making education more accessible, or on creating good quality jobs in urban and rural areas and on housing and not spent on weapons and creating a standing EU army.

This is a political decision. It comes at a time when NATO bosses fear the USA's long-term commitment to the alliance and at a time when Britain is to leave the EU. NATO is a Cold War relic that should be disbanded.

The original declaration on this huge annual spend stated that it was for research and development of military products in member states and to facilitate the buying of new military technologies. However, the Commission and the European External Action Service added in a Reflection Paper on the Future of European Defence, launched on Wednesday, 7 June, that the fund could in future form part of the bloc's "common defence and security". They said that member states' defence forces could one day "be pre-positioned and be made permanently available for rapid deployment on behalf of the Union". In simple terms, this is clearly the establishment of a standing EU army. The paper also said that "the EU would provide the framework within which the 27 member states after Brexit - 21 of which are NATO allies - would collectively strengthen their defence and address existing shortfalls", whatever that means.

The aim is clearly to develop an aggressive EU army, able to intervene militarily and conduct war supposedly independent of NATO and the USA. Yet we have not heard one word of concern, unease or criticism from the supposedly neutral Irish Government.

Any EU policy which aims to increase EU militarisation is a potential danger to Irish neutrality. It is particularly worrying that an EU defence policy would be also designed to be complementary to NATO. Ireland's membership of this will in effect be NATO membership through the side door.

The creation of a permanent EU force available for deployment on EU missions, as imagined by the Commission, would also make it impossible for any EU member state to maintain a policy of neutrality. What is the Minister of State doing to oppose these plans and to protect Irish neutrality? He is signing off on this while a large proportion of the members of our Defence Forces are reliant on lousy wages, on social welfare top-ups and substandard accommodation. Many cannot even afford the petrol costs to drive to work. Yet the €1.5 billion can be found, no problem, for supposedly weapons development and a standing EU army.

I thank the Deputy for raising this matter.

The College of Commissioners adopted the European Defence Action Plan on 30 November last. The aim of the plan is to explore how EU policies and instruments can ensure that the EU’s industrial and skills base will be able to deliver required defence capabilities in view of current and future security challenges. As part of this plan, the Commission issued a communication on 7 June proposing the establishment of a European defence fund. The purpose of the fund is to promote research and innovation and contribute to the strengthening of the European defence technology and industrial base, and to further stimulate the development of key defence capabilities for the Common Security and Defence Policy, CSDP.

For many countries the defence industry is a significant element of their economy and a significant employer. As the Commission moves to apply Single Market principles to the defence industry sector, access to Commission instruments in support of consolidation and increased efficiencies in the sector, including EU research and development funds, come into play.

The focus of the plan is not specific to the arms industry but focuses on the development of new research and technology in the defence sector in its widest sense. This includes the application of commercial and civilian technologies within the defence sector.

The fund will co-ordinate, supplement and amplify national investments in defence. By pooling resources, it is proposed that individual member states can achieve greater output and develop defence technology and equipment that may not be feasible on their own. The fund will also foster innovation and allow economies of scale which will reinforce the competitiveness of the EU defence industry.

To achieve this, the fund has two strands, or windows, which are complementary and are being gradually deployed, a research window and a capability window which will focus on the development and acquisition of capabilities. In the research window, it is proposed that the EU will offer direct funding grants for research in innovative defence products and technologies, fully financed from the EU budget. The capability window deals with development and acquisition. Member states will pool financial contributions to jointly develop and acquire key defence capabilities. The EU proposes to offer co-financing from the EU budget on the development phase through the proposed European defence industrial development programme.

The EU also proposes to support member states’ collaborative efforts in helping them deploy the most suitable financial arrangements for joint acquisition with a view to incentivise cooperation and leverage national financing. Until 2020, the Commission is proposing to allocate €590 million to the European defence fund. As of 2020, the Commission is proposing to allocate at the minimum €1.5 billion per year. The fund is not designed to substitute member states’ defence investments, but to enable and accelerate their co-operation. The proposals presented by the Commission are the first step in a long process of negotiation that will take place with the involvement of the member states. These proposals will be discussed at a number of EU working bodies and will require EU Council and Parliament approval before the defence fund can be adopted. As part of these negotiations, member states will have differing views on the fund and also to the potential impact on the content and nature of EU research and innovation programmes, in particular in relation to the successor to the Horizon 2020 research programme. Moreover, the funding proposed will have to be dealt with in the context of the negotiations for the multi-annual financial framework post-2020.

The proposals under the defence fund will fully respect the EU treaties and the Lisbon treaty protocols and they pose no challenge to Ireland’s traditional policy of military neutrality. The voluntary nature of participation in the proposed fund is very much a feature of this initiative and fully acknowledges and reaffirms that defence remains a member state prerogative. Decisions about expenditure, military capabilities, research and technology are and remain matters for individual member states in the first instance. Ireland would be in full control in relation to what type of project it wanted to participate in and with whom. The proposals for the establishment of a defence fund raises no issues in relation to Ireland’s traditional policy of military neutrality.

I quote from the reflection paper from 7 June which the Minister of State may not have seen. We have our priorities all wrong regarding Europe. When I and my colleague, Deputy Ó Snodaigh, brought forward a Bill to enshrine neutrality into Bunreacht na hÉireann, we were repeatedly and wrongly told that the Constitution already protects Irish neutrality. In that debate, the Minister of State himself stated that there were no proposals to create a standing EU army and we are not, and will not, become part of any alliance of permanent military formation but that is clearly the direction in which the Commission and the European External Action Group wish to move us. Why has the Irish Government not vetoed this latest step to create a standing EU army? The Commission has been totally dismissive of the democratic will of states and their citizens. When it comes to military integration, Jean-Claude Junker's Commission has adopted an attitude of "when" rather than "if". An Irish Government should be able to tell the Commission that it will not accept this latest step and neither does the Irish people who actively support Irish neutrality en masse. The Commission's stated aim of achieving a security and defence union by 2025 marks a shift in EU policy which undermines national sovereignty.

As we have seen in Iraq and Libya, military intervention only worsens and prolongs conflicts. The focus of the EU and its member states should be on increasing international co-operation which improves democracy, human rights and development and not a militaristic foreign policy which will exacerbate instability. While Europe fails to adequately provide for refugees fleeing war and conflict, it is shocking to most people that the Commission would prioritise an increase in military spending. These priorities are all wrong and that is the view of most Irish people.

I would not accept Deputy Crowe's assertion on that. Ireland recognises that for certain EU member states, defence is a significant contributor to their economies and represents an industry of €100 million, with 1.5 million people employed directly and indirectly. As I have previously told the House, for Ireland to have well-equipped and capability-driven defence forces, we must support funding for defence research. That is exactly what this is about. Ireland may not have a defence industry but it does not stop Ireland tapping into funding through our well-established companies in the dual use, product and technology sectors. Under the development and acquisition strand of the proposed defence fund, Ireland welcomes that a proportion of the overall budget proposed for projects involving cross-border participation of SMEs. This may give Irish industry and opportunity to participate in this proposed programme. Ireland's position will continue to develop through the interdepartmental group established to examine the implications of the defence fund for Ireland and to ensure a consolidated position on the proposals before us. The defence industry development programme proposed under the capability window will now be referred to the EU Parliament and Council for their consideration and the Commission hopes that this programme will be agreed and in place for the period 2018-2019. On the 2017 preparatory action under the research window, my Department is working closely with the Department of Jobs, Enterprise and Innovation and Enterprise Ireland to ensure Irish industry and academia are well informed about opportunities that may arise from this programme. This has no influence whatever on our policy of neutrality.

Waste Disposal

The fourth and final item is one which Deputy O'Dea wishes to discuss. It concerns the proposal by Irish Cement to burn toxic waste at its plant in Limerick.

I thank the Ceann Comhairle for allowing me to raise this matter. I thank the relevant Minister, Deputy Denis Naughten, for coming in. I raised this previously and on that occasion it was dealt with by the Minister for Education and Skills who was standing in for him. I am glad he is here that I can bring it to his personal attention.

Irish Cement Limited has plans to burn initially 90,000 tonnes of toxic waste at its plant in Castlemungret, Mungret, County Limerick. There are 25,000 living in the immediate vicinity of that plant on the south side of Limerick city. This particular plant has an appalling safety record. There have been regular malfunctions and blow outs over several years and especially in recent months. In that context, my constituents are naturally very reluctant to accept any assurances coming from Irish Cement Limited.

I have had meetings with Irish Cement Limited on this matter. We have listened to what its spokesman have had to say. Its argument is that of the four cement plants on the island of Ireland - one is across the Border - three have moved from burning fossil fuel to burning industrial and toxic waste so what is the problem with a fourth one doing so? It also argues that this process is widespread throughout Europe and other parts of the world and that it has worked well, particularly in Germany. That argument leaves out a number of factors. First, it leaves out the extra filtration and mitigating equipment used in Germany, which is not proposed to be used here. More crucially, it also leaves out that fact that since various countries allowed this process, in accordance with rules formulated to cover it, science has moved on. In several European countries where this process takes place, particularly Spain, they have realised the danger it constitutes to public health and there has been a storm of protest. We cannot just swallow the argument that because they are there and they operate in accordance with the rules in operation when they applied. That does not mean they are not killing people or damaging them.

There is a wealth of scientific evidence that shows a very close connection between various forms of cancer and respiratory diseases and proximity to this type of operation. I am advised by people who know a lot more about this than I do, that the burning of toxic waste in a cement plant is infinitely more dangerous to the environment than a traditional incinerator. Irish Cement Limited have also claimed that burning this so-called alternative fuel, namely industrial waste, will reduce the carbon footprint. It will do nothing of the sort. I do not have time to illustrate why this statement is another sham but even if it did reduce the carbon footprint, it would still be counterproductive because it results in an increase in the toxins and fluorines released into the atmosphere.

Limerick City & County Council, in its wisdom, has given planning permission for this plant to go ahead. The case is on appeal to An Bord Pleanána. Then it will be a matter for the EPA. I know my time has run out, but what I am asking the Minister is whether we cannot get this delayed until we review at least how the EPA is operating. He will be aware that there are numerous complaints about the EPA. It needs additional resources, additional ground rules and additional expertise. Seeing that science has shown us the dangers to public health of these operations elsewhere in the world, why should we allow one to go ahead here? The usual practice of the EPA is to give the go-ahead, the licence, if planning permission is granted, which calls into question, incidentally, what the EPA is for in the first place.

I am glad to take this Topical Issue. I apologise that I was not in a position to be present the last time when the Minister, Deputy Bruton, took the issue on my behalf.

I firmly endeavour, in so far as I can, to be physically present for debates such as this.

It is understood that the facility to which the Deputy refers has submitted a proposed amendment to its licence to use certain waste materials as part of its fuel mix as raw materials in the manufacture of cement.

Industrial emissions installations are subject to a range of regulatory controls under national legislation, including the conditions attached to a licence issued by the Environmental Protection Agency on the operation and management of such sites. The Minister has no function in monitoring or enforcing the conditions attached to such licences and is precluded from exercising any power or control in respect of the performance by the Environmental Protection Agency, in particular in circumstances of a statutory function conferred on the agency. An application for a licence or an amendment to a licence must satisfy the EPA that the activity will not cause environmental pollution when carried out in accordance with the licence conditions.

The role of the Minister in respect of waste management is to provide a comprehensive legislative and policy framework through which the relevant regulatory authorities, such as local authorities and the Environmental Protection Agency, operate. The Government waste policy is set out in A Resource Opportunity - Waste Management Policy in Ireland and is predicated on the waste hierarchy whereby the prevention, preparation for reuse, recycling and recovery of waste is preferred to the disposal of waste.

Thermal recovery activities, where the use of waste is to produce energy in the form of fuel, heat and power, sit on the recovery tier of the waste hierarchy and have a role to play in reducing our dependence on the disposal of waste to landfill. The State has made real progress in this regard. Landfill of municipal solid waste has decreased from 92% in 1995 to 41% in 2012.

In terms of national policy, the production of solid recovered fuel, SRF, from municipal waste and its use in thermal recovery is a better alternative to burying it in the ground, which is not only detrimental to the environment in terms of managing the resultant leachate and greenhouse gas emissions, but also detrimental to the creation of jobs and energy through the development of recycling and recovery processes.

Regarding cement production, the recovery of SRF and other specified waste streams under strictly regulated conditions can replace our reliance on imported fossil fuels, reduce our greenhouse gas emissions and help our transition to a more circular and resource-efficient economy.

As I stated earlier, the operation and monitoring of the facility is a matter for the relevant statutory authorities, including the Environmental Protection Agency, and I am satisfied the plant is subject to the proper regulatory controls.

Is the Minister satisfied? Is he aware of the criticisms of the EPA, namely, that it is insufficiently staffed, has insufficient expertise and operates a kind of self-regulation system whereby companies, such as Irish Cement Limited, monitor their own omissions and report occasionally to the EPA? He will find that when the emission levels are shown to have been exceeded, often the sensors are blamed and it is cited that they are contaminated. I have seen this myself. How many prosecutions have resulted from investigations by the EPA? Has a licence granted ever been withdrawn? I want answers to these questions and I want to know whether the Government has any plans to up the performance of the EPA.

Can the Minister offer any comfort whatsoever to my constituents? So far, 2,500 people have objected to the issue of the EPA licence. People are very scared. I am dealing with them regularly. We have had a number of large public meetings. I have walked around some of the estates in the immediate vicinity of the cement plant and I have seen the physical consequences: the white dust on cars, etc. I found it difficult to breathe after walking around the estate immediately adjoining the cement plant one day. People tell me constantly that while the EPA is pretty busy and while its representatives come up when contacted, etc., nothing is happening. The same things keep recurring. Now we are in the process of moving from burning fossil fuels to burning this industrial toxic waste, and people are scared out of their wits. Can the Minister say anything to me that will enable me to go back to these people and reassure them to some degree?

The Deputy raises a number of matters. First, it is not industrial or toxic waste; it is solid recovered fuel, which is material from municipal waste across the country. I wish to be quite clear about that. Toxic waste must be dealt with outside of this country.

To come to the other specific points the Deputy has raised, I understand where he is coming from regarding the issue of policing but the reality is that the EPA has issued enforcement proceedings against a number of businesses. I do not have the figures off the top of my head but I will get them for him. It has forced the closure of a particular business in this country because of the impact of its operations on air quality, so yes, it has used its teeth. However, the primary focus of the EPA is to make an operation compliant rather than close it. Nonetheless, it has closed operations in the past.

As well as the monitoring of individual premises, we are now doubling the number of air quality monitoring stations across the country. Therefore, it will be possible not only to look at the individual site but also to see the trends regarding air quality right across the country. This information will be available on the EPA website.

I have listened to what the Deputy has said and I will pass on a copy of the transcript of this debate to the EPA and ask it to respond directly to the concerns he has raised in the House. As he knows, while the EPA is under my authority, I cannot direct it on this matter. It is not within my competence to do so because the legislation as set out and passed by the Oireachtas is that the EPA is entirely independent of the Department and I am constrained under the provisions of subsections 79(3) and 86(5) of the EPA Acts from becoming involved in any way in the licensing of installations. Nonetheless, I will ask the EPA to respond directly to today's debate.