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Dáil Éireann debate -
Thursday, 29 Mar 2018

Vol. 967 No. 3

Topical Issue Debate

School Staff Appeals Mechanism

I thank the Minister for taking this Topical Issue, because it is important for Scoil Mhuire in Donegal that this is dealt with and some form of redress is found. I know the school has gone through the processes available within the Department of Education and Skills, but I think that the Minister needs to look at it again because it comes under the criteria that the Department has outlined.

Over the past five years, enrolments at Scoil Mhuire in Creeslough have increased from 95 to a projected 124 for the 2018-19 academic year. It is situated in a rural area of north-west Donegal which has experienced demographic growth in recent years. Many families have relocated here as it is a short commute to the busy town of Letterkenny. I note that is a short commute by Donegal standards. That is something the Minister must take on board. In Donegal, people live quite a distance from Letterkenny and commute into the town due to the difficulties involved in getting school places there as well as people's connections to their home areas. They are quite happy to do that. Living in Donegal, one has to be quite happy to travel, because one will have to travel no matter what one wants to do.

The school is situated in an area of high economic and social deprivation. Many of the children in a school that is part of the delivering equality of opportunity in schools, DEIS, plan have very particular needs and challenges. Scoil Mhuire recently sent a staffing appeal to the Department. The school has projected that it will have 124 children on the roll in September 2018. Currently, there are 113, which is well in excess of the number needed to gain an additional teacher. This will be the trend for the future, as the number of pupils has been consistently increasing for the past several years. The school expects this to continue because of its closeness to Letterkenny and the fact that people want to settle there.

This will have an impact on the school. There are 31 pupils in junior and senior infants, 35 pupils in first and second class, 33 pupils in third and fourth class; and 25 pupils in fifth and sixth class. This is having a severe impact. The Department's stated aim is to have smaller numbers of children per class. This situation is in breach of that.

It is extremely difficult for any teacher to work with such large numbers in this age group. All children deserve a learning environment that will help them learn and enhance their learning experience. Unfortunately, in a room of over 30 children and in very limited space, the children are the victims and are limited in what they can do. The delivery of certain subjects on the curriculum, such as the Aistear framework, drama and SPHE, is very difficult because of the limited space and the large numbers.

If this was not bad enough, there is a child with a significant developmental delay. I refer in particular to the overcrowded infant classroom, in particular. The child has problems with noise and co-ordination, and the limited space in the classroom impedes her and is potentially detrimental to her social and educational development. All these impacts have to be taken into account. Due to the high number of children in the infant classroom, they have to be located in the largest classroom in the school, which is actually the farthest from the toilets. This has an added impact in that they have to travel the farthest distance, past doors and everything else.

The school is very important. It is important that it be reconsidered under the scheme. The procedure is probably outside the departmental mechanism but there may be an opportunity for the school to reapply. I ask the Minister to consider whether this could happen.

I thank Deputy Pringle for raising this issue. I can understand the concern raised with him by Scoil Mhuire. This is an historic situation. The allocation of teachers for next September, that is, September 2018, is based on the enrolment of September 2017. It is applied universally across all schools. The threshold needed to get an additional teacher is 113. As the Deputy probably knows, the present number is 111, which is just short.

The school made an appeal. The case was examined but since the school did not have the additional two pupils, it did not meet the normal requirement. The case was examined in light of the concept of particular pressure on the infant intake but the additional number of junior infants entering did not meet the threshold that is set, unfortunately. It did not meet the developing school test either. The appeals board, which is entirely independent of my Department, met and heard the case. Unless there is a change of circumstances, the case cannot be resubmitted.

On the positive side, if the numbers materialise in the coming September, then in September 2019 an additional teacher will be appointed and the school will meet the criteria. Twice I have reduced the pupil-teacher ratio. It means the enrolment requirement has come down by two pupils — or by one on each occasion I reduced it. Unfortunately, that still did not bring Scoil Mhuire across the boundary. I am not in a position to indicate otherwise to the Deputy, unless circumstances have changed from those that are already known. The appeal has been heard and was not successful. The school had an additional allocation in 2016-17 in respect of resource teachers. We have been consistently expanding the support for children with special educational needs. I regret to say I am not in a position to overrule the decision of the appeals board. These rules have to be applied uniformly. Every school across the country has to be treated fairly. The appeals board has its criteria and these are applied fairly in respect of every appeal that comes its way. I am sorry I do not have better news for the Deputy.

Hard cases make bad law. There are cases, however, in which a school is not facilitated by the system in operation.

Scoil Mhuire is in that situation and is not ticking the boxes as far as the Department is concerned. If the school can get additional information, will the Minister reconsider the matter? That is vital. The school is trying to fit the criteria set by the Department rather than it being a situation of the Department looking at the school to see how it is performing. There is no doubt that the number of students in the school means that it is in severe difficulty. That must be addressed and the Minister must find some way to do it. Ultimately, the school will have far more than the proper number of pupils next September, but it will have to be based on the following year to get that dealt with, which is wrong. We need to find some way to develop and expand these particular classes in schools. While it might seem that the school is in a very rural area, it is actually being impacted upon by urban areas and that must be taken into account.

I understand what the Deputy says. He is arguing a very good case for the school in question, but the difficulty is that it is two short of the test. That test is applied everywhere. It is not applied randomly. It is possible to appeal if there are 15 extra children enrolled compared to the September just gone. The school did not meet that test of 15. There is also a criteria for appeal where there is an intake into junior infants of 30, but that does not apply in this case. It had an intake substantially below that number. Unfortunately, the appeal grounds were not met and these are applied uniformly across the system to 3,200 schools. The appeal board must deal with each of those cases fairly on its merits according to the criteria to be applied.

Film Industry

On 18 October 2016, a press release announced the sale of Ardmore Studios, which included the 32% State shareholding. Alarm bells immediately sounded when I and other public representatives were denied access to the prospectus of sale in order to clarify whether the studio was being sold as prime development land. Why was the State selling its large holding of shares in Ardmore Studios with no guarantees that it would remain at the heart of the film industry? Our concerns were proven right when RTÉ received access to the prospectus of which two pages were devoted to the potential development of the Ardmore site for residential housing. In December 2016, we met the then Minister for Jobs, Enterprise and Innovation, Deputy Mary Mitchell O'Connor, and officials from the Department and Enterprise Ireland. The outcome of the meeting was an assurance from the then the Minister that there would be a further meeting should any decision to sell the State's shareholding be reached. At that meeting, we would all be given the reasons why the 32% was being sold on a triple-lock condition that Ardmore's future as a film studio was secure, that the Government's regional jobs strategy supported the growth of the film industry in Wicklow and that the zoning was secured by Wicklow County Council in the Bray area plan to prevent any speculation.

On Friday, another corporate press release confirmed the sale of Ardmore Studios, including the State shareholding for an undisclosed price, to Olcott Entertainment, a holding company established only one month ago and directly connected to Troy Studios in Limerick. The taxpayers of Ireland deserve to know why commitments given by the Department to consult with public representatives and the local authority were broken. They also deserve to know if the lead Department for the film industry, namely, the Department of Culture, Heritage and the Gaeltacht was consulted as promised. It is the Minister's former Department. Taxpayers also need to know the amount for which their shareholding of 32% was sold.

It is an absolute disgrace that we discover on RTÉ and in newspapers over the weekend that a key part of Ireland's cultural and cinematic heritage has been sold.

We hear that the State has sold its share in a deal in which none of the details have been scrutinised and we have no idea about guarantees to protect the future of Ardmore as a film studio.

Incredibly, €7 million has been written off in debts. The company has been sold, according to reports at the weekend, in debt. It has been sold to Olcott Entertainment, a company that was only set up 29 days ago. That company is headed up by Mr. Joe Devine, who is also involved in Troy Studios. The current chief executive officer, CEO, is also linked to Troy Studios and will continue as CEO. I understand Mr. Ossie Kilkenny, who is also involved in Troy Studios, is also involved in all this.

We get the producers and the film board telling us that we have a booming film industry and there is not enough studio space and yet film workers tell me that for the past three years, Ardmore has been completely under-utilised and as we speak, only one stage is being used out of five.

Where is all the money - the €60 million or €70 million - that is given in section 481 funding to production companies going? It is not going into making films at Ardmore. It is going into places such as the asbestos-riddled John Player factory on the South Circular Road, where a film is being made and as we speak, film workers are being forced into a sit-in protest because of the conditions they are being forced to work in. Moreover, "Into the Badlands", which is supposed to be produced in Ardmore, is being produced in the Dublin Sports Hotel, which is a NAMA-owned building and where there are also protests going on as we speak. Why is that filming not being done in Ardmore? The same people who have run down Ardmore will now remain in control of it, and incredibly, the State has sold its stake. It is a disgraceful ready-up.

I thank the Deputies for the opportunity to outline the position regarding the recent agreement to sell Ardmore Studios.

Ardmore Studios Limited is being sold to Olcott Entertainment. The sale was announced to staff on Friday morning last, 23 March and later that day to the public.

Over the past 60 years, Ardmore Studios has produced hundreds of international and national films and television productions and the studios continue to represent a vitally important part of the Irish film industry. Ardmore is the only studio in Ireland to offer seven international standard sound stages with full support facilities on site.

As the Deputies will be aware, Ardmore studios was approximately two-thirds owned by Ardmore Studios International Limited, ASIL, whose shareholders were seeking to exit, having been running the company for over 30 years. The other one third shareholding was held by Enterprise Ireland and resulted from an investment in 1986 by a predecessor agency called the National Development Corporation.

Over the past 30 years or so Enterprise Ireland's investment has been a passive one. Enterprise Ireland has no role in the international promotion of Ireland as a location for film production.

In 2016, Ardmore Studios International Limited engaged IBI Corporate Finance to investigate selling the company as a going concern. An extensive process was undertaken by IBI Corporate Finance to find a buyer, with over 100 potential parties contacted. Olcott Entertainment emerged as the only second round bidder.

Olcott Entertainment Limited is a new holding company set up by Mr. Joe Devine and Mr. Daniel O’Donoghue to acquire Ardmore. The lead investor, Mr. Devine, is currently chairman and a major shareholder in the Troy film studios in Limerick.

Troy has successfully set up and developed the studio from a standing start to the point where it currently hosts a production company with approximately 500 people working on a major production. Indeed, I myself have visited Troy Studios. They are currently filming a major new series there, namely, "Nightflyers". It is an adaption of a book by George R.R. Martin who, I am sure Deputies will be aware, is the author of A Game of Thrones.

It has huge potential. That is the sort of thing that the Minister, Deputy Madigan, and I, as well as all public representatives, would like to see replicated in other parts of the country. Enterprise Ireland negotiated the sale of its shareholding with the benefit of due diligence undertaken by independent consultants and is satisfied that it realised full market value on a par with the other parties. In examining the proposition, Enterprise Ireland took the view that continued investment is required in the studio facility to secure its long-term commercial future and the Olcott Entertainment deal provides the potential to breathe new life into the company at a time when the market for film production in Ireland is again showing strong growth potential.

I visited Ardmore in my previous capacity as Minister for Culture, Heritage and the Gaeltacht. I want to see those facilities used to their full potential. In that regard, Olcott plans to develop and expand the Ardmore studio offering and other related entertainment projects. Olcott also plans to retain the current experienced Ardmore management and staff. It is also important to note that the site cannot be used for non-film industry development without the agreement of Wicklow County Council to alter the current zoning restriction. It is up to the elected members of Wicklow County Council if they wish to change that zoning.

The Ardmore site is currently zoned for film use only and this protection is due to run for a further five years at least under the Bray municipal district local area plan. I think the elected members in Wicklow will see the benefits of having this zoned for film production. Taking all these factors into account, the Government therefore believes the sale to Olcott provides the best prospects for the commercial development of Ardmore, for the employment of the many skilled workers who have been employed in Ardmore productions over the years and for the attractiveness of Ireland as a location for international film production.

I thank the Minister for answering but there were several questions I asked that she did not answer directly. The only direct answer she gave relates to the zoning and thanks are due to the public representatives in Wicklow who have maintained the zoning there. Will the Minister give full disclosure as to how the process was carried out? Will we get full information on the round 1 bidding process and will we get full information on how Olcott managed to swing across the deal at the end of the day? The Minister mentioned that the staff and management will be maintained at Ardmore. The CEO of Ardmore is the manager. She is a director of Troy Studios and the chairman of Troy Studios is the individual who put forward this bid. We need clarity on what the State received for its money. We need full disclosure on the bidding process, we are talking about State shareholding and it should be made available to us as we are entitled to it. Furthermore, several enterprises are located on that site on leased premises that are responsible for 500 jobs. What guarantees were given to them?

It is absolutely disgraceful that we have sold off the State's holding in Ardmore. We have fully privatised it to the benefit of a company which appeared like a mushroom. That is a feature of the film industry where the companies that receive all the State money appear like mushrooms and then disappear just as quickly. The culture committee has heard testimony from representatives of the workers in the film industry that they have no proper training or accreditation structure for trainees, no pensions and no continuity of employment, yet millions of euro are going into the film industry. Incredibly, in Ardmore itself - which will be run by the same CEO who is linked to Troy Studios to run it down - there are four stages sitting empty while public money is being used to finance the production of films in NAMA buildings that are completely unsuitable. In the case of the John Player building, it is riddled with asbestos, the toilets are absolutely revolting and the place is freezing. Why is there not more public oversight of that, rather than the Minister relinquishing the little bit of influence the State had over the industry in terms of Ardmore?

There should be more oversight, but instead the Minister has sold it without questions being asked about what is going on and whether Ardmore was being run down to the benefit of Troy in a situation which involved some of the land being put up for possible residential development. It is really not acceptable.

I want to reiterate that the Government believes that the sale of Ardmore to Olcott represents the best prospect for the development of Ardmore and quality employment in film production in the area, and will add to the attractiveness of facilities for film production in Ireland. There is a cluster in Wicklow and further investment in Ardmore Studios will attract many more films into the film production area. I genuinely believe this will be in the best interests of the film industry in County Wicklow.

I have been to Troy and Ardmore. There is no doubt that the facility needed investment. The people involved are specialised in the area of film production. This is their business. The Deputy should see what they have done in Troy. I expect and know they will invest in the facility in Wicklow and I can assure him that he will be pleased with the results. Troy is a wonderful facility. It was an old factory which was turned into a wonderful production centre for film. It has also created 500 jobs. I visited the facility. It is working with the local institute and ETB to train and upskill people in order to meet increased demand, something which has happened within the last short number of years. I have no doubt that what will happen in Ardmore will be very beneficial to the area.

The Government is fully committed to the development of the Irish film industry. My colleague, the Minister for Culture, Heritage and the Gaeltacht, Deputy Josepha Madigan, and I welcome the proposed investment in Ardmore Studios. It is important to note that the move has also been welcomed by the Irish Film Board. The State will continue to support the film sector through the Irish Film Board tax credits such as section 481 and other measures.

Enterprise Ireland negotiated the sale of its shareholding with the benefit of due diligence, undertaken by independent consultants, and is satisfied that it realised full market value on a par with other parties. As the sale is a commercial transaction relating to a private company, the terms cannot be revealed for reasons of business confidentiality. Enterprise Ireland does not involve itself in the day-to-day running of the business affairs of the companies in which it invests. This is a positive move for Ardmore and I would like to reassure the Deputies of that.

Fodder Crisis

This grouping of Fianna Fáil Deputies has come together jointly to put this Topical Issue to the Minister in order to try to stir him to recognise the very real fodder shortage across the country. Unfortunately, the Minister has shown himself to be very much out of touch with the farming community in respect of how serious an issue it is, having spent most of the past number of months denying the fact that there has been any shortage of fodder.

Given that Sunday is 1 April, it must be clear, even to the Minister, that there is a very real problem. I hope in his response he will at last recognise that there is a fodder shortage in the country and that it is long past time he did something about it. Unfortunately, the transport subsidy scheme he announced a number of weeks ago has shown itself to be a folly and not a worthwhile exercise. Indeed, it is something which was wrong-headed on the Minister's behalf. There have been only nine applications. The Minister's decision to subsidise the transport of an already short fodder resource from one part of the country to another defies logic when what should instead have been introduced was a meal voucher targeted at those in need.

As we now come into a very late spring, the whole country is in need and no part of the country has fodder to spare. The Minister's attention now needs to turn to making contingency plans if the poor weather continues and growth continues not to happen. He needs to make contingency plans to ensure fodder can be transported from outside the country. Will the Minister update us on his reports from Met Éireann on weather forecast projections and on whether this cold spell will continue? We need action and we need the Minister to intervene and to ensure this crisis is recognised. He must do something to assist farmers in need.

There has been no empathy from the Minister's side with the farmers who are struggling to survive as the cold, wet weather continues unabated and poor soil conditions prevent them from putting cattle out to grass as we approach April. Grass growth is running at 50% of the normal levels, and Teagasc has said that another two weeks of feeding fodder from already depleted reserves will result in severe shortages. The Government's transport subsidy scheme has been a gigantic failure, with just nine applications to date. The Government has totally misjudged the situation. The Minister has been absent on the job and has gone into hiding as the severe weather conditions continue over the winter and now into the spring. From day one, since the crisis emerged last year, Fianna Fáil, particularly my colleague, Deputy Charlie McConalogue, has called for the meal voucher scheme to be set up for affected farmers. Teagasc has been advising farmers to prioritise the feeding of meal concentrates to plug the gap. As it is a grain-based product, there is no shortage of supply and it would reduce the demand for fodder. However, the Minister's short-sighted scheme completely ignores this option, focusing solely on fodder transportation, therefore driving up the demand and the price.

Farmers are on their knees, and no more than any other constituency, Cavan-Monaghan is very much dependent on the agricultural sector, as the Minister will know from his many visits to the constituency. I have on numerous occasions heard Deputy Charlie McConalogue push and push for this meal voucher scheme and it has been totally ignored. As the Minister can see from the number of my colleagues in the Chamber, there is a huge emphasis on this right across the country, not only in my constituency of Cavan-Monaghan. It needs to be addressed urgently.

I thank the Ceann Comhairle for selecting this very important subject for discussion. The Minister may remember that the last time I and others here had this subject up for discussion as a Topical Issue, I instanced the huge length of time people had to have cattle indoors. Some dairy farmers in my constituency, Cavan-Monaghan, had cattle, particularly cows, in from the end of July. The long winter of rainfall and, in more recent times, severe storms has contributed enormously to the problems on farms. There was a fodder shortage even before the bad winter. Today I spoke to farmers whom I would regard as very progressive in both Monaghan and Cavan. They instanced to me that there was a heavy frost once again last night, growth is at least three to four weeks behind normal, there is no fodder, farmers face a severe income crisis and they are very concerned.

Again, Deputy McConalogue mentioned, as I did on the previous occasion, the need to introduce a meal voucher scheme. That was the one way to ensure one would get the full benefit of the taxpayer's assistance to the individual farmer. I appeal to the Minister again to give that direct assistance to farmers. Many of them are out of fodder, there is no growth, there is no grass, the weather is cold and miserable and they face a real financial crisis. We must remember that from late July and into August, some people have cattle housed. What a length of time to face these difficulties. Along with the income crisis, they face the fact that there is no fodder available. The only way of providing practical assistance is through a dedicated meal voucher scheme. The farmers to whom I spoke do not want handouts, but at this time they need assistance to remain viable.

In my own county, Councillors John Paul Feeley and Seán Smith tabled a motion on this at the recent council meeting. They told me that following some media coverage they got a huge number of calls from farmers concerned. Similarly, in County Monaghan, my colleague, Councillor Séamus Coyle, raised this issue at a meeting of the Ballybay-Clones Municipal District.

Again, he received a huge number of calls from concerned farmers about the difficulties they face.

This is an issue I have raised quite a number of times in the House. I am not crying "wolf". We have such a serious problem in the north west at the moment that people's health is being affected by what is happening. Farmers are heading into eight months of feeding stock in houses and there is no prospect that these cattle will be able to get out in the very near future. The subsidised transport scheme has not worked. The price of hay has increased to €40 a bale, that of wheaten straw has gone up to €65 a bale and silage costs €40 a bale. Where supplies were in place, many dealers are not prepared to accept cheques from people who purchase silage, hay or whatever. Part of the scheme is that it has to be paid by cheque and there has to be a record. I can understand why. However, the people who had these supplies would not accept cheques; all they want is cash. They have been caught before, I am sure, by not getting payment from people purchasing hay and straw. There were only nine applications for the scheme. It has not worked.

A constituent of mine rang the Department of Agriculture, Food and the Marine yesterday. He was put through to a very nice girl who tried to console him. This man is at his wits' end. He is not alone but his is the most serious case about which I have heard. He is in such a state. He has no money left. He is on farm assist. He has no credit anywhere. He has cattle and he told the girl yesterday that he was thinking about shooting his cows and shooting himself. That was in the Minister's Department yesterday. The official was very good and kind to this man and told him that she will help him as soon as she can. That is a fact. There are not many people in that state but they are not far off it.

There must be recognition that there is a crisis. It has been caused by a very wet autumn and an extremely late spring. In some parts of the country, fodder was going to be scarce even if we had an early spring. The situation has become seriously exacerbated. There is a welfare issue on farms at present. The farming press carried its main story on that last Tuesday. It is going to be become more serious as April progresses, with a serious lack of food out there for our animals.

There is also the mental strain that farmers are under. Both financially and mentally, farmers are drained after this extremely long winter. They have not got the cash to purchase feedstuffs and even if they had, feed is extremely scarce. It is not hindsight to say that we told the Minister that the transport subsidy was the wrong way to go. At the time, we strongly pushed for a concentrate subsidy. All we did was move fodder from one part of the country to another without extending the supply. We are now in a position where fodder is just not there and concentrates will have to be used. Concentrates are going up very substantially in price even as we speak. I saw a quotation from a miller today to the effect that, from 1 April, the price charged will increase by €25 per ton.

The Minister is being quoted in respect of comments he made at the Joint Committee on Agriculture, Food and the Marine on Tuesday. Some farmers have intensified, on the advice of State agencies, and are carrying a lot of extra stock. They are under extreme pressure and their yard infrastructure may not include the accommodation needed in respect of the late spring we are having. Leaving that aside, we have to play the cards we are dealt. Farmers urgently want help. The help the Minister has to provide is a concentrate subsidy. Men have not got the means to purchase the concentrates and the roughage is just not available.

A Cheann Comhairle, I am not aware of the plight of farmers in County Kildare but the situation in Roscommon, Galway, Donegal, Sligo, Leitrim and Cavan is a sad one for many farming families. As the Minister is aware, the weather has been poor since last July. There has been little respite from the wet and cold weather. Before coming into this debate I checked the forecast and at least another week of really harsh weather is expected. As stated earlier, there was a hard frost last night. There is no growth anywhere. According to Teagasc 85% of farmers in the west, northwest and in part of the midlands are affected by this crisis.

In my view, the transport subsidy scheme is a farce. I do not believe it was ever meant to work. The silage is gone, the hay sheds are empty but the cattle sheds are full. For those in the suckler business, calves are being born. I have seen cows and calves on land on which there is no grass. The Minister knows that when farmers are forced to sell livestock at a time of crisis the livestock is bought on the conditions of the purchaser. If this happens, many farmers will not recover. They are already pressed owing to the terrible ground conditions. Farmers are in crisis and this is the last straw. I urge the Minister to take on board the genuine comments made by my colleagues this evening, particularly Deputy McConalogue who has been pushing this issue for some time. We need action.

I thank the Deputies for raising this issue. As I have said on many previous occasions, the wet weather conditions that prevailed throughout much of last autumn and into early winter were difficult for many farmers, particularly in parts of the west and north west. However, the more recent turbulent and prolonged cold spell has created additional difficulties for farmers in all parts of the country.

To address the problems posed by an unseasonably wet autumn, I prioritised the payment of farm supports to assist farmers with cash flow. The European Commission agreed to my request, informed in part by the poor weather conditions of last autumn, for an advance payment of the 2017 basic payment measure and agri-environment measures. These payments commenced at the earliest date possible, which was 15 October 2017, and balancing payments issued in early December 2017. These payments, together with those issued under the areas of natural constraints measure, injected more than €1.4 billion into the Irish rural economy by the end of last year and provided a very welcome boost for Irish farm families, helping to finance additional fodder purchase where necessary.

At the time, I also asked Teagasc to support farmers at risk of a fodder shortage through the provision of fodder budgeting. To provide additional assistance to those livestock farmers severely affected by ongoing fodder shortages, mainly in parts of the west and north west, I introduced a targeted fodder transport support measure, operated primarily through the co-operative structure, to partly offset the cost of transporting fodder between those areas where it is available and those where it is scarce. This measure applies only to fodder purchased in the period from 29 January 2018 to 20 April 2018. To date, only a small number of applications - 15 in total - have been received, but this is not unexpected given that farmers are holding off submitting the completed application forms until they have sourced their full fodder requirements. The scheme has provided an important back-stop to farmers to ensure they have access to fodder at affordable prices.

As I indicated earlier, the continued cold weather has significantly affected grass growth in all parts of the country and caused delay to expected turn out of livestock, with knock-on effects on demand for fodder in all areas. While grass growth is poor, grazing conditions have improved sufficiently to allow some grazing by day where ground conditions permit. Nonetheless, there is concern that with the current low temperatures grass regrowth may be delayed. While stocks of fodder remain available in the country, I am conscious that most farmers are very proactive in managing their feed supplies through meal supplementation and so on. It is critical that farmers who have identified a problem engage immediately with their adviser-feed provider to work through this difficult period.

My officials continue to engage with Teagasc and the industry to ensure their ongoing efforts to support farmers through this current period are co-ordinated and targeted for maximum effect. The key focus of these supports must remain on fodder budgeting, optimising use of concentrates, nutritional advice and, most importantly, grassland management. I will closely monitor the outcome of this ongoing engagement. As we finally come towards the end of a difficult and prolonged winter, it is timely to look forward and put the experience gained to good use. The basic requirement for viability, whether it be on an expanding dairy farm or on a dry stock farm in a more difficult area, is the capacity to conserve adequate winter feed for the livestock numbers on the farm, even for such a prolonged and difficult winter as this has been. To facilitate this, I will ask Teagasc to provide particular guidance on fodder conservation during its ongoing advisory campaign.

I wish to refer to the points made by Deputy Scanlan in respect of the call to my office yesterday. I am not familiar with the details so perhaps the Deputy can pass them on to me. I assure the Deputy and any farmer who finds himself in similar circumstances that I appreciate the mental pressure and the ongoing daily farm management pressures associated with this difficulty. My Department has a capacity to step in and assist individual farmers where there is no fodder and animals require attention. If the Deputy wishes to bring that case to my personal attention, I will ensure that the Department responds appropriately.

I am not out of touch on this issue. I am in the farming community regularly and, in fact, in the past week I have been to two marts in my constituency. I am engaged and I appreciate the issues involved. We are actively managing this issue. We are coming to the end of a very difficult period and I hope that, collectively, we can learn the lessons from this and ensure that adequate fodder conservation is at the heart of the advisory services my Department will deliver to farmers as we face into the spring and early summer of 2018.

The Minister's response indicates that he has been sleepwalking on this issue for the past number of months. He still has not woken up to the fact that, as Minister, he must take action and assist farmers across the country who are in trouble. It affects not just individuals, but it is on a collective scale. That requires collective action on the part of the Minister. He must recognise that there is a crisis, and it has been partly contributed to by his lack of proper intervention before now. What are the projections from Met Éireann regarding how long the poor growth period is likely to last? It is a couple of days from 1 April. If there is another week or two weeks of cold weather, it will be the start of May before there is growth. There will be desperation on many farms across the country by then. I recall the fodder crisis in the late spring of 2012 and the unbelievable pressure on farm families to try to find money when they did not have it to pay for imported fodder. The Minister must take control of this and show that he understands the problem. Frankly, up to today he has not shown that he understands the extent of this real problem.

There is an urgent need for swift action to be taken by the Minister and the Government to assist farmers in the affected areas. We have called for crisis fodder aid via the meal voucher scheme on numerous occasions. Again, I compliment my colleague, Deputy McConalogue, who has been to the forefront in imploring the Minister since last November to introduce it. Due to the severe weather conditions since July 2017, many farmers were unable to harvest a second cut of silage. The fodder shortages were especially acute in areas in the north west but they have now spread across the country and particularly into Border counties. A Teagasc survey has shown that in the most impacted areas, 85% of farmers have been affected by fodder shortages. It is another example of the Government's deprioritisation of rural Ireland and of farmers who are under so much pressure and threat.

I ask the Minister to do something about this and take action to address the fodder crisis.

I refer to the phrase "grassland management" in the Minister's reply. Unfortunately, from the two counties I represent there will not be a problem in managing grass for some time this year; it is cold and miserable and there is no growth. It is a delayed season. The Minister also spoke of the capacity to conserve adequate winter feed for the livestock numbers on the farm. The problems are compounded by the long winter and the fact that a lot of farmers in my type of terrain, and maybe in the Minister's own part of Cork, did not get their second cut of silage.

During the last Topical Issue debate on this matter, I instanced the last days of October, when I happened to be travelling throughout much of counties Cavan, Monaghan and Fermanagh. People were cutting silage during those days but were bringing in as much clay as grass. The value of what they gathered up probably did not pay for the price of the diesel. It was so-called fodder. Many farmers had hoped the weather would improve in August or even early September in order that they could get a second cut of silage, but they did not get it. They housed their cattle from July and could neither get that second cut of silage nor make their hay late. This has all compounded the problem, as have the very long winter, the rainfall, the severe storms and the current cold weather. There is no prospect of an early growth of grass. I appeal to the Minister to give urgent consideration to the request that we have genuinely made on behalf of the farming communities in the areas we represent. Assistance must be given directly to farmers as soon as possible.

I acknowledge the Minister is sincere in what he is trying to do. Everyone appreciates that it is a serious issue. Teagasc is aware of what exactly the situation is like on the ground. They know the people who are in trouble and in bother. While not everybody is in trouble, there are those who are in serious trouble. People are encouraged to call the Department if there is help there. The person I have referred to called the Department yesterday and he spoke to a nice lady who gave him some comfort. The office is, however, closed today and will not be open again until next Tuesday. If this farmer does not receive assistance soon I do not know whether he has enough fodder for his farm to survive. We are trying to help him out in any way we can. It is important. While there are some who do not need it, I agree with the previous speakers that a meal voucher scheme for those farmers who need it should be examined. Where I come from, there will be another month of feeding cattle inside and I do not see anything happening to change that in the near future. I have that man's name and number and the departmental officials have it. They were very courteous and good to him when he called and they advised him the best they could. They have his name and his number. I will not read it out in the Dáil but I will give it to the Minister privately.

I listened to the Minister's reply and while he says he is in touch with the farming community, there is a crisis. As Deputy McConalogue has said, in 2012 we had to import fodder from the UK and this situation is as bad as that. This winter has imposed a huge cost on all livestock farmers. The Minister stated that farmers should be able to budget for their supplies. In some cases, cattle are being fed fodder for eight or nine months. It is incomprehensible that anybody who has stocked up with any kind of intensity would be able to cater for a winter of that duration.

Ground conditions are still extremely poor with very heavy rain again this week. Soil temperatures are extremely low and even if the weather was to improve now it will be May Day before there is any reasonable supply of grass available. This is even in the traditional airy ground where cows would usually be out from the end of February and the beginning of March.

On Tuesday, I drove to Dublin from Tipperary. I saw no herd of cows out anywhere as we came up through the country. This fodder crisis is affecting the poorer land areas and the more intensively-farmed areas.

Farmers are under huge strain. The Minister has given no indication that he will move on a concentrate subsidy. The price of concentrate is increasing by the day and men need help.

I have dealt with the Minister and I genuinely believe he is a sincere man. He has helped me but I am very disappointed with his response. If he knew what we are trying to explain to him, he would try to do something urgently.

My brother has a small family farm. At best, it will be at least three weeks before there is any grass and that would be in ideal weather conditions. The weather forecast for the next week is very poor and there will be no growth anywhere in the country. The south will always be a bit ahead of us in terms of growth, no matter how bad things are. If the Minister wants to come to the area, we will show him how difficult this is. While I do not have a case like that to which Deputy Scanlon referred, I assure the Minister that he is absolutely sincere in what he is saying. The farm organisations have made the case about this to us and they are very concerned.

I do not doubt the sincerity of any of the individuals opposite and have listened with interest to their points. I assure them that the departmental officials and I are actively monitoring this issue on a daily basis. In addition to my own activities in respect of this matter, being in the community, meeting farmers in my constituency and elsewhere, I have taken the opportunity to engage with the agribusiness interests in many parts of the country to find out about the situation in their respective areas. I am reassured by the willingness of those businesses to partner with the agricultural community at this difficult time and to assist with fodder provision and credit lines. That is a strength and hallmark of the co-operative movement.

The message should go out from here that it is alright for farmers to put their hands up now and say they are having specific individual difficulty. From the engagement I have had, particularly with the co-operative movement, I am quite satisfied that there will be a meaningful response from the co-ops to help them.

In the context of the specific case mentioned by Deputy Scanlon, and for anybody else in a similar situation, the Department has the capacity to respond to individual cases on welfare grounds to help farmers who are looking at the back of a silage pit wall, who have no other options and who have cattle bellowing in their sheds. That is a very traumatic and challenging situation. The Department can and will respond, as it has done in the past, in respect of those who find themselves in such circumstances.

I cannot predict the weather. We are tracking daily grass growth on PastureBase. It is significantly below - by a factor of over two - the level that obtained at this time last year. Soil temperatures are also below where they need to be but are beginning to recover. It will take time. We are also getting a handle on fodder levels throughout the country. We are satisfied that there is still a mismatch between where it is located and where it is needed, but substantially adequate quantities of fodder are available. That is why I say to individual farmers to approach co-ops and agribusinesses where they will find a willing ear. The Department is tracking this daily. I am constantly engaging with the officials on the matter. I will take the details of the case mentioned by Deputy Scanlon and follow up on it.