Topical Issue Debate

Electricity Transmission Network

I welcome the opportunity to raise the issue of the major electricity transmission project at Coolnabacca, Ratheniska, County Laois, which the Minister is aware is built on a very important local aquifer. On Thursday, 21 June Deputy Stanley and I were at a very well attended public meeting in Ratheniska on this matter. A local committee has been in touch with me in the meantime asking that I make the following points when I raise the issue with the Minister in the Dáil. At the meeting, it was proposed that the three local Deputies - the Minister for Justice and Equality, Deputy Flanagan, Deputy Stanley and I - seek collectively to meet the new CEO of EirGrid, Mr. Mark Foley. The committee asked me to ensure the local group is represented at such a meeting. It would be useful and normal for elected Members to bring a local delegation to such a meeting and I hope when the meeting takes place the group will be involved. We have been asked to ensure that any such meeting will be in the context of EirGrid not proceeding with the project, which has not received public support. The Minister, Deputy Flanagan, asked EirGrid to pack up and leave the county and not to come back. I reiterate that statement. Too much damage has been done and trust in EirGrid and the ESB, as the operative for the proposed project, is at an all-time low in the local area. The committee does not see much value in meeting EirGrid and I understand the reason it has taken that view given the number of times it has been let. Nevertheless, I urge its members to attend the meeting. As public representatives, we are standing by this group which has been shabbily treated by EirGrid, not to speak of An Bord Pleanála, which bullied it for costs on the steps of the court and forced it to withdraw from the process at a moment's notice.

I made a commitment to table a parliamentary question seeking the details of the officials who met EirGrid to discuss this matter some time ago. The Minister kindly gave us an information note on that meeting last week. We want to know who authored the note. I have sought information on the tender document for the construction work, which should be a public contract. We want to see precisely what work is to be carried out. I will believe what I read in a tender document and given that people have difficulty believing what EirGrid might say, I want to see a copy of that document as soon as possible.

I welcome the opportunity to raise this issue. Like Deputy Fleming I attended a meeting in Ratheniska a week ago last Thursday. It is a small community but there was a large attendance at the meeting as people are very concerned.

The approach taken by EirGrid provides a good template for how not to proceed successfully with an infrastructural project. It has lost the confidence and trust of the community. People do not believe what they are being told about the project. The request by the local community to meet EirGrid to discuss the project has been refused. EirGrid's management of the planning process has been fast and loose. Last year, the company acted outside the terms of the planning process and had to be reined in.

No clarity has been available on the necessity for the Laois-Kilkenny reinforcement project. The Minister received a letter from the Oireachtas committee seeking information on what assessments were carried out on the need for the project, which will cost more than €100 million. There has been no transparency from EirGrid. This is a dreadful situation. There are major concerns about the aquifer and the issue must be addressed. What assessments have been carried out in regard to it?

The issue goes beyond the townland of Ratheniska and nearby Timahoe or Coolnabacca, it concerns the centre of Laois. The aquifer serves between 8,000 and 10,000 people and we have major concerns about it. The EirGrid station is on top of the aquifer. A person who attended a pre-planning meeting to discuss building a small house in an adjacent area was told by the local authority not to bother applying because the application would probably be refused. That is the position, rightly or wrongly, yet EirGrid plans to build directly on top of the aquifer. The project is expected to cost €110 million. Where is the cost-benefit analysis?

I thank colleagues for their flexibility in having the debate today rather than last Thursday when I was not available. I welcome the opportunity provided to me by the Deputies to discuss what is an essential electricity grid enhancement project for the midlands. To ensure the national electricity grid is fit for purpose in modern times, it is necessary to carry out grid refurbishment and enhancement on an ongoing basis. In this, EirGrid and ESB Networks work in close co-operation with the ultimate goal of enhancing the national electricity grid in order that it can support Ireland's continued economic development.

I am informed that the Laois-Kilkenny electricity grid reinforcement project is required to improve the security of electricity supply in the midland region. This €110 million investment in the area will ensure the electricity network can meet current and future needs of all users, from homes and farms to small businesses and industrial customers. The Coolnabacca electricity station in County Laois is part of the project, which was granted planning permission in 2014 by An Bord Pleanála. As part of the planning process for the project, an environmental impact statement was completed.

The previous debate on this development in June of last year was triggered by a regrettable and unacceptable breach of planning, when works started at the site in April 2017 without the planning conditions being discharged. The site was restored to its original state by September 2017 and EirGrid and ESB Networks have since reviewed their processes internally to ensure such an oversight does not occur in the future. Following a commitment I made during the debate, my colleague, the Minister for Justice and Equality, and I attended a meeting with members of the community on 18 January 2018. At the meeting, the Ratheniska, Timahoe, Spink and surrounding areas substation action group outlined aspects of the project with which it was dissatisfied. These aspects covered issues of concern from the origins of the project in 2009 to the present day. I listened carefully to the many views expressed and I undertook to further consider the issues raised. After the meeting, my officials set about examining these issues and to that end they have engaged with EirGrid, the Commission for Regulation of Utilities and other parties. In response to Deputy Fleming, I asked that those issues be addressed. My officials followed them up with EirGrid and the other agencies. I gave a copy of the report to Deputy Fleming when it was presented to me.

I will relay the Deputies' request for a meeting and associated comments directly to EirGrid. I do not have the requested information in regard to the tender documentation. As much documentation as possible should be put into the public domain and I will also relay that request to EirGrid.

I will follow up the point raised by Deputy Stanley in regard to the correspondence from the committee with my office and ensure it is responded to.

Local groups have claimed that the aquifer in the area is being harmed. Water hydrology was fully considered in section 8 of the environmental report submitted with the planning application, which is available on the EirGrid website. It states:

Although for the wider groundwater body hydraulic continuity exists between the Sand and Gravel deposits and the bedrock aquifer, within the localised site area any groundwater in the sand and gravel deposits is not expected to be in hydraulic continuity with the bedrock aquifer underlying the site. This is due to the presence of a proved significant thickness of low permeability Clay deposits, with between 2.7m to 6.8m of clay proved beneath the Sand and Gravel deposits. The clay encountered during the investigations is described as stiff to very stiff at depth, and this stiff clay will impede any vertical groundwater flow.

The aquifer was discussed as part of the oral hearing in 2013. During the examination of the issues raised, the Geological Survey Ireland, GSI, groundwater expert carried out a desktop review of the issue and provided a report. In summary, the GSI confirmed that a locally important sand and gravel aquifer underlies the region around the site of interest and noted that the proposed development is outside of any known groundwater drinking water supply source protection zone. I hope that clarifies the issue on the aquifer.

I ask the Minister to supply his script because he only dealt with the first half of it.

I was trying to answer the questions raised by the Deputies.

The Minister was ad-libbing. Okay. It will be on the Dáil record. He acknowledged that the project was mishandled, which led to an understandable breach of trust and much anger. The tender documentation should be made available on or elsewhere such that people can precisely compare what is being constructed with the plans. I ask the Minister to make it publicly available or request that EirGrid does so.

The development is the subject of an ongoing non-compliance complaint against Ireland to the Aarhus Convention Compliance Committee. The case was taken by the Ratheniska, Timahoe, Spink and Surrounding Areas Substation Action, RTS, group. A complaint has also been made to the European Commission for breaches of European Union environmental directives. It is unwise to plough tens of millions of euro of Irish taxpayers' money into a project such as this, which is subject to ongoing non-compliance proceedings and it would be more prudent to wait until the proceedings are concluded. I ask that the Minister ask EirGrid to wait until those matters are fully concluded before anything else is done on the site. We look forward to the meeting with the EirGrid officials and representatives of the local group.

At the meeting in Ratheniska two weeks ago, I proposed that the three Deputies meet the chief executive officer, CEO, of EirGrid and representatives of the RTS group. This is a substantial project but the €110 million cost is excessive. The local community is concerned about what else is proposed by EirGrid. There is an issue of trust, the community having previously been misled. There is a concern that there will be further development and that will cause further problems in regard to the electricity network in the area. I look forward to the reply of the Minister to the committee regarding the cost-benefit analysis and the need for the project. I acknowledge his comments in regard to the highlights of the environmental report, which we have previously looked at.

A huge amount of oil will be stored in the substation. There have been serious fires at similar stations in Britain and other countries and there are significant concerns in that regard. The RTS group made a complaint to the European Commission in 2015 and another under the Aarhus Convention, which has been accepted. The Government must accept that those proceedings are ongoing and the Minister, as shareholder on behalf of the public of this State, must meet the CEO of EirGrid and put the brakes on this project until all of these matters, including safety issues, are cleared up.

We will have to put the brakes on Deputy Stanley.

I reiterate the essential responsibility to ensure that Irish citizens have ongoing secure access to electricity via a world-class electricity infrastructure which rests with EirGrid and ESB Networks. They undertake their work in this regard under the auspices of legislation and in the common interest, which is critical. It is clear that most of the development in Ireland now meets with some opposition. In this case, some local people believe the development is undesirable and continue to express their views on it through lawful protest. We must also remember that the project was awarded planning permission. Ireland's planning process is rightly regarded as one of the most comprehensive and participatory in Europe. As part of the planning process for the project, an environmental impact statement was completed in which the potential impacts on the aquifer and water table were fully considered under section 8. The reports to which I earlier referred are publicly available and I urge Deputies to review the relevant commentaries, which I trust will fully address their concerns. Full planning permission for the project was granted in April 2014. That decision was subject to judicial review proceedings that were dismissed in January 2015. EirGrid and ESB Networks are now carrying out their operational responsibility in attempting to develop the site. I am aware that the RTS group has organised protests at the site. As EirGrid and ESB Networks have no desire for confrontation, they have not attempted to access the site in recent days. I am sure both organisations would be happy to brief the Deputies and the wider community on any and all aspects of the project. Only one right of way is required to access the site, which is now owned by ESB Networks and the right of way has now been secured.

Inland Fisheries

I thank the Minister of State, Deputy Kyne, for taking this Topical Issue. I also wish to put on record my appreciation for his efforts in securing the future of Cullion fish farm in Mullingar. He attended a public meeting with me and Councillor Andrew Duncan on the matter and I am happy to note that the fish farm remains a key component of the local infrastructure that keeps our lakes in good condition for anglers.

I raise the issue of the failure to designate Lough Ennell as a wild brown trout fishery. The largest trout caught in Ireland, weighing 26 lb, was caught in Lough Ennell, which encompasses an area of 3,540 acres or 14.3 sq. km. Two thirds of its area is less than 25 ft deep and it has a pH of 7.5, which enables the production of large quantities of fish food. There has been no man-made intervention to the lake, which makes it a natural brown trout lake and a world leader in that respect. There are several brown trout lakes in the European Union but Lough Ennell is the jewel in the crown as it is not stocked by fish farms and is unique in terms of the replenishment of fish food and production of trout. Anglers have repeatedly noted the remarkable composition and colour of trout from Lough Ennell. Some are shaped like summer salmon, which is very unusual, and coloured like sea trout.

It is also noted that they are a hard fighting fish, which is part of their genetic make-up and is case specific to the lake. It is important to point out also that the water qualify in Lough Ennell has improved significantly, and excelled in recent years, culminating in huge numbers of anglers coming to the lake.

The critical concern to us in Westmeath is that if Lough Ennell is not included on its merits in this designation, it will be left off the map for future investment and there is no doubt that investment is required in this area. It is important to note that the lake has not been stocked in the past, which means it is authentic and ensures the quality of fish in the lake, which are very resilient and have their own unique traits. That attracts people to the lake.

Angling is a key component for our local economy. It keeps many towns and villages sustainable and the number of visitors who come here from around the world ensures the economy remains vibrant.

The Minister had to go through a public consultation process, which he has initiated in terms of a number of lakes, but one lake in particular stands out from the rest due to its specific natural components and the fact that those in the angling profession recognise the key components of Lough Ennell as a world leader in its field. I would appreciate it if the Minister could provide a mechanism or some hope that it would be included in the wild brown trout designation in the future because that is essential for investment in the area.

Having saved the fish farm, the Minister of State will have to save the lake as well.

I thank Deputy Burke for putting down this Topical Issue matter and for his interest in all things angling in Westmeath, Longford and elsewhere. He has raised matters to do with angling with me on a number of occasions and showcased its importance for County Westmeath and the midlands.

As the Deputy knows, I have given notice of proposals to make a designated salmonid waters by-law and instigated a public consultation where observations on the draft proposals may be expressed at any time during a 21 day period which concluded at 5 p.m. on 25 May 2018. In total, 5,531 submissions were received in this process. A small number were received regarding Lough Gill. More than 16 issues were raised during the process, one of which we have categorised as to include Lough Gill as part of the by-law.

The overall intention behind the proposed draft by-law is to afford additional protection to wild brown trout and its scope is confined to seven distinctive State-owned waters where established stock control measures are already in place as a matter of existing policy. The seven waters are Lough Sheelin in the Limerick fishery district, Lough Conn and Lough Cullin in the Ballina fishery district, Lough Corrib, Lough Mask and Lough Carra in the Galway fishery district and Lough Arrow in the Sligo fishery district. These seven limestone lakes are unique in terms of topography and trout habitat and have been managed as wild brown trout fisheries via established stock management programmes. From that perspective, these waters are especially important.

The proposed by-law would give statutory status to the policy designation of this small number of distinctive waters and would mean that the waters concerned would continue to be managed primarily as brown trout waters.

In December last, I first indicated to officials in the Department my view that the importance of these waters should be reflected by way of statutory designation. Advice and observations were subsequently sought from departmental officials at a meeting on 17 January as regards the prospective legislative processes available in regard to the designation of these waters.

The proposed by-law, as secondary legislation, is intended to focus on existing policy designation on State-owned waters where stock management is in place. My policy initiative was to focus on designating these seven distinctive waters, which are considered singularly important.

The complexity of a broader designation of waters, and any required management measures, will have be considered as a matter of primary legislation. Therefore, I have directed that this matter is to be considered in the context of the major inland fisheries consolidation Bill currently being advanced by the Department. As the Deputy is aware, any primary legislation would be a matter for all parties and Members of the House. I accept the interest and advocacy of Deputy Burke and Councillor Andrew Duncan in including Lough Gill in a particular by-law. This by-law, which has been the subject of a consultation and seen an unprecedented amount of interest compared to other by-laws, has included a number of submissions in favour of including Lough Ennel. We are assessing it and taking legal advice on the draft by-law with a view to enacting it as soon as possible.

On the primary legislation, the consolidation work is ongoing. I understand the strong case put forward by the Deputy for the inclusion of Lough Ennell and for protected status, although I also accept that Lough Ennel's attributes can be promoted irrespective of a designation. Its status as a wild brown trout fishery can be promoted through the local authority and whatever assistance Inland Fisheries Ireland can give the Deputy. I will set up a meeting with officials to further discuss what can be done to Lough Ennell to promote it and angling tourism in the midlands.

I thank the Minister of State for his comprehensive reply. I would point out that when someone puts together a designation of lakes and one lake is left off that list, there is a fear that its potential for investment in the future, be it tourism promotion or whatever, may be compromised.

I have met a large number of people since the public consultation phase ended. These are experienced anglers in their field and they have put forward a concrete case that Lough Ennell would be included in this designation. I would point out that Lough Ennell is the record holder in Ireland for wild brown trout. It is unique in its field. When the Minister points out the attributes of the other lakes it is important that he is aware that this lake is self-sufficient. It has not had any man made intervention, and it has not seen stocked. It is a rare type of lake, which is difficult to find worldwide. When we have a treasure like that, it is very important that we promote it but also that we protect it and ensure that it will be a viable entity to attract tourism in the future.

I welcome also the Minister's comment that he will talk to Inland Fisheries Ireland about the promotion of the lake because I believe it has not been promoted enough. Many of these issues fall on the doorstep of the local authority, which at times can be under constraints as a result of budgets etc. It is very important that we have a joined-up approach and that lakes such as these are fully promoted due to the fact that they are a vital component of the local economy. What lakes such as this one can contribute to a vibrant economy and to making rural areas sustainable is a point that is sometimes missed. That is a key component of A Programme for a Partnership Government.

I would welcome any assistance the Minister could provide in terms of getting the lake included in the designation and in terms of any assistance his Department may be able to give to promote same.

I will undertake to arrange a meeting with Inland Fisheries Ireland to discuss the promotion of Lough Gill and angling in the midlands. The Deputy highlighted the importance of stocked fisheries in the area although he pointed out that this is not a stocked fishery but a natural fishery. He pointed out also that the trout in the lake are of a particular genetic disposition in that they are hardy. They would want to be hardy to fend off some of the predation by other fish species in the lakes. That is the basis of the by-law I have been examining. As I said, a number of submissions have been made on both sides. Primary legislation on this area, whenever it comes before this House, will give rise to a lively discussion within and among parties because there are two sides to every argument regarding the angling sector. The purpose of my by-law was to designate a small number, albeit important and larger lakes - seven lakes in total - with respect to a policy. Those are lakes that are primarily managed in terms of removing predators, which has been an ongoing practice for many years in Lough Corrib, for example.

I understand the strong advocacy the Deputy has made on Lough Ennel both here today and previously at meetings with me. I will revert to officials regarding it and undertake to set up that meeting with Inland Fisheries Ireland to further discuss the promotion of angling in the midlands and specifically in Lough Ennel.

Competition and Consumer Protection Commission

I ask the Minister to investigate what is blatantly obvious to anyone who knows the industry, namely anti-competitive practices by large brewing companies in Ireland.

They are abusing their scale or market dominance to have basically exclusionary deals with publicans, large-scale publicans in the main. Large brewers are providing free stock, advance discounts, capex or cash investments to on-trade publicans on condition of excluding competitors and their beers or ciders. This is a serious issue for the industry. I am bringing legislation, which the Government is supporting, to the House to allow craft brewers to sell their products and grow. Those provisions are being neutralised by what I feel are anti-competitive practices whereby large brewing companies are coming in, offering all these incentives and basically telling craft brewers and, dare I say it, other brewers, to take their stock off the shelves and off draft. The are telling publicans they will give them funds, that they will pay for refurbishment, give them free kegs and even cash as long as they get rid of the other brands. How is that not illegal? No-one can tell me it is not anti-competitive. It already happened in Greece, where a subsidiary of Heineken had a large-scale fine put on in the tens of millions. There was a case in Greece where a small brewer took a high court action for similar practices. It is going on here in Ireland.

I was in a pub in Cork recently where there were 21 taps of which 19 were from the one brewing company. There were two for Guinness because, as we all know, they cannot get rid of the Guinness. Did anyone else try to get into that pub? Of course. Why are they not there? This is happening all over Dublin and all over the country. They go to the largest pub in each town, the opinion forming pub, and try to influence it. They offer to do a deal with that publican that if he takes out the rest, or at least takes them off draught, they will look after him. I have a list in my hand. Basically every county in Ireland is on it.

The Competition and Consumer Protection Commission, CCPC, is well aware of this. It has had a number of complaints. I do not think it has the resources to deal with them. It is not a priority. This is affecting jobs all over the country. My county has four craft brewers. I look at Bulmers in Clonmel and I know across the country they are absolutely being devastated by this decision. I know of one brewer, a Munster brewer, who gave out about being taken out of a pub and was then taken out of a range of pubs in a geographical area because they put their head above the parapet and made a complaint. This is not on.

We need the Minister of State to get on to the CCPC to say this needs to be investigated properly once and for all and ensure that these anti-competitive practices stop to allow a fledgling industry to grow, to allow for fair competition and to ensure that other laws such as tax laws are being adhered to properly across the board. We must ensure that people are being protected and there is not a dominant brewing company or companies in this country, originally from outside this country, behaving in an anti-competitive way and costing Irish people jobs. The bottom line is that if this is not investigated, jobs will continue to be lost.

I thank Deputy Kelly for raising this issue. I note his interest in this area and the Bill which is going through the House currently which he introduced in 2017. At the time, he said the Bill was inspired by the wild gypsy brewery in Templemore-----

The White Gypsy Brewery. I will give the Minister of State a few bottles.

The Deputy is alright; I do not drink. I have been all over the country and have seen the importance of the craft brewery industry and the role it is playing in rural areas where we might not otherwise get industry. It is an important sector in Ireland and I very much note Deputy Kelly's interest in it.

The Competition and Consumer Protection Commission, to which the Deputy referred, is the statutory body responsible for the enforcement of domestic and EU competition law in the State. It is important to point out that section 9(5) of the Competition and Consumer Protection Act 2014 provides that the CCPC is independent in the performance of its functions, including carrying out investigations of alleged anti-competitive practices, which the Deputy has alleged. As investigations and enforcement matters generally are part of the day-to-day operational work of the CCPC, the Minister for Business, Enterprise and Innovation, Deputy Humphreys, has no direct function in such matters.

Competition rules seek to provide everyone with better quality goods and services at lower prices by ensuring that firms compete solely on their merits. In a competitive market, the simplest way for a company to gain more market share is to offer a better price than its competitors. This is not only good for consumers; when more people can afford to buy products, it encourages businesses to produce and boosts the economy in general.

In a competitive market, businesses will try to make their products different from the rest so they are more attractive. That is a very important part of the marketing of any product. This results in greater choice: consumers can select the product that offers the right balance between price and quality. To deliver this choice and produce better products businesses need to be innovative. It is very important for any business to be innovative. That is why some of the smarter craft brewing companies will do well with their products, design, production techniques and services.

Businesses may freely enter into a contract whereby one business agrees to buy from or supply all of its goods or services to the other. Such agreements may create benefits for businesses, competition and ultimately consumers. For example, a supplier and retailer may agree that only the supplier’s product will be sold in a retailer’s stores, as the Deputy rightly pointed out, allowing the supplier to invest more heavily in the marketing or promotional efforts of the retailer. Exclusivity arrangements between businesses therefore in many cases do not raise competitive concerns and are not necessarily in themselves a breach of competition law. It is only where such agreements could exclude competitors from the entire market, and not individual businesses, that such agreements can be regarded as anti-competitive. Concerns relating to exclusivity agreements are, therefore, examined by the CCPC on a case by case basis.

On foot of complaints made by distributors about exclusivity agreements, the CCPC has indicated that it has examined the use of such incentives in the on-trade supply of alcohol. The CCPC has indicated that it is important to note before a decision can be made on whether it should open an investigation, each complaint is examined through a rigorous screening process. Factors such as the nature of the complaint, the characteristics of the market and the evidence available all have a bearing on this process. After a robust examination it was determined that the CCPC did not have grounds to suspect a breach of the law. The CCPC can only initiate a full investigation where there is sufficient evidence of a suspected breach of Irish or EU competition law.

I understand that the CCPC’s examination has shown that the relevant exclusivity agreements were used in a small number of pubs in the State and that other brewers and-or distributors large and small still had access to the vast majority of pubs and other outlets. I understand that the CCPC will keep under review the potential impact of such arrangements and it will continue to monitor the sector.

Let us call a spade a spade. The dogs in the street know what is happening here. I appreciate the Minister of State's script but it is actually insulting to the industry. Everyone knows what is going on here. Market dominance is being abused. A whole range of publicans are being approached with these incentives. It is happening everywhere, whether it is rebates, refurbishment, kegs, cash or whatever. There is a whole mix of ways of doing this. I have no problems with publicans getting deals: that is their right. When it means that smaller or medium sized brewers are being excluded, that is wrong - morally wrong and absolutely illegal. This has to be dealt with.

It will probably take "Prime Time" or someone to investigate this in order for action. I am told the Minister, Deputy Humphreys has no direct role.

I have now told the Minister of State what is happening. He can ask the CCPC to investigate it or not. It is his choice but it will probably take something like that for us to have a proper investigation. The real issue is that the CCPC does not have the resources. This would take a sizeable investigation and the CCPC does not have the resources to do this.

Large amounts of cash and resources are being used and these practices are happening in large pubs in all cities and towns in Ireland. Large rebates are being given to publicans if they can show a certain level of sales. I cannot understand anybody who tells me that this is not anti-competitive and I will not accept it. It is a lazy response. Any situation involving market dominance where someone ensures that the products of small players are not allowed on the shelf or to be made available on tap is not acceptable.

The reason publicans have licences which are reviewed every year is because they must act in a certain way. Does this practice whereby some publicans with a licence do not allow competition on their premises constitute an abuse?

If Deputy Kelly wants me to go off script, I have no problem doing so. A lot of complaints have already been made to the CCPC about these alleged practices referred to by the Deputy. When it investigated them, it found-----

It did not investigate them.

Well it had to look for evidence to investigate them. Evidence is extremely important. If one was in a court of law in the morning, one would need evidence. If it is an issue of resources, I will bring the Deputy's concerns to the Minister to raise the issue with the CCPC. As I said, the CCPC is independent. It is important that if there is an independent body there, it is allowed to do its job. As it rightly pointed out in the so-called script referred to by the Deputy, it has looked at this but it does not have the evidence. If the Deputy has evidence, he should go to the CCPC and produce that evidence. I am sure it will have no problem further examining the evidence produced by the Deputy given the concerns of a law maker like the Deputy and his interest in this area. It would do the Deputy's career in politics no harm either.

Hospital Facilities

The provision of 24-7 cardiac care at University Hospital Waterford and the south east has long been debated in this House and the Minister of State, Deputy Finian McGrath, is well aware of the situation. I thank him for taking this Topical Issue. I am disappointed the Minister for Health cannot be here. There was an announcement yesterday about the delivery of a modular lab to be located at University Hospital Waterford that would perform both diagnostic and intervention procedures. The funding for this modular lab is to be included in the 2019 Estimate.

The Minister informed Members of the Oireachtas that he believes there is merit in the proposal for a modular cardiac catheterisation lab at University Hospital Waterford in order to address waiting times at the hospital and provide a better service for the people of Waterford and the south east. This is welcome. As the Minister of State is well aware, all Members from Waterford and the south east have combined and worked together on this issue but I must advise today that there is still a capacity demand issue and a very limited service of 40 hours per week in the existing lab with no service at the weekends. The Minister stated that he had received advice from the HSE and that some further work is required on the detail relating to tendering, project design work, planning, construction and commissioning. I am asking for that further detail. We need a clear timeframe and an expected delivery date.

The consultants at the hospital feel that this modular unit will greatly enhance the cardiac services they offer to the public. Having one elective and non-elective lab is now possible but it needs to be delivered as a matter of priority without any delay. I would really appreciate it if the Minister of State could give us information as to when we can expect to see this modular lab on the ground so that we can save lives.

Last year, all Members from the south east came together to lobby the Minister on this issue as best they could. The Minister of State knows this has been longstanding issue not just in Waterford but in the south east. Unfortunately, the south east is the only primary percutaneous coronary intervention, PCI, centre, of which there are six in the State, that provides a limited nine-to-five, Monday-to-Friday service. Every other centre provides a 24-hour emergency cardiac service. While we are here today rightly welcoming the announcement that a modular lab will be provided at University Hospital Waterford for a specified period of time, the ultimate goal is to ensure the south east is on a level playing field and has the same level of service as other regions.

The announcement yesterday by the Minister of State, Deputy Halligan, which was reaffirmed in a letter by the Minister for Health, is that the Minister is committed to the deployment of a modular lab and that the money will be made available in the budget in October. However, a lengthy process must be gone through. I accept that there is a process, things cannot be done overnight and there are issues relating to procurement and planning issues and all of those considerations need to be dealt with. However, as Deputy Butler said, what we need is a clear timetable because there is a fear that the issue will be kicked down the road, as has happened in the past, and that the Minister, Department or somebody else will drag their feet. We need to be able to hold the Government and Minister to account. I commend the Minister for making the announcement yesterday and I commend all the Members who worked collaboratively and very hard to get this over the line but we need to know what exactly is involved in terms of procurement, planning, construction and design plans. What is the timeframe from now until delivery date? While the money may be committed in the budget, there is no reason why the planning side of it cannot happen now. It should happen today or tomorrow and not after the budget when the money is ring fenced.

I thank Deputies Butler and Cullinane for raising the important issue of cardiac services at University Hospital Waterford and for giving me an opportunity to update the House on the latest position in this regard on behalf of the Minister and to convey the total support of the Minister of State, Deputy Halligan, on this issue. As they are aware, the Government has taken a number of actions on this important issue starting with approving increased funding to allow for the recruitment of staff to support increased hours at the existing lab. While recruitment has been slow, in the interim, a mobile catheterisation lab has been deployed at University Hospital Waterford and this has led to a decrease in the length of time that people are waiting for diagnostic procedures.

The Deputies will be aware that when the Minister met with Members from the south east on 14 February last, he indicated that he would give consideration to the various issues raised by the group, including the potential for the deployment of a modular catheterisation lab. As I believe he advised in a letter to the Members yesterday, he has now conveyed his view that there is merit in the proposal in order to address waiting times at the hospital further and provide a better service for the people of Waterford and the south east. That is something we all strongly support. He has received advice from the HSE on the proposal and while there is some further work required on the detail, he has asked the Department to proceed without delay to engage with the HSE on the next steps in providing a modular lab. I understand the timeframe for the development of modular builds as outlined by the HSE must include tendering, project design work, planning, construction and commissioning so it will take until next year to deliver. However, I think it is very important that the Minister has committed that this will be funded in the 2019 Estimate and that work should begin immediately on the process to deliver it.

In the interim, the mobile catheterisation lab continues to be deployed. The national review of specialist cardiac services is well underway and issued a report on its sixth meeting yesterday. The aim of this review is to achieve optimal patient outcomes at population level with particular emphasis on the safety, quality and sustainability of the services that patients receive by establishing the need for an optimal configuration of a national adult cardiac service. As set out in the national development plan 2018-27, investment in cardiac catheterisation laboratories and other cardiac services infrastructure nationally will be informed by the outcome of the national review, which is expected to be complete by June 2019.

I know the Minister will continue to work with the Deputies and their south-east colleagues towards achieving better outcomes for all patients in the region.

This is certainly a step in the right direction towards the ultimate goal of 24-7 cardiac care in the south-east. I cannot emphasise enough the importance of delivery as soon as possible. It is 6.30 p.m. and here in Dublin, if any of us were to have a cardiac issue, we could be brought to one of many cath labs throughout Dublin. However, in Waterford and the south-east the cath lab has been closed since 5 p.m. and it will not open again until 9 a.m. in the morning. The Minister of State has to understand how important this issue is to us. The lab opens from 9 a.m. to 5 p.m., Monday to Friday, with absolutely no cover at the weekend. A patient has only the option of being transferred in an ambulance to Cork.

I have always maintained we need a 24-7 cath lab at University Hospital Waterford which can provide both diagnostic and cardiac intervention. Waiting lists at University Hospital Waterford for cardiac diagnostic procedures are currently at an all-time high. The only way to deal with this is to get the modular lab on the ground as soon as possible. We will have to continue to hold the Minister to account until we see it.

I have already said this is a step forward for people in Waterford and the south-east. As somebody who lobbied the Minister to put this in place as an interim, temporary measure until the national review completes its work, and we are hoping for a favourable outcome, I am somewhat disappointed with the language in the speech the Minister of State read out. It states there is merit in the proposal but further work is required, and it then states it will take until next year to deliver. Is that next January, March, June or December? It talks about the different issues and hurdles which will have to be overcome, such as tendering, project design work, planning, construction and commissioning. We need something a bit more concrete.

I ask the Minister of State to go back to the Minister for Health and ask him to meet the Oireachtas Members before the Dáil recess, as he promised, to outline to us actual timeframes. In any capital project, one has targets in terms of whether it is the first quarter, second quarter or third quarter of the year, and there are timeframes around all the different stages in the process. We have no timeframe here. The Minister of State will accept we need a bit more than what is in his response in order to give comfort to the people of the south-east that this will be delivered as quickly as possible.

I thank Deputies Cullinane and Butler for the points raised. I agree 100% that the people of Waterford deserve a better service. I have been asked by the Minister of State, Deputy John Halligan, to commend and thank the Deputies for their support and for working together to improve services for the people of Waterford. The Minister of State specifically asked me to say this.

He will be happy to get a mention.

With regard to the points about the timeframe and the delivery date, I will go back to the Minister on that issue. Of course, there will be issues in regard to procurement and planning, as well as the potential for delays. I have experienced this in regard to the new accident and emergency unit at Beaumont Hospital so I know exactly where the Deputies are coming from. I reassure them there will be no kicking the can down the road on this issue. The Independent Alliance and the Government are very supportive of the people of Waterford. The Minister of State, Deputy Halligan, has been pushing this issue in government with the Minister and we have been supporting him. Likewise, we are very supportive of the needs of the people of Waterford because we feel very strongly that they have been left out of the picture and they are entitled to the same level of service as other regions of the country. There is no debate on that issue.

The Herity report concluded that the needs of the effective catchment population for University Hospital Waterford could be accommodated from a single cath lab. Funding has been provided to support extension of the existing cath lab operating hours to 12 sessions per week, or by 20%, as recommended by the Herity report. The HSE has advised that the posts will be required to facilitate the service extension to the existing cath lab were originally envisaged to be reduced whole-time equivalent posts, that is, all posts were 0.25 whole-time equivalent with the exception of the nursing posts, which were 0.75 whole-time equivalent. While it has proved difficult to recruit suitably qualified staff for the 0.25 whole-time equivalent posts, these posts have now been designated as full-time equivalents. Recruitment is currently being progressed by the national recruitment service and it is hoped that, as full-time posts, the recruitment will be successful.

All the issues the Deputies have raised will be brought back to the Minister and we guarantee them our maximum support.