Topical Issue Debate

Social and Affordable Housing Funding

This may be the final sitting day before the summer recess but we will be back in September. The Minister of State should imagine getting a letter last week saying that it was his last day on the council housing list and that, after ten years, he was being removed for being a few hundred euro over the limit. That is happening and it is an absolute scandal. I will give an example. The following was stated in a letter received by one of my constituents this week, "Having assessed your income details provided I regret to inform you that you are no longer eligible to be considered for social housing support by Fingal County Council as your income exceeds the limits set out in the council's allocation scheme for social housing support." This woman has been on the housing list for 12 years. The family has six children. My calculation is that they are €1,662 over the income limit for a family of that size, which is €40,250. Of their income, which is assessed to be over the limit, €3,300 is a family income supplement, FIS, payment which recognises that this family does not have enough money to live on yet the State is also saying that it is no longer eligible to be considered for social housing. That is just mad. How could that be? I know the Minister of State would not want to stand over this kind of policy yet he must fix it.

As it stands, the income threshold level for which an applicant may qualify for social housing in Fingal is set at €35,000 per annum, for a single person. Beyond this, depending on family sizes, the threshold varies. For an average family of two adults and two children, however, the level sits at €38,500 per annum. In cases where a household contains three adults and four children, the threshold stands at its highest, €42,000. These limits were established in 2011 and have not been reviewed by the Government since, or at least they have not changed . The income threshold as it stands is simply too low and has led to more problems being created than solved.

Many families in Fingal who have been on the housing list for in excess of seven years now find themselves being removed from that same list, due to being a couple of hundred euro over the existing threshold. This is simply an unacceptable situation which is causing great distress for families who have been patiently waiting to be offered housing for many years. They are waiting to get an offer and they are being taken off the list.

A situation whereby a person may have to refuse a promotion in order to ensure that they do not rise slightly above the threshold is in complete contrast to the kind of employment innovation that the Government should be promoting, which I know the Minister of State is seriously interested in facilitating. My Labour Party colleague, Deputy Jan O'Sullivan, recently urged the Minister of State to highlight the Government's proposals regarding the existing thresholds. The Minister of State said that the Government intended to conduct a review of the thresholds which should have been made available by mid-2018 yet no such review has been published.

There appears to be no sense of urgency regarding this matter, despite the fact that many families have reached a point of utter desperation and fear becoming homeless. The Government continues to delay reviewing the existing thresholds, meanwhile housing prices rose by 12% in the past year. This has led to a situation whereby households may be slightly over the existing thresholds but are nowhere near the income levels required to actually purchase homes. This situation has reached crisis point. The Government's lack of urgency and the total absence of a strategy is simply unacceptable. Ultimately, a complete review of and subsequent increase in the income limits for qualification for social housing is urgently required. As matters stand, the limits are simply too low and have resulted in families being removed from housing lists. The level of distress this causes is shocking and none of us wants it to happen. We know intuitively that this is wrong and that it must be changed.

We simply cannot have situations where low income earners are refusing promotions in order to ensure that they remain on the housing list. Increasing house prices have made it impossible for many families to purchase homes, meanwhile there is no real affordable housing scheme in place. This situation is simply unsustainable and a complete review - alongside an increase in the income limits - must be carried out immediately.

I thank the Deputy for raising this issue and for giving me the opportunity to clarify the position. On 1 April 2011, the Social Housing Assessment Regulations introduced a new standard procedure for assessing applicants for social housing in every housing authority. The regulations include maximum net income limits for each housing authority, in different bands according to the area, with income being defined and assessed according to a standard household means policy. Before the new system was put in place, there was considerable inconsistency in the approach taken by various local authorities. This was neither efficient nor fair and I imagine that is why the former Minister of State in this role, Deputy Penrose, made the change because it was not fair across the board and there were discrepancies in it.

The income bands, and the authority area assigned to each band, were based on an assessment of income needed to provide for a household's basic need plus a comparative analysis of the local rental cost of housing accommodation around the country. As a result, higher limits generally apply in the larger urban areas compared with other areas. This is the case in the Fingal County Council area, which has an income threshold of €35,000 for a single adult household. The €35,000 limit would correspond to a gross salary of more than €48,000 - which is some 30% above the average industrial wage. The limits also reflect a blanket increase of €5,000 introduced prior to the new system coming into operation in order to broaden the base from which social housing tenants are drawn and thereby promote sustainable communities. I agree with the Deputy that people should not be refusing jobs and that these limits should not be a deterrent to improving career or employment prospects. That is why the blanket increase was introduced.

Under the household means policy, which applies in all housing authority areas, net income for social housing assessment is defined as gross household income less income tax, pay-related social insurance, PRSI, and the universal social charge. Most payments received from the Department of Employment Affairs and Social Protection are assessable. The policy provides for a range of income disregards and housing authorities also have discretion to decide to disregard income that is temporary, short-term or once-off in nature. I am not familiar with the individual case the Deputy outlined but I will check to see is there any scope there. FIS may not be a permanent payment for the family, it depends on how long they have had it. In general, it is not often a permanent payment. Perhaps it could be considered on appeal as a temporary or once-off income.

Given the cost to the State of providing social housing, it is considered prudent and fair to direct resources to those most in need of social housing support. I am conscious that Deputy Bríd Smith is in the House and that she has also been raising this issue. For the past two years, much of the funding and resources available were directed towards social housing and the emergency accommodation for people who are homeless. We are trying to move this approach into the area of affordable housing and to concentrate efforts there also.

As part of the broader agenda, a review of income eligibility for social housing supports has commenced. The Housing Agency is carrying out the detailed statistical work on behalf of the Department and I expect the results of this review to be available for publication later in the summer. I share the Deputy's frustration because I would like to have had this review completed before now. The matter has been raised by several Members, including Deputies Brendan Ryan and Bríd Smith and others. I committed to having this done. We should have that report with us before the end of the summer. One matter that will be examined as part of the review is the possibility of structuring social housing support in a way that improves the overall efficiency and equity of the system and does not discourage people from improving their circumstances when it comes to employment or career prospects.

Families in my constituency have been on the list for ten years and have now been removed for being a few hundred euro over the limit. Why is that? In one case, a mother returned to part-time work to help the family meet the increased rent of €1,100 a month. On one level, as the family is under pressure for rent the mother went back to work but then the family becomes ineligible for social housing. They have been told they have been removed from the list but they have not been told how much they are over the limit, making appealing the decision even more difficult. By their own calculations they are no more than a few hundred euro over the very modest limits and those limits were set in 2011.

Perversely, people who found themselves threatened by homelessness in recent times have managed to be on the housing assistance payment, HAP. People who may have been on the list at the same time as others have now gone into HAP and are in the system for ever. Due to the inefficiency of the system and the lack of housing and housing offers, that family has reached a point 12 years on where their income has increased slightly and now they are off the list. If they had been accepted onto HAP, and been lucky enough to get HAP, they would still be in the system. It is a case of either being under a limit and getting everything or being over a limit and getting nothing. We have to restructure that.

We need to increase the base levels and make them adequate for the current market. The cap of 2.5% per child up to four children, with a maximum of 10%, needs to be removed. If a family has six or eight kids, they need to get the benefit of that 2.5% of base level per child. We talked about FIS already and I refer to the list in item No. 7 on page 3 in respect of incomes which are not assessable. One thing the Minster of State can do straight away is to make FIS non-assessable. That is a no-brainer.

There needs to be a complete review of social housing eligibility because we are probably the only country in Europe which has assessment of income as the model. Many countries do not. We need to assess people's ability to provide housing for themselves rather than have an income point that decides if someone is either in or out. That is completely wrong. On clarifying what we need to do, while we are waiting for the review, the Minister of State needs to issue a directive to all local authorities that nobody should be taken off the list while the review is continuing. That is a simple measure that can be done.

I thank the Deputy and I will take on board all the points he made. I will bring them back to our officials when the review comes back from the agency and we will look at what is assessable or not. He has raised a few issues that are worth looking at. I am satisfied that the current income limits and the current scheme are generally fair and equitable. I think people will agree that it is across the board and that it deals with most cases. I accept that in some cases, it leaves households outside the income brackets but generally, it does identify those households unable to provide accommodation from their own resources. The review is about seeing whether the limits need to be changed. It also gives us a timely way to look at all of the different income limits and income sources that are assessable.

The Government is aware of the challenges faced by households in meeting their housing costs. It is the subject to debate here week in and week out for the past couple of years. Dealing with this is the Government's number one priority. We accept that the supply of housing will help all of this but it also is quite clear that the property and employment markets have changed dramatically over the last couple of years. The limits were set in 2011 and we recognise the importance of having them reviewed to reflect that reality as well. We have acted to support those households a little above the income eligibility thresholds for social housing supports.

In February this year, a new loan offering known as the Rebuilding Ireland home loan was launched. The new fixed interest rate loan will help middle-income households, earning up to €50,000 as a single person or €75,000 as a couple, to purchase new or second-hand properties in a suitable price range. Over 50% of the applicants for that are qualifying and are being approved for a loan to help them get a house. My colleague, the Minister for Housing, Planning and Local Government has also recently placed a new scheme for affordable purchase on a statutory footing. My Department is working with the key local authorities and the Housing Agency to identify sites that would see a significant quantity of affordable homes being delivered on local authority owned land. We have been working with them for the past year to bring forward the plans on public lands to be able to deliver affordable houses as well. It all beginning to align and the focus in this part - now that we have got the social housing system changed - is to move on to adapt affordable housing and looking at the income limits.

Garda Station Closures

I thank the Ceann Comhairle for selecting this matter for discussion and I am pleased that the Minister for Justice and Equality is here to respond. I declare my interest in this subject as Bawnboy is my home village. I do not live there any more but that was where I was born and reared and I still have strong family connections there. In 2013 Bawnboy Garda station was one of a number of small rural stations closed in Cavan-Monaghan and throughout the country. Over the years, the members of An Garda Síochána assigned to the Bawnboy station gave a great policing service to the local community. There was, and still is, a great community spirit in that area and the work of the Garda was always very strongly supported by the local community.

As the Minister is aware, that area is part of the Border region. If one goes west of Belturbet and Ballyconnell to Bawnboy, Corlough, Swanlinbar, Glangevlin, Dowra and Blacklion, it is a large rural area all along the Border. As we know and as we discussed in this House previously, there are particular policing demands on An Garda Síochána in the Border area. I was pleased that the Minister some time ago announced that six Garda stations would reopen as a result of the commitment given in the programme for Government. Bawnboy Garda station is in good order and is a relatively new building and I am anxious that it should be reopened and Garda personnel assigned to it at an early date.

One of the most striking comments I heard came from the last Garda who served in Bawnboy station, Garda Imelda Gallagher. She stated at her retirement function that she regretted the closure of small rural Garda stations. One sentence she uttered that night has stuck with me. She said that she got to know the local people and the people got to know the local garda on the ground. No means of communications can ever equal that knowledge between An Garda Síochána and the members of the public. I implore the Minister to ask the Garda authorities to have this station reopened as soon as possible.

He is well aware, and we discussed this previously in this House, of the anxieties and concerns in Border communities in respect of crime levels. We know that not all of the criminality emanates from outside of our jurisdiction and plenty of it is from people residing here. The added dimension to criminality in the Border area, however, is that some of the culprits, criminals and thugs can get away very quickly out of our jurisdiction when they commit a crime along that corridor, as they can elsewhere along the Border as well. I emphasise again the particular additional policing demands on the Garda in the Border region. We need the station reopened in Bawnboy and we need gardaí assigned to it as soon as possible. I hope the Minster will convey to the Garda Commissioner and the senior management of An Garda Síochána the need for this station to be reopened quickly. From a layperson's point of view, the Garda station is modern, in good condition and it would cost very little to have it reopened.

I thank the Deputy for raising this matter. He has raised it with me on a number of occasions. The Deputy will appreciate that the programme of replacement and refurbishment of Garda accommodation is progressed by the Garda authorities working in close cooperation with the Office of Public Works, OPW. The OPW has the responsibility for the provision and maintenance of Garda accommodation. This includes identifying and progressing any necessary remedial or refurbishment works required at individual stations. As Minister, I do not have a direct role in these matters. The Programme for a Partnership Government, however, commits to a pilot scheme to reopen six Garda stations, both urban and rural, to determine possible positive impacts that such openings will have on criminal activity, with special emphasis on burglaries, theft and public order.

The Garda Commissioner's final report, which is available on the Department of Justice and Equality's website, recommends that Bawnboy Garda station be reopened, along with stations in Ballinspittle, County Cork, Donard, County Wicklow, Leighlinbridge, County Carlow, Rush in north County Dublin and Stepaside in south County Dublin. I am informed by the Garda authorities that a brief of requirements was provided to the OPW in respect of the reopening of these stations, including Bawnboy Garda station.

The Garda authorities requested the OPW to undertake technical surveys to determine the works required to enable the stations to reopen and the estimated costings involved. I am further informed that this key stage is complete. The OPW has conducted the necessary technical surveys of all stations involved and has written to the Commissioner advising him of the works involved accordingly. I understand that based on those reports, An Garda Síochána and the OPW continue to liaise closely to progress the pilot reopening.

I understand that at this stage it is not possible to provide a detailed timeframe for reopening of the station concerned, which is dependent on a number of factors, including, for example, the extent of the required refurbishment, based on current building regulations. There are also agreed standards and specifications for Garda cell areas and custody suites which would have to be incorporated into the refurbishment. The works required vary across the stations, including at Bawnboy. After the specification has been agreed, the works will commence once the appropriate procurement process has been finalised. I assure the Deputy that the OPW and An Garda Síochána continue to work closely to progress the pilot project. My officials are engaging with them on an ongoing basis, and I am keen that this issue is resolved at the earliest opportunity, having regard to the strong representations made to me by the Deputy.

I thank the Minister for his reply, and I want to put on record my appreciation of the fact that he facilitated me with a meeting to discuss this matter some time ago. It would be a great message for rural communities if a Garda station was to open up again in a small village. There has been a serious increase in crime levels and criminality in rural areas, including that part of west Cavan and, therefore, a message from the Minister that a Garda station will open shortly would be positive and would be well received.

I did not think, after 1998, that I would be talking about Border crossings in this House again, but unfortunately it is very much a part of the political narrative again, with Brexit on the way. In the west Cavan area there are a huge number of Border crossings. We know the implications of Brexit and the difficulties that may arise for communities on both sides of the Border. Gardaí with local knowledge will be important to ensure that the best service continues to be provided to the public. I again ask the Minister to ask that the Garda authorities to speed up the reopening of this station. I appreciate his assistance to date in this matter.

The Deputy is correct about policing the Border area. I look forward to ensuring that progress on the Garda workforce is reported on a regular basis. The stated aim of the Government is to ensure that we have 21,000 Garda personnel by 2021, and we are moving progressively towards that objective. In terms of numbers in the Border area, Bawnboy Garda station will be reopened on a pilot basis. The timeframe for the reopening of Bawnboy, as with the other five stations, is dependent on a number of factors, but I am keen to ensure these factors are dealt with efficiently and speedily. I confirm to the Deputy that there has been considerable progress in the assessment and agreement on the building works required in respect of Bawnboy. I am not at this stage able to provide a definitive timeframe, but I am happy to keep him informed over the summer months while the House is not sitting. I can confirm that the detailed work on this issue is very much ongoing. The OPW has completed the technical surveys based on the briefing requirements of An Garda Síochána, which is an important step. It has written to the Garda Commissioner outlining the works involved, and based on those reports, the Garda and the OPW are working steadily to ensure the reopening of the stations can take place as soon as possible.

Hospital Appointments Delays

I thank the Ceann Comhairle for the opportunity to present this issue to the House at the eleventh hour. He did so because it is a time sensitive issue. With regard to health advice on cataract care, the HSE's website states:

[A] cataract will continue to develop, and the only way to restore vision is by having surgery to remove the cataract. Cataract surgery is one of the most common and quickest forms of surgery.

According to the Association of Optometrists Ireland, at the end of 2017 some 40,000 people were on the outpatient list waiting for that surgery. Its statistics show that the problem has deteriorated since; the number of people on the waiting list has increased by 21%. The largest proportion of the waiting list for eye surgery relates to cataracts, with 8,500 people waiting for surgery at the end of 2017, including some who have been waiting for up to four years in certain parts of the country.

I want to talk about a man in my area. He is housed by the council in a nice apartment, but he is a poor man. He lives on the carer's allowance. His wife has MS, and he is her carer. She is on disability allowance. Patrick Foley is 42 and is the carer for his wife, Carmel. He has been on the waiting list for cataract surgery for three years now. He is suffering from blinding headaches while waiting for this surgery and he is starting to go blind. His eyesight has started to deteriorate more rapidly recently, and his GP has written several referral letters to the Royal Victoria Eye and Ear Hospital. He was advised to look at the cross-Border healthcare scheme. To do this he needs to find someone to care for his wife. His eyesight is so bad that he will do anything to get surgery. He does not have the financial means to save up or bring the money forward or to go to a credit union for a loan. My office has continually asked the HSE to make an exception in this case, where this man cannot get the funding upfront. I have asked that an allowance be made in these circumstances and the HSE's answer has been "No". However, considering that this man is a carer and has been on the list for some time, and the fact that he may go blind and that his wife may be taken into care, the State is cutting off its nose to spite its face by not paying upfront for Patrick to have this cross-Border treatment, or, preferably, to have the surgery carried out here.

People who can afford to pay wait for three months. People like Patrick have to wait for three years. The Department of Employment Affairs and Social Protection told Patrick that the emergency needs payment would not cover him when the responsibility lies with another Department, which in this case is the Department of Health. I wrote to the HSE to highlight the urgency of this case, but to date I have received no reply. He is going to go blind unnecessarily, and is suffering terribly in the meantime. This is happening as a result of our failed health system. If Patrick had money he would be sorted out, but because he is poor and does not have the money, he is suffering unnecessarily and will go blind. That is why we needed to bring this matter to the urgent attention of the Minister of State. His needs have to be met. Judging by the state of our home help care, I do not believe the needs of his wife will be met urgently.

It is startling that the National Council for the Blind of Ireland, NCBI, has been pushing hard for the State to invest more money in this area. Some additional funding was provided this year to the National Treatment Purchase Fund, NTPF, but it does not cater for people who cannot pay upfront. I am quite sure that the case of Patrick Foley is not an isolated one. I do not know whether the Minister of State has come across Patrick - she is a local Deputy in his constituency - but I have witnessed how rapidly his eyesight is disappearing and how desperately his life his changing. We need to do something. We must find a way for some Department to pay for the surgery he needs upfront to allow him to live his life with full eyesight.

I am taking this matter on behalf of the Minister for Health and I thank the Deputy for raising it. Improving waiting times for hospital procedures is a key commitment in the programme for Government and a number of waiting list initiatives are currently under way to improve access this year. In particular, I refer to the inpatient and day case action plan which was launched in April 2018, and the allocation of €50 million to the NTPF in budget 2018 to secure treatment for patients and reduce waiting times. The action plan targets a reduction in the waiting list for inpatient and day case treatment to less than 70,000 by the end of 2018. Under the plan, the HSE will deliver 1.14 million hospital procedures.

The NTPF will deliver additionality to the health system with the provision of 22,000 inpatient day case treatments, including 5,000 cataract procedures and 1,200 tonsillectomies. The action plan has been developed to ensure an appropriate balance between high-volume activities and offering treatment to complex long-waiting patients, as well as maximising the number of patients treated in both public and private capacities.

Over the past year the Department of Health has worked with the HSE and the NTPF to identify sustainable initiatives to improve waiting times. Last year, funding was allocated to provide additional capacity at the Royal Victoria Eye and Ear Hospital, which has augmented capacity to increase clinics focused on paediatric and adult ear, nose and throat, ENT, procedures. The NTPF funding has also allowed the hospital's cataract theatre to be operational three days per week. The impact of these initiatives is clear. To date this year, the hospital has seen significant reductions in waiting lists for cataracts and waiting times reduced to six months. It is expected that the hospital and the NTPF will continue to work together to maintain and even improve on these waiting times. Overall, the inpatient and day case waiting lists for the end of June show that waiting times at the hospital have fallen by almost one quarter in the past year.

The Children's Hospital Group is also working with Royal Victoria Eye and Ear Hospital to determine the feasibility of the hospital providing additional services across both outpatient and surgical services over the next year in order to reduce waiting times for children.

The Minister for Health has long said that the outpatient waiting list is a challenge which must be addressed. The HSE is working with the NTPF and the Department to finalise a joint plan focused on improving overall use of resources to tackle long patient waiting times and ensure timely access to treatment care for patients. The Minister hopes to publish this plan shortly. As part of this process, the NTPF and the HSE are currently reviewing proposals from hospitals for outpatient initiatives. I am aware that the Royal Victoria Eye and Ear Hospital is developing a proposal to address the new patients' ENT outpatient department waiting list. The Minister encourages all hospitals to submit proposals as soon as possible.

I will deal with some of the issues that were raised by Deputy Smith in my supplementary remarks.

I will just reiterate that the HSE website states: "Cataract surgery is one of the most common and quickest forms of surgery". It also says that this surgery will help to save sight. The NCBI has said that waiting lists are out of control. That is much more shocking when we consider that 75% of sight loss is avoidable. That organisation has called on the Minister for Health to publish the implementation of the primary eye case services report, which was expected in the summer of 2015 and still has not been published.

I acknowledge that the Minister of State will not know the detail of the individual case I have brought before her, but with all due respect, nothing in her answer shows that any consideration is given to those who cannot afford to pay up front for the NTPF. The Department of Employment Affairs and Social Protection will not pay it and the HSE will not answer. Meanwhile this man, who is a carer for his wife, is going blind. If I have one example of this, a man in the Minister of State's constituency, there must be dozens of others.

The NCBI and Dr. David Keegan, a consultant ophthalmic surgeon, have been campaigning for this national vision strategy for the past six years. Dr. Keegan has warned us that we have a national scandal on our hands. Medics have also warned that the long waiting lists are particularly harsh on patients whose deterioration in sight could be reversed. That is the case for Mr. Patrick Foley. His problem is that he is poor. He does not have the money to pay for the surgery up front, and no matter what Department we turn to, everybody is ignoring him as though he was not a human being, not to mention his wife, whom he looks after. This is shocking in the 21st century and the fastest-growing economy in Europe. I recognise that the NTPF is trying to deal with the backlog, but there are some people who fall through the cracks. They are the people who are the most vulnerable, the weakest and the least represented. I am asking the Minister of State to intervene on behalf of her constituent, Patrick Foley, and ensure that he is looked after by the NTPF, or preferably gets the eye surgery he needs in this State before the man goes blind.

I assure the Deputy that the engagement between the Royal Victoria Eye and Ear Hospital and the NTPF provides a clear example of positive impacts. Such collaboration can only have a real effect on waiting lists, and, ultimately, benefit all the patients that are receiving treatment. However, if the Deputy will give me the details of the particular case she has raised, I will certainly bring them to the attention of the Minister and see what can be done.

Some 37,863 people attended the Royal Victoria Eye and Ear Hospital according to the outpatient attendance list. Out of that, 3,494 patients did not show up for appointments. That shows how difficult it sometimes is to reach patients and get them in for appointments. That is a clear indication that we do have high numbers, and nobody is disagreeing with the Deputy on that. I will now read a note I was handed in the past few minutes. Last year, there were 34 patients in the hospital who had been waiting between 24 and 36 months. That number is down to five this year. Those are the latest figures. Last year, 290 patients had been waiting between 18 and 24 months and that figure has decreased to nine.

I will bring all of the Deputy's concerns back to the Minister. I assure her that representing the same constituency, I, like her, am very concerned about the number of people who come to our clinics and have difficulty in having cataracts removed. It is surgery that is now regarded as a much more simple procedure than it was in the past. I will certainly bring the Deputy's concerns, which I have written down, to the attention of the Minister. Again, I ask her to forward this man's details to me. I did not get his second name.

It is Patrick Foley. The matter is time sensitive. That is why the Leas-Cheann Comhairle allowed me to bring it forward today. I do not want him to go blind, and he certainly does not want to go blind.

If the Deputy will pass me on the information, I will certainly raise it with the Minister.

Human Rights

I am disappointed that the Minister responsible is not able to attend. I have made numerous attempts to table questions, and they have been refused. I thank the Leas-Cheann Comhairle again for accepting this Topical Issue matter. I have submitted this matter because I was disturbed when I found out that large volumes of coal supplying the largest power plant in the State, Moneypoint power station, are coming from the Cerrejón mine in Colombia. This mine is infamous for the destruction of the environment, forcible displacement of indigenous people and Afro-Colombians living in the area and workers' rights abuses. During the past 32 years, more than 20,000 Afro-Colombian and indigenous people have been forced from their traditional homes to make way for this ever-growing mine. Land grabs and evictions have been carried out by Cerrejón's agents using intimidation, forcing the communities to hand over their land for laughable prices using their dominant position and relying on the complicity of the state authorities.

Figures from the ESB show that Moneypoint has used 12,568,717 tonnes of imported coal since 2011. Some 11,264,239 tonnes of this coal, just under 90%, has come from Colombia, and the vast majority of that has come from this mine in the north east of Colombia. The mine is operated by multinational companies such as Glencore, which is currently under investigation in the US for massive corruption and money laundering in its mining operations throughout the world, and Coal Marketing Company, CMC, which has offices here in Dublin. I have seen documents which show that this is the company from which we are buying coal.

This mine is located in one of the poorest regions in Colombia. Indigenous communities that have lived on this land since long before the mine was opened in 1985 have seen this area's precious ecosystem destroyed and their health damaged by this coal mining operation. Air pollution from the mine has caused serious and fatal respiratory problems for these communities. Noise pollution from machinery is also damaging the health and quality of life. In 2016, a legal ruling obliged the mine owners to implement an environment action plan and to attend to the health needs of these indigenous communities, but nothing has been done. In fact, just eight months after this ruling, it expanded its operation. Work began to extract minerals from the bed of a river tributary near the plant, which has run dry following three years of intense drought, decades of overuse and a lifetime of public corruption in the region. Another river tributary which is an important source of water for these indigenous communities has also been diverted to serve the mine and its relentless expansion.

The mine is slowly exterminating the indigenous people in this land. The communities do not want this mine. They want access to water and other natural resources in the area so that they can produce agricultural products and live their lives in harmony, free from the environmental degradation this mine brings.

The community and human rights defenders standing up for their rights are being harassed and threatened, and the police and army have attacked these protests on the mine's operation. The mine and the community cannot survive side by side. One of them has to go and it should be the mine. We are part of the problem by importing the coal. It is not for someone else to worry about. As the main shareholder in the ESB will the Government direct it to stop importing coal from this mine immediately and end the use of coal, which is the dirtiest of all fossil fuels in Ireland?

I thank the Deputy. Unfortunately, the Minister for Foreign Affairs and Trade cannot be present and I was asked, just in the past 15 minutes, to take this matter and I ask the Deputy to bear with me.

The question of where the Moneypoint plant sources its coal is a matter for the ESB and the Deputy may wish to pursue this matter further with the Minister for Communications, Climate Action and Environment. We understand that there have been complaints from non-governmental organisations, NGOs, regarding private sector activities in the Cerrejón mine and we are aware of the negative publicity that has surrounded the mine for some time.

We would certainly be concerned at reports of mining activities having a negative impact on local populations or on the environment, as well as reported abuse of workers. Ireland does not yet have an embassy in Colombia although we will open one there shortly, but the EU delegation in Bogotá has been active on behalf of member states in this area. The EU delegation has been monitoring the situation closely and the EU head of delegation has visited the Cerrejón mine to hear stakeholders' views on the allegations and to assess the situation on the ground. Several follow-up meetings took place with representatives of trade unions and other civil society organisations.

In addition to the continuous monitoring of Colombia's mining sector, the EU has been carrying out a number of activities in the framework of the implementation of the trade agreement between the EU and Colombia. The EU has been actively promoting a dialogue between Colombia's civil society organisations in the environmental and labour sectors and the Government. Several meetings were organised in which the EU delegation to Colombia facilitated contacts between civil society organisations and the Colombian Government.

More specifically on mining and the allegations around the Cerrejón mine, the EU has been maintaining contacts with the sectoral trade union and is in contact with environmental organisations. As the Minister for Foreign Affairs and Trade has explained previously in response to parliamentary questions on the matter, the Department of Foreign Affairs and Trade has an ongoing commitment to support peace and human rights in Colombia and the transition to a post-conflict society.

The Department of Foreign Affairs and Trade engages with the Colombian authorities at governmental level and with human rights defenders and civil society leaders in Colombia, including those working in communities most impacted by the recent conflict. The Department provides funding directly to the Office of the United Nations High Commission for Human Rights in Colombia to support its work in promoting and protecting human rights, including in some of Colombia’s most isolated and challenging regions, as well as to the Inter-American Commission on Human Rights, which provides protection measures to community leaders and activists operating in Colombia and elsewhere in South America.

While Ireland does not yet have an embassy in Colombia, officials from the embassy of Ireland in Mexico, which is accredited to Colombia, frequently visit the country and maintain regular contact with partners there, including to receive updates on the issues affecting communities. Pending the opening of an Irish embassy in Colombia, we will continue to monitor developments in the country as closely as possible.

I understand the commitment Ireland has to human rights in Colombia and that we have assisted the peace process efforts there, but since the ceasefire violence against land defenders has increased in Colombia, and according to the figures, it is increasing every month. By buying coal from the mine, the ESB is undermining the work of Irish Aid and our commitment to sustainable development goals. The mine does not bring any benefits to the local communities and the Government facilitates the huge tax avoidance in which these mining companies partake. Colombian taxpayers are, therefore, actively subsidising the mines which are destroying their environment, health and livelihoods, while the perpetrators avoid tax. This is clearly an issue.

The people of Ireland do not know where this coal comes from and what price is paid for it. I have outlined that to the Minister of State and I will not let this issue go. What happens to the coal before we burn it is not someone else's problem; it is our problem. We are paying for it and it is our problem. The Government is the main shareholder, sitting on the board of the ESB. We are buying coal from this company. It is well past time that the mine owners respected the rights of communities and were held to account for their actions. We need to send a clear message that we will not support human rights abuses or the destruction of the environment by buying this coal. We have responsibilities as legislators to stop this and the Government has a moral and ethical responsibility with regard to how the ESB operates.

Today we passed the Fossil Fuel Divestment Bill. Here is a prime example of what we should not be doing but are doing. We need to divest ourselves from buying coal from this notorious mine. What we are doing does not make sense. On the one hand, we are trying to bring peace to the region, but, on the other, we are propping up those who are undermining the peace process in the region.

I do not have some of the specific answers to the questions the Deputy asked but I will bring his questions back to the Minister. I know that is probably not what he wants to hear but I will say it anyway.

In October 2017 the Tánaiste announced Ireland's intention to open an embassy in Bogotá and the ambassador designate, Alison Milton, will arrive in Bogotá in early 2019 to establish the embassy. This significant step demonstrates the Government's commitment to developing Ireland's relationship with Colombia, particularly our commitment to support Colombia's transition to a peaceful post-conflict society, including the vindication and protection of human and social rights. Colombia has also announced it will open an embassy here in Ireland later this year. These developments will elevate our relationship with the Colombia to a new level.

While the embassy's focus will be on developing political and economic relationships and continuing to support Colombia's transition to a post-conflict society, having a permanent presence in Bogotá means we will be in a much better position to monitor issues such as the impact of the Cerrejón mine on the local community and the environment. Historical strides have been made in Colombia in recent years in the transition to a post-conflict society, and addressing social and environmental issues is part of this process. Significant challenges remain, including in the area of rural development, but Ireland also remains committed to supporting the full implementation of the peace arrangement, which will ensure a peaceful, stable and prosperous future for all Colombians, including the indigenous communities.

With a new president being inaugurated next month, it is hoped and expected that the progress being made will continue for the betterment of the people of Colombia. Nobody wants to see people who have lived in a country all their lives undergoing any kind of disturbance to their work, or see them being used and not properly paid for the work they do. I have noted a number of the issues raised by the Deputy and I will certainly bring them back to the Minister.