Saincheisteanna Tráthúla - Topical Issue Debate

Forestry Grants

First, I appreciate the Minister of State, Deputy Doyle, coming in and taking this Topical Issue himself. Deputy Doyle has a keen interest in land use type. We had much discussion about that in the Joint Committee on Agriculture, Food and the Marine when he chaired it. The Minister of State has considerable experience of the uplands. He is aware of the fact that before farming took over, uplands sustained forestry in their natural state.

The issue is something that seems to be becoming prevalent with schemes that are being brought forward in areas such as housing and agriculture. The basic concept of the scheme is fantastic that we would grow more woodlands of native species but as one drills into the conditions, one finds that fewer people are able to avail of the scheme.

Obviously, people right throughout the State would like to grow hardwoods. There are many, particularly those with land of not such good quality, who would like to avail of the scheme but the problem is that under the Land Types for Afforestation 2017 manual that applies to the native woodland grant and premium categories, GPCs 9 and 10, one cannot get the grant or premium if the land is incapable of growing a crop of yield class 14 Sitka spruce. They use Sitka spruce as an indicative crop. That is a highly commercial crop but our reasons for planting hardwoods are far beyond commercial forestry. The Minister of State would accept that the reasons the State is so keen on native woodlands include the habitat they provide from an ecological point of view because of the timber it provides in the long term, but not necessarily that these provide the most commercial timber crop, and also the ecological advantages because of carbon sequestration. It is worthy of note, when one looks at Norway's policies, that it would appear they are much more willing to plant these uplands on the basis that they were naturally planted.

There is an irony in one case that came to me that it is within a mile and a half of the biggest timber mill in the country. Be that as it may, it is still being excluded from this woodland grant.

One farmer who raised this issue with me - this is a widespread problem - stated that he had planted timber previously. He had alder that grew to 8 ft in six years. He had sown 20 years ago a softwood pine and it is at 35 ft. He had grown birch trees with success in small quantities on the same land.

I ask the Minister of State to review the rules and determine the purpose of the scheme. Is it as I outlined, namely, for the purpose of having more broadleaves or hardwoods to benefit the ecology and habitats? If it is, should we require a high rate of commercial productivity or, rather, have separate rules for native woodland hardwood species?

I thank the Deputy for his comments and for raising this very important issue.

Native woodlands are perhaps the most complex and biodiverse habitats in the country. They include ancient oak and ash woodlands, some of which are more than 400 years old, recently planted woodlands and naturally emerging woodlands such as birchwood colonising cutaway bog. As well as representing reservoirs of biodiversity, they deliver other important ecosystem services such as water and soil protection, wider habitat linkage and carbon sequestration. Native woodlands also have a significant economic potential as a source of quality hardwood, renewable energy and other wood and non-wood products, and as the basis for enterprises offering outdoor activities. In addition, they represent an invaluable resource for local communities to enjoy their local natural heritage.

The Department operates a package of measures to encourage farmers and other landowners to create new native woodland and restore existing native woodland. Approximately 1,000 ha of native woodlands have been established under the Forestry Programme 2014-2020. The programme also set a target of 1,950 ha for native woodland restoration projects. A budget provision of almost €24 million has been set aside for these initiatives.

As the Deputy stated, two of the grant and premium categories in the current forestry programme are specifically targeted at native woodland establishment. These planting categories attract the highest grant and premium rates of all categories under the Department’s afforestation scheme. The mid-term review of the forestry programme, completed early last year, further increased the rates to encourage more landowners to plant native trees. The premium is now paid each year for 15 years at a rate of €665 per hectare. In 2018, a total of 374 ha of new native woodland was planted, a 38% increase over the previous year and 83% of the target. These forests will become a long-lasting feature of the landscape, providing environmental benefits on an ongoing basis and adding colour and diversity that can be enjoyed by local people and visitors alike.

In 2018, my Department introduced the woodland environmental fund. This initiative provides an opportunity for businesses to partner with the Government and Irish landowners to get behind the national effort to plant an additional 5 million native trees between now and 2020. Under the fund, businesses can be associated with individual native woodlands and use the environmental benefits linked to these forests to demonstrate they are meeting their corporate social responsibilities. There has been considerable interest from corporate Ireland in the initiative and I am confident it will result in the establishment of additional new native woodlands.

With regard to extending the eligibility criteria for establishing native woodlands to include land associated with lower yield classes, my concern would be that such land may not support native tree species. The current requirement is that the land be yield class 14 or greater. Yield class is measured in units of cubic metres per hectare that a particular plantation will grow per annum. Suitable sites must be capable of supporting the vigorous growth and sustainable long-term development of these native trees, based on minimal site preparation and inputs. Recent increases in afforestation levels for native woodlands demonstrate the positive impact existing measures are having on this planting category. In this regard, the Department will continue to promote the establishment of native woodlands through the afforestation scheme.

I acknowledge what the Minister of State said towards the end of his reply but 374 ha of native woodland will not have a significant impact in terms of producing more high-value nature areas or bringing any great biodiversity, etc. While I welcome the 374 ha of new woodland, it is of minuscule impact when considered in terms of the entire country. The Department is basically excluding huge swathes of land that is not very productive in terms of sheep, cattle or other farming but must be put to some use because land that is allowed to grow wild is a disaster from an environmental point of view, as the Minister of State, as an upland farmer, is aware. The current rules are akin to stating that it would not be permitted to use such land for sheep or cattle because there would not be a high yield class. Much of this land could be used for native woodland. Obviously, the farmer would not get a massive economic return but many farmers in such circumstances are not expecting that. However, they need to get enough of a premium to make it valuable to plant these woodlands for the very reasons outlined in the Minister of State's very articulate reply. I ask him to reconsider the scheme in the context of the areas of the country which are now excluded from any forestry. Special areas of conservation, SACs, and natural heritage areas are almost completely excluded from forestry. However, many other areas are now excluded because they do not have a sufficiently high yield class. I ask the Minister of State to reconsider the scheme and recognise that disadvantaged areas require special measures.

To clarify, the only option in some SACs and acid-sensitive areas where conifer plantations are not permitted is a native woodland scheme. The Deputy was incorrect to state otherwise. In my part of the country, a native woodland scheme is the only option in areas where conifers may not be planted due to acid-sensitive water test results. That may not be the preferred choice of some landowners or farmers.

The mid-term review included an increase in the minimum number of broadleaves from 10% to 15%. Every conifer plantation must comprise at least 15% broadleaves, although that does not necessarily mean native woodland species. However, hillside sites such as Derrybawn in Glendalough, which were cleared of conifers, now support certain native species of broadleaves.

The current forestry programme will run until 2020. The Department and I are trying to roll out the next programme and harmonise it with the next Common Agricultural Policy to reflect many measures in the environmental pillar. In many ways, forestry is the low-hanging fruit. Conifers perform better in terms of various standards and qualities regarding economic performance and carbon sequestration whereas broadleaves and native woodlands in particular have the advantage in areas such as biodiversity. We need to be cognisant of marrying those potentially complementary characteristics.

Although I am not an agronomist or silviculture expert, the basic point is that if the soil type is capable of supporting native woodland species, such planting should be allowed. However, although the fact that an area is an SAC precludes conifer plantation, it does not necessarily preclude the planting of native woodland species.

Child and Adolescent Mental Health Services

I draw the attention of the Minister of State to the fact that there are very severe shortcomings in the child and adolescent mental health service, CAMHS, in the Dublin 15 area. I draw his attention to a case I sent to the Department some time ago, on which I have yet to hear a response. It is typical of what a number of parents are experiencing. The consultant psychiatrist in CAMHS in Castleknock took extended leave two months before the start of this year, with absolutely no indication of a return date. Since there is no psychiatrist available to prescribe, children with ADHD who require medication, very often to assist with their attendance at school and normal functioning, are unable to obtain their medication. Where does that leave the parents? The problem is ongoing. Throughout the service nationally, we are short approximately 60 psychiatrists. While the case I raise concerns Dublin 15, the area, unfortunately, is not untypical of the rest of the country.

The second case involves a 13 year old who has transferred to secondary school. The child has a range of conditions, from autism to behavioural issues and panic attacks. The child's mother is working practically full time. Both she and the child's father have jobs, but they do not know when they will receive help from the psychiatric service. There is no guarantee when this help will come.

The third case is that of a family who contacted me over the weekend. It concerns a young teenager who has developed severe mental health difficulties and had an emergency appointment, just for reference purposes. It appears that the earliest the child will get to talk to somebody is in about three months. It will simply be a counselling service.

We have had discussions here on mental health, an issue on which the Ceann Comhairle has led. We all know that children in need require very early access to services. When I was a Minister, I was very involved in ensuring the really lovely community facility in Corduff was opened. It was to have a child and adolescent mental health service. I know from the staff working there that there are simply not enough of them to enable this to happen. Everybody involved in government does his or her bit to help different areas - that is a matter in which I was very involved - but I am disappointed that in an area such as Dublin 15 which has a massive child and youth population, including a significant number of children with difficulties such as autism, ADHD and panic attacks, there is a lack of psychiatrists to meet children and provide them with a service in real time.

I thank the Deputy for raising the issue of CAMHS in Dublin 15. A priority for the Government and the HSE is ensuring appropriate and accessible mental health services for children, and that services are provided in the most accessible manner for those who require them. In the recent budget an additional €55 million was provided to progress new developments in mental health services this year. It brings overall HSE mental health services funding to nearly €1 billion in 2019. The HSE service plan for 2019 commits to further development of CAMHS against a background where the population of children and the demand for the specialist service are increasing.

All aspects of CAMHS nationally are being improved by the HSE. They include better access, reducing waiting lists and strengthening links with other services such as primary or disability care services. Access is based on a professional clinical assessment and urgent cases are prioritised. Around 18,000 referrals are expected for HSE CAMHS in 2019. The number of referrals to CAMHS has increased from around 10,700 in 2011. There are widely acknowledged difficulties in recruiting and retaining specialist CAMHS staff, particularly consultant psychiatrists.

The HSE indicates that there is a treating consultant child and adolescent psychiatrist working in the Dublin 15 area. There is no consultant psychiatrist in place on the Castleknock team, owing to illness, as the Deputy rightly mentioned. However, there are two psychiatry registrars working on the CAMHS team who are qualified to prescribe appropriate medication. They have access to consultant colleagues on other teams within Dublin north city and county CAMHS, should it be required.

Concerted efforts have and will continue to be made by the HSE mental health service to recruit a locum consultant, notwithstanding the shortage of consultant psychiatrists nationally. Another factor to be taken into account in this instance is the increasing and more complex nature of the demand for services, particularly CAMHS. I understand there were 1,631 referrals by CAMHS teams across Dublin north city and county in 2018.

Opportunities to continue to develop services that will treat children and adolescents at the lowest level of complexity, thus avoiding the need for specialist interventions, remain challenging. The executive is focusing on the consolidation of earlier interventions and building more proactive services at primary care level, rather than secondary specialist mental health services for children and adolescents. Developing these services will also enhance community teams to ensure higher quality services for those individuals with higher acuity and greater need.

I ensured that there were various new initiatives agreed to in the HSE service plan 2019 to bring about change in a way we could promote youth mental health and deliver services, particularly at prevention and early intervention levels, thus helping to reduce pressures on the specialist CAMHS. The measures include new digital mental health services, improved supports for relevant sports, community and voluntary groups active in this sphere and expanded out-of-hours CAMHS provision.

The Deputy raised three important cases. From the point of view of a family or young person, waiting three months is not good enough. I totally accept this and will push to address the matter. The Deputy also highlighted the issue in Corduff.

I thank the Minister of State for his reply. Any parent faced with the difficulties outlined will be very disappointed by it. Let me quote from the letter from the first parent I mentioned:

The consultant psychiatrist from CAMHS Castleknock has taken extended leave some 2 months ago, with absolutely no indication of a return date. This means no kids with ADHD, some barely able to read ... without the assistance and monitoring of extremely important medication are being seen/treated. They're ... being backlogged onto an already packed waiting list [this is basically what the Minister of State said to us in his rather complicated reply]. There has been no consultant at all with CAMHS Castleknock for this period. While Blanchardstown CAMHS sees kids with ADHD after a maximum of a year, Castleknock are working with emergency cases only because of this situation.

I know the mother who wrote the letter which also states: "So kids like mine have absolutely no idea if they’ll receive the urgent medication within the already unacceptable waiting time of a year."

The Minister of State said: "Opportunities to continue to develop services that will treat children and adolescents at the lowest level of complexity, thus avoiding the need for specialist interventions, remain challenging." When the IMF came to Ireland, when the country had collapsed, it used the word "challenge" all the time. When Sinn Féin sat down many years ago to work on the Belfast Agreement, I would say there were those who said it was difficult and "challenging". Very often bureaucrats use the term "challenging" when mentally putting up their hands and saying there is not an awful lot they can do about a matter. If children develop mental health difficulties that cannot be addressed, the problem may become more, rather than less, difficult.

Thank you, Deputy.

The Minister of State is suggesting that local GPs could provide the service, and I understand this, but it is not there.

We will hear the Minister of State's response.

What is the Minister of State doing to provide this earlier baseline level of service that would at least improve some of the situation? Perhaps he will share that with us.

I will explain in detail what we are trying to do. I take the point the Deputy raised on challenges and I will respond to it. I reiterate that improving aspects of all policies and services for promoting positive mental health for young people, including CAMHS, is a priority for me and is in the HSE service plan for 2019. This objective relates to all areas nationally, including Dublin 15. Tomorrow at the Department of Health, the Minister will meet all of the CHO leads and all executive clinical directors of the HSE to present a progress report to me on CAMHS, as well as an action plan in this regard for the year ahead. I certainly will bear in mind the specific issue raised by the Deputy and I will continue to keep under close review the efforts made by the HSE to enhance CAMHS in Dublin 15. The three genuine cases mentioned by the Deputy must be prioritised, and this is something I will push with the Minister.

This is the Taoiseach's constituency. What attention do other constituencies get?

Child and Adolescent Mental Health Services Provision

As the Minister of State is probably aware, last week the health committee highlighted that there are massive delays throughout the country for children who need a special needs assessment. He is also aware that under the Disability Act 2005, the assessment of need must start within three months of the completed application being received by the HSE and that the assessment, outside of exceptional cases, must be completed within three months of commencement. This gives a total of six months. The committee also heard that in Kerry and Cork, which produce the highest number of applications and the most reports, have the highest level of overdue assessments. According to the figures I have, in Cork and Kerry those waiting for overdue assessments amount to 1,718.

In the second quarter of 2018, the HSE recorded an average waiting time of 2.5 years for an assessment of needs for children referred from Kerry and Cork. By any standard it is shameful and outrageous that parents who already have the worry of a belief they will get a negative assessment are also burdened with this totally unacceptable delay. While we can speak about facts and figures until the cows come home, the essential point is what these delays mean for a child who must wait this length of time for an assessment and what they mean for a child who cannot communicate and is waiting for speech therapy. Milestones that most children can expect to meet as normal are not being met for these unfortunate children. The ramifications of these overdue assessments are to the public purse and to those who are now adults with special needs who were not assessed and did not receive the necessary interventions in time.

Does the Minister of State not think it is now time to put in place the necessary resources to provide adequate services for our most vulnerable children and their families? It is not me saying this. The HSE claims it will need 400 more therapists in the years ahead. As I have said, Cork and Kerry, because of the number of people there who are overdue for assessment, are seen within the HSE as a priority.

What is also very disturbing is that the standard operating procedures mention taking 90 minutes for screening. This is proposed for cases in which many therapists and doctors would state that 40 hours are required for assessment, particularly for children on the autism spectrum. Not alone are there 1,718 children waiting for an assessment, there is the added dimension of a proposal for a 90-minute screening period where up to 40 hours may be necessary. It is not me or anybody else in the House saying this, it is coming from Dr. Cathal Morgan, who states the standard operating procedures are not adequate to meet the requirements necessary to help resolve the problem.

Will the Minister of State enlighten us on what proposals he has to try to deal with this? In most instances regarding special needs resources we are probably pushing an open door with regard to the Minister of State in charge. I wish to hear his reply on what can be done to try to improve the sector and, in particular, deal with the 1,718 children awaiting assessment.

I thank Deputy Ferris for raising the issue of waiting lists for children with special needs and commend him on his work in the Kerry area because it is something in which he has been very involved. He has also been very supportive of progressing services for all children with disabilities.

The Government and I recognise that the waiting times for services for children with disabilities need to be improved significantly. A Programme for a Partnership Government commits the Government to improving these services and increasing supports for people with disabilities. This commitment is guided by two principles, namely, equality of opportunity and improving the quality of life of people with disabilities. Significant resources have been invested by the health sector in services for children with disabilities over the past number of years, in particular since the Independent Alliance went into government, with a particular focus on early assessment and intervention for children with special needs.

A number of initiatives are under way to improve access to therapy services. The HSE recognises that early intervention services and services for school-aged children need to be improved and organised more effectively, and this process is well under way nationally. The HSE is engaged in a reconfiguration of existing therapy resources for children into geographic-based teams. This will include Kerry. The objective is to provide one clear referral pathway for all children, irrespective of their disability, where they live or the school they attend. The implementation of this project was at a standstill for some time pending the resolution of various industrial relations issues. These have now been resolved. The appointment of children’s disability network managers has long been identified as a critical enabler for the project. A number of these managers were appointed last November and recruitment for the remaining posts is ongoing, with interviews scheduled for the week commencing 28 January. It is envisaged that the children’s disability network managers will be in place in the first quarter of 2019. Their appointment will enable all geographic areas to reconfigure this year, in line with the policy on progressing disability services for children and young people.

I am aware that in many parts of the country, parents experience significant delays in accessing the assessment of need process and additional measures are being taken to address this. I accept the Deputy's argument that Kerry is one of them. These include a standardised process to be used nationally for conducting the assessment. This will help children and young people with a disability to access the services they need as quickly as possible. The requirement for additional resources to provide appropriate and timely services for children and young people with complex needs has been identified by the HSE and the National Disability Authority. The allocation of 100 new development posts as part of budget 2019 will support the efforts to address the waiting times for access to therapy services.

The HSE is also addressing waiting lists with a cross-divisional team working on a detailed analysis of waiting times and resource deployment throughout the country. National service improvement groups and the HSE primary care unit are working with the chief officers in each area to address waiting lists. I take Deputy Ferris's views on board. We need to move on this as quickly as possible.

I thank the Minister of State for his response. I take his word that the Government has recognised that the waiting time for services for children with disabilities needs to be improved significantly. The Minister of State mentioned that A Programme for a Partnership Government committed to improving these services. This Government is now into its fourth year and one would have assumed that this would have been much further on. I hope the commitments from the Minister of State today on this issue will be realised in the short term.

The Minster of State also mentioned the standardised process to be used nationally for conducting the assessments. Is that standardised process the standard operating procedure, SOP, or is it more detailed than that? Children with extreme special needs, be that autism or severe intellectual disabilities, will need a standardised assessment, compared with that of 90 minutes, of up to 40 hours. I hope there will be adequate time for the proper assessment of children in need.

The appointment of 100 extra personnel was also mentioned by the Minister of State. The HSE itself claims that it will need 400 more therapists in the coming years. I hope that will also be dealt with. One thing that has always struck me in my constituency work dealing with children with special needs and their parents on the issue of special needs therapy and assistance is the need for early intervention. Early intervention can be crucial. In many instances it can give a child an opportunity. I refer to speech therapy or whatever other necessary requirements there may be for a specific child. I hope early intervention for children with special needs, which has been mentioned, will also be a priority. The Minister of State said there is going to be a particular focus on the service.

I thank Deputy Ferris for raising these particular issues. I accept his figures regarding Cork and Kerry. It is about more than the argument about facts and figures. It is about young children and it is time for resources.

On the standardised process, there has to be adequate time for assessment. That is a very sensible argument and it is something I am pushing very strongly. We need to get those children in quicker and to give them quality time as well. I accept too that the 100 new therapy posts are not enough. We could do with more. However, it is a start for 2019 but I intend to roll out more as we go along.

It is also important to recognise that this year €1.9 billion is being provided for health and personal social services for a wide and complex range of services and supports for people with disabilities. That is an historic figure and the most ever spent on disability funding. That is the record of the Independence Alliance in Government. I reiterate that there will be €1.9 billion in 2019. One of the key priorities of the HSE is to improve waiting times for therapy services for children, as Deputy Ferris mentioned. Additional funding secured by the HSE for these therapeutic services has been invested in progressing disability services for children and young people's programmes.

Since 2014, the roll-out of the programme has had a targeted investment of €14 million as well as the provision of 275 staff to increase services for all children with disabilities. As I stated, budget 2019 provided for 100 new posts for children's disability services. It is a start. I accept Deputy Ferris's argument that we need to push this up to the figure of 400 that he mentioned. Initiatives such as the reconfiguration of therapy services into local geographical teams and the provision of these new therapy posts are expected to have a significant positive impact on the waiting lists.

All CHO areas have improvement plans to deal with the assessment of need waiting lists. I am committed and the HSE is committed to working in partnership with other service providers to achieve the maximum benefits for children and adults who require access to therapy services. It is aimed to ensure that the resources available for therapy resources are used in the most effective manner possible. The HSE is acutely aware of the importance of addressing waiting times for children with special needs and I assure the House that every effort is being made to tackle the issue. This is something I personally prioritised as well in the HSE service plan for 2019. We have dealt with respite care and residential places but we need to deal with the assessment of need issue.

Customs and Excise Staff

I thank the Minister for Transport, Tourism and Sport, Deputy Ross, for attending in person. It is much appreciated because I need his co-operation in a matter of some importance. I wrote to him today on this matter.

He is here now. That will save Deputy Lahart writing.

I also wrote to the CEO of the Irish Aviation Authority, IAA. I had also written to the Minister for Finance, Deputy Donohoe, in his capacity as the Minister over the Revenue Commissioners but he responded to state that this area is very much the responsibility of the Minister for Transport, Tourism and Sport, Deputy Ross.

My Topical Issue matter concerns the proposed removal of security screening derogation for customs officers stationed at Dublin Airport, and other customs-approved national airports, with effect from 30 January, which is next week. I need the assistance of the Minister in this because he may not be fully apprised of some of the issues concerned.

In his reply to my parliamentary question which was provided pretty speedily on 16 January the Minister stated that:

The enhanced procedures the Deputy asks about were decided by my Department and adopted by the National Civil Aviation Security Committee on the basis of a risk assessment by the Irish Aviation Authority (IAA), which has responsibility for regulating aviation security in Ireland.

The Minister further stated that a "number of reviews and-or audits of security practices and procedures at the State airports pointed to the need to make [more] improvements". Has the Minister read those reports? Can he confirm to the House whether customs enforcement officers employed by the State were ever identified in any of those reports as a risk to the security of the national airports?

I ask that because I advise the House that I have been reliably informed that customers officers, who are part of a law enforcement agency of this State, have not and never have been identified as a risk to aviation security in any IAA report, nor in the 2015 national aviation policy nor in the 2017 security audit review at Dublin Airport. I would like the Minister to respond to those points specifically.

In his reply to my parliamentary question, the Minister also quoted from Regulation (EC) No. 300/2008 that:

All persons other than passengers, together with their items carried, shall be screened upon entering critical parts of security restricted areas in order to prevent prohibited articles from being introduced into these parts.

Does the Minister and his Department intend to implement this regulation fully to include all law enforcement agencies, including Customs and Excise, An Garda Síochána, the Airport Police and the Defence Forces? I ask that because that is not what is intended to apply from next week. Is the Minister aware that all law enforcement officers, including customs officers, currently comply fully with all European Union and IAA regulations?

In 2018, the Dublin Airport Authority, DAA, confirmed that its traffic from the UK had increased to almost 10.1 million passengers. The impact of Brexit now means that an additional 10.1 million passengers will potentially, from the end of March, become third country passengers, thus increasing the burden of EU customs controls for passenger traffic at Irish airports and at Dublin Airport in particular. In that situation, why would the Minister impose such security measures in the midst of Brexit when customs enforcement officers will be entering into possibly one of the busiest periods in recent times and again with no aviation security risk attached to them?

To summarise, in the absence of any identifiable risk to aviation security by customs officers, I request an immediate deferral of the implementation date of 30 January 2019, pending further clarification as to the level of the associated risk. That is because the work carried out by customs enforcement officers is not confined solely to airside operations. Customs officers have to move between airside and landside in the airports throughout the course of their shift on any given day and sometimes multiple times. The implementation of these changes will impose further impediments on customs officers carrying out their duties on behalf of the State.

I thank Deputy Lahart for raising this matter. I understand his concerns, particularly those on the inconvenience that will be caused to customs officers and others affected by the regulations. Aviation security is a highly regulated area, to which international agreements and EU rules and regulations apply. Elements of it are, naturally enough, highly confidential and that means that I am restricted in what I can say in this debate. I am also restricted in what I know. I am sure that the Deputy will understand that.

What I can advise the House is that aviation security remains a priority area at national and EU level. It is under constant review and scrutiny in response to new intelligence on threats and risks. Ireland is obliged to play its part in the international effort to make flying as secure and safe as possible. If we aspire to be a highly connected nation, we need to make sure our international airports are up to international best standards in security terms. The past decade and more has seen a significant step-up in how airports and aircraft are secured. That is for the benefit of all, even if it has introduced some inconvenience. That is always the balance that needs to be struck, namely, the level of inconvenience versus doing what needs to be done to make sure people are safe.

Aviation security is highly regulated by international agreements under the United Nations' International Civil Aviation Organization, ICAO, and European regulations. The State is committed to implementing best international practice in this field. In Ireland the national civil aviation security programme sets the standards for civil aviation security. The programme reflects what is required under EU Regulation No. 300/2008. It is reviewed and updated annually by the National Civil Aviation Security Committee, NCASC, which includes several Departments, including representatives of the Revenue Commissioners, An Garda Síochána, the Defence Forces, the State airports and the main airlines operating in Ireland.

In accordance with the agreed 2018 security programme which provided for enhanced airport security measures on 1 June 2018, my Department issued notice that the long-held access exemptions of Revenue officials and the Airport Police were to be revoked and replaced with new screening procedures. Work has been ongoing at the airports in preparation for the introduction of the new procedures which will take effect from 30 January 2019. What this means in practice is that these staff will no longer have unchecked access to the designated secure areas of the airport. Instead, they will have to undergo security checks. It will be a quick and streamlined process, with special facilities provided.

The Deputy should be aware that this is not an arbitrary step but part of a programme of security enhancements. The specific measures in question have been subject to a detailed risk assessment by the Irish Aviation Authority which is responsible for regulating aviation security. Moreover, the measures were also informed by findings and recommendations contained in a confidential report by the Paris-based European Civil Aviation Conference which was invited to review and audit security arrangements at Dublin Airport in early 2018. It has been made quite clear to all involved that personnel will continue to be exempt from security screening if they are responding to an emergency without delay. The Department has been in regular communications with Revenue management, airport management and the Airport Police. Much work has been undertaken at all of the airports to communicate the procedures and protocols that will be put in place. The introduction of the new measures will improve security practices at airports which are in everyone’s best interests.

Everybody, except customs service officers, has been engaged with. This is not a matter of inconvenience and I need the Minister to engage with me because the deadline is eight days away.

Section 25 of the Customs Act 2015 and other legislation exempt authorised officers of the Revenue Commissioners and the customs service from search. Customs service officers became aware that they would be searched by a private security company known as the Airport Search Unit, ASU, and employed by the Dublin Airport Authority. Customs service officers have the same exemption as members of An Garda Síochána and Army personnel. Why are they not included? In the jurisdiction of a port or an airport customs service officers have powers which far exceed those of other personnel. They have been exempt from search at Dublin Airport since its opening.

For reasons yet to be explained, their exemption is about to be withdrawn, but the exemption remains in place for gardaí and Army personnel. Dublin Airport is the place of work for customs service officers. What would happen if a garda had to be searched by private security personnel each time he or she entered his or her or any Garda station? Under the new guidelines, from 31 January, an off-duty garda will be able to pass through security in Dublin Airport without being searched, while a customs service officer will not.

The role of customs service officers involves access to all areas of Dublin Airport, landside and airside. They cross these lines numerous times every day to deal with a variety of situations. Security screening could potentially interfere with court evidence because this decision affects dog handlers, customs service officers’ transportation vans and cargo customs service officers who regularly bring suspected narcotics through security. To the best of my understanding, this is not applicable in other EU airports.

What is the purpose in a private security company, not the State security agencies, searching an enforcement officer in the course of his or her duties? Will the Minister ask for a report from his Department on this issue? A question mark has been placed over the role and integrity of customs service officers who are one of the first lines of defence in the country in preventing narcotics smuggling.

We have gone over time by 30 seconds. I have to have some order.

This is an important issue. They also prevent illegal cigarettes from coming into the country which would have an impact on the retail trade.

The Deputy will have to conclude.

The previous speaker went over time by 45 seconds.

Two wrongs do not make a right.

It is a question of justice and fair play. Will the Minister review the decision and the implementation date of 31 January 2019?

I thank the Deputy for repeating much of what he said before. I understand the emphasis he is putting on this issue. It is quite clear that the personnel in question will continue to be exempt from security screening if they are responding to an emergency. They will not be affected in their course of duties. I am determined that I will not be involved in the minutiae of security arrangements at Dublin Airport or any other airport. Neither is it my position to tell the authority whether it should use a private security firm or any other type of security arrangement. I am constrained in what I can say about security. I am also constrained in what I know about it. I am not privy to the way the system operates in a detailed fashion.

Was the Minister privy to the report?

Perhaps I might be if I had asked that question. However, it is not one I would normally ask or be inclined to ask. The lifting of the exemption was made on the recommendation of reputable bodies and in a reputable review. It brings security to a higher standard.

Are customs service officers a security threat?

I did not interrupt the Deputy.

The Minister to continue, without interruption, please.

I am determined not to interfere with any security measure which will bring it to a higher standard. I will mention the points raised by the Deputy with my officials to see if they carry particular weight in the light of the fact that there are 14 days to go.