Saincheisteanna Tráthúla - Topical Issue Debate

Disability Services Provision

The first Topical Issue matter is in the name of Deputy Kathleen Funchion.

Deputy Munster was to take contribute to this Topical Issue matter but is unable to be here. Would Deputy Tully be able to take her time? I am open to whatever the rules are on it.

It is usually agreed beforehand. Given that Deputy Tully is here at this time of the evening I am open to that. For clarity, the Minister of State, Deputy Rabbite, is taking this issue.

How much time is available?

There are four minutes, so two minutes each.

I am delighted to have the opportunity to raise this issue. I want to briefly mention some of my colleagues who have been campaigning on it, including Deputies Paul Donnelly, Clarke, Cronin, O'Reilly, Daly, O'Rourke and Ó Laoghaire. A number of us put this in and we were the lucky names which came out.

We are looking for clarity on the reopening of adult day services. It is a little bit ad hoc at the moment in that some services seem to have resumed but many have not. There is also the question of whether they will resume at full capacity. The Minister of State is probably aware that there will be a protest here tomorrow at 12. 30 p.m. organised by the Enough is Enough group. It is extremely passionate about this issue and it really is unfair that people with a disability are being overlooked as far as the reopening of their very valuable day services are concerned. Will additional funding be made available to reopen these services? We have just had a discussion on schools and like all workplaces there will now be a need for extra staff, extra cleaning staff and a need for very practical changes like perspex screens and other changes to facilitate social distancing. Some of the buildings in question are very old and will probably need upgrades.

Will additional funding be made available and if so can the Minister of State comment on when this will be? What is the plan for the reopening of all services? Some places are running reduced services of perhaps only a couple of hours where previously some service users would have had 30 hours a week. This is obviously a massive drop and it is going to have a knock-on effect on carers where respite is concerned. It will also affect carers who are working as well and may be juggling other responsibilities. As such I would like to know what exactly is going to happen with the reopening of day services.

I am calling for the immediate resumption of day car services for people with intellectual disabilities. It is imperative at this stage. People with intellectual disabilities and their carers are at their wits' end and feel they have been forgotten. The totality of care for adults with intellectual disabilities has been left with parents, who are often aged. They have received little or no support for more than four months now. I have heard reports of adult children suffering from depression and loneliness and some have regressed quite significantly. Some are actually violent and it is totally born out of frustration and lack of routine.

Carers are suffering too and I have huge concerns about their mental health. It is something we are going to have to look at in the future. We are talking about parents having to dress, wash, change and feed adults in many cases. They have received nothing extra despite the additional costs, such as extra food, heating or incontinence wear. They have had to provide and pay for everything in the meantime.

Carers save the State billions of euro every year and at the moment they are very much feeling undervalued and worthless. They are receiving no respite and are often working perhaps 18 to 20 hours per day.

Many parents are wondering what has happened to the budget that is allocated for the care of their loved ones because it is not being spent on them at the moment. It has been allocated for their needs and yet they are unsure how or where it is being spent. As such a plan and a roadmap is needed for the reopening of day care centres as soon as possible.

I thank Deputy Funchion for raising this important issue and for giving me the opportunity to outline the position on the resumption of services for adults with disabilities. I confirmed with Deputy Funchion's office earlier that the question relates to day services for adults specifically.

Since disability day services closed in March, as per public health advice, it has been especially challenging for those vulnerable members of our society. The HSE has been planning for the resumption of adult disability day services since the middle of May. A group representative of families, service providers and other relevant stakeholders was convened and tasked with the development of a resumption plan, that is, the roadmap Deputy Tully mentioned. Guidance to support the resumption of services, that is, the roadmap, was published on 8 July and sent to all the service providers. Adult day services will gradually resume during the month of August. Service providers are working to get day services ready to reopen safely and in line with public health guidance.

It is up to each of the 966 individual service providers to pinpoint their reopening date. Most service providers should already have been in touch with families at this point. It is expected that services will reopen during August and neither the Department nor the HSE has been informed of any services reopening later than this. Uncertainty is not acceptable for service users or their families. It only adds to the mounting stress they are already under. To make the reopening process more transparent for service users I have asked the HSE to create a web portal that will clearly outline when each service will reopen, the number of users able to avail of the service each day, and what alternate care plans will be put in place. Services have been asked to inform the HSE of this information later on today, seeing as we are here after 12 midnight.

The information from all 966 disability day services will then be collated and posted on hse.ie/newdirections from 4 August. While a full reopening of services would be ideal, Covid-19 has not gone away and we cannot put lives at risk as services reopen. Safety is paramount. We must protect our most vulnerable and this means all Covid safety guidelines must be followed. Unfortunately, this means capacity in day services will be reduced.

For the foreseeable future, supports provided from service user homes and remote supports will become a key feature of day service provision. However, the HSE is committed to maximising the support that can be provided within Covid-19 restrictions, and providers are exploring options such as the use of other community facilities to increase capacity.

The safety and well-being of people with disabilities is my utmost priority during the resumption of services. Where families experience significant challenges, and there are many, or where there is an emergency, the HSE and providers will work together to assist and support those families to the greatest possible extent. I genuinely acknowledge the many challenges experienced by individuals and their families over this very difficult time. Adult day services are a very important support for the 19,000 people with a disability who attend them on a regular basis, and their families. They will now have certainty that services will be reopening and reassurance that they will be guided by public health advice. I encourage individuals and families to keep in touch with their service providers.

The Deputies have one minute each in reply.

I thank the Minister of State. I appreciate what she said with regard to services being expected to reopen in August and September, which would be very welcome, and what she said with regard to a portal on which people can clearly see which services are reopened. This will also be welcome.

On 17 July, the Covid committee was told some services may not open until December or January. Where did this information come from? Many people have contacted me about this and all Deputies will have had queries on it. Many people do not seem to have had contact from their service provider. The Minister of State has said she has not been told anyone is opening later than August or September. What advice does she have for people who still have not heard from their service provider or have been told it will open later, for example, December or January? What can people and families do in this situation? What practical advice can the Minister of State give them? I ask her to address the issue of the additional funding that will be needed. We all know the sector was underfunded anyway and additional funding was needed well before Covid. Will the Minister of State give a clear answer on additional funding?

I welcome the comments made by the Minister of State, Deputy Rabbitte. As my colleague, Deputy Funchion, has said, at the Covid committee last Friday week a roadmap was discussed and August was mentioned but there was no specific date and it was very general and vague. September and possibly next year were mentioned and this was quite concerning. People are frustrated. Many parents have told me they see this as an essential service and that there should have been plans much earlier for reopening it. We are speaking about opening our schools, which is very important. They are all being rolled out together and there will be as full a reopening as possible. Everything should now be done to ensure a full reopening of services and put the extra funding into making sure there is extra space and the safety of everybody involved.

I agree with the Deputies that more clarity should have been more forthcoming earlier on and there is no denying it. With regard to the Covid committee, from where some of the queries have come, the Department of Health made contact with regard to that commentary and it could not be backed up. My understanding is the Department will write to the Covid committee because it could not reference any services that fell into that category. Clarity has been sought on this as has a correction of the record of the Covid committee.

Since being appointed as Minister of State with responsibility for disabilities, I have visited several disability services and only today I was at St. Joseph's Foundation in Charleville. I have seen first-hand the massive positive initiatives developed over recent months to continue to provide services to people with disabilities. I must emphasise that there is an increased risk of infection for some people with disabilities and we are speaking about adult services. They and their families must have confidence that the services will be safe for themselves and the staff to return. We now have the robust guidance needed to reopen these essential services and reassure people of this.

The need for engagement with service users and their families has been reinforced yet again, which is why I am able to say this evening that when the portal is launched on 4 August it will bring clarity. Within the portal, parents and service users will see when their service will open and what capacity will open. We see where capacity will not reach 40%, 50% or 60% and it will clearly be identified. All service providers will have written to the Department to communicate the shortfall in funding required to achieve 50%, 60% or 100%. This will be collated by the Department in the coming days and I will then be able to provide the Deputies with a figure on it.

Immigrant Investor Programme

I do not need to go over the ground already covered by me and others on the devastating impact of accelerated decarbonisation in the midlands region, particularly in my constituency of Laois-Offaly. Neither do I need to go over ground already covered by me and others relating to the subsequent specific needs of the region, which will be accommodated, we would expect, by just transition funds, climate action funds and the EU coal and peat regions in transition fund. I continue, as I did last week, to insist the main criteria associated with such targeted funding should, above all else, assist those areas that have suffered the most job losses. All of these programmes, of course, will seek to stimulate investment, create jobs and improve local social and economic well-being, and in doing so retain and attract people to live and work in the region.

As a public representative and Teachta Dála I continually, in so far as I can, try to assert my influence in attracting inward investment from the private sector. Over the past 12 to 18 months, I have worked with investors led by a Hong Kong national and an investment company to identify a site to progress a planning application for a meat processing plant at Banagher, County Offaly. From a planning perspective, the location at the site of Banagher Chilling, which was previously used as an abattoir, in addition to strict assessment by the planning department of Offaly County Council, which expects to make a decision in the coming days, has involved great cost and expense. The project offers a unique and welcome opportunity to create jobs in Offaly and provide direct access and routes to markets in Asia and increased competition in the beef industry, raising the potential to improve prices for producers, thus helping to boost incomes for farm families. All told, the project is an example of the alternative job prospects needed in Offaly and the midlands region in response to ongoing employment losses in Bord na Móna and the ESB.

Some of the investors involved in the project subsequently made applications under the immigrant investor programme, which is open to applicants who invest more than €1 million. This programme is described by the Government in its official records as an incentive for foreign investment into Ireland. It also states the benefit to the investor is an option of residency while the benefit to Ireland is investment in Ireland and further possible economic activity if resident in Ireland. However, to my utter dismay and disbelief an evaluation committee, made up it seems of senior officials from relevant Departments and some State agencies, has refused the first such application. The committee concluded, it would appear, that the proposed project is not an appropriate project for approval. The committee concluded the project does not align with Government policy on the beef processing industry, having regard to the fact it is not currently policy to pursue the development of additional plants where there is no established deficit in capacity.

I might have been the Minister for agriculture for only 17 days but one would hardly need a green certificate to recognise this conclusion in no way reflects the Irish farming sector's understanding of Government policy which has, for example, over the past ten years sought to open Asian markets, which this plant and project would exclusively supply. Beef and suckler farmers crave new markets and greater competition in the processing sector. Most of all, they crave opportunities, initiatives, programmes and Government policy that maintain and improve incomes for farm families. How then can a €40 million project, which has the approval of the State's planning authority, the co-operation of Offaly County Council, the support of the community in the region, the backing of beef farmers, the support of Bord Bia and the support of the Chinese Embassy, be subject to disapproval by an evaluation committee that oversees this scheme?

This project, it says, does not align with Government policy. Who is on this evaluation committee? Who supplied the reports that it sought and what was contained in them? Can they be made public by the committee so we can investigate further? Would it enlighten us as to where it is stated in Government policy there is no deficit in capacity? We need these answers and we need them fast if we are to secure and proceed with the realisation of 250 jobs in construction and 150 jobs in the plant's operation.

This investment is priceless and I am seeking resolution and approval of applications. It appears it is now a fact that an evaluation committee and its recommendations have the power to jeopardise multimillion investment in rural Ireland and in an area that is crying out for investment, stimulation and jobs to respond to the devastating impact of job losses in Bord na Móna. Can the Minister advise me what options are open for such new applications, or pending applications in this case, to ensure that every opportunity is given for this project to proceed?

I thank the Deputy for raising this matter. He has raised a specific case with certain details on which, perhaps, I cannot respond directly to him now. However, it is important to outline what the process is in the immigrant investor programme, the type of investments and the role of the specific committee he referenced.

The immigrant investment programme, IIP, was introduced by the Government in 2012 to encourage inward investment from outside the EEA to avail of opportunities of investing and locating business interests in Ireland and acquiring a secure residency status for the investors and certain categories of family members in the State. Key to the programme is that the investments are beneficial to the State in pursuit of key strategic development objectives, that they generate or sustain employment and that they can demonstrate a clear public benefit.

The programme currently allows four different types of investment to be made by applicants, each with a minimum investment threshold: enterprise investments with a minimum threshold of €1 million; fund investments with a minimum threshold of €1 million; real estate investment trusts with a minimum investment threshold of €2 million; and endowments with a minimum threshold of €500,000. The immigration process that every applicant must go through is managed by the immigration service delivery function in my Department. The IIP team is multidisciplinary and includes experienced immigration officials and officials with a background in finance, which is extremely important in this area.

The applicant identifies the enterprise, fund or project that he or she wishes to invest in or to endow and submits an application to me as Minister for Justice and Equality for permission under the programme, without committing to any investment funding at that stage. The applicant is subject, when one is dealing with such sums of money, to rigorous screening by my Department as to the applicant's suitability for permission to enter into and reside in the State, to ensure only reputable individuals are eligible for permission. The enterprise, fund or project in which the applicant wishes to invest is subject to a detailed examination by an independent evaluation committee. The committee is chaired by the assistant secretary of the immigration service delivery function and comprises key officials from State agencies that have appropriate corporate experience in evaluating the nominated enterprise, fund or project. The agencies and bodies currently include Enterprise Ireland, the IDA, the Department of Foreign Affairs and Trade, the Department of Finance and my Department.

The evaluation committee convenes at least four times a year to assess the projects submitted for determination as suitable for IIP investment. Where necessary, and this is relevant to some of the Deputy's points, the evaluation committee will request policy input from the lead Department if that Department is not already represented on the committee. For example, there would be input from the Department of Housing, Planning and Local Government on social projects. More recently the IIP unit in the Department has also engaged proactively with other Departments such as the Department of Health, the Department of Communications, Climate Action and Environment, the Department of Culture, Heritage and the Gaeltacht and the Department of Agriculture, Food and the Marine to gain a full understanding of the projects in the wider context. Observations received from these Departments have aided the committee in its decision making. In addition, the evaluation committee has benefitted from briefing from Irish embassies in the key geographical areas.

If the committee deems the project suitable for funding under the programme a submission is made to me for final approval. If approved, the applicant makes the investment in accordance with his or her approved application and provides evidence of same. The applicant will then be issued with the IIP permission letter. The evaluation committee met in April and June this year by virtual meetings. While I cannot comment on this particular case, I can say there is a comprehensive system and structure in place. It has been established to ensure a proper appraisal and evaluation can be made in each case. That is why it has expanded out from my Department to seek the expertise and knowledge of the relevant Departments connected with the type of case.

I thank the Minister for her response. I have no doubt, based on the information she has provided to the House tonight, that there may well be a comprehensive and detailed analysis and evaluation of applications and that information is sought from relevant Departments regarding such applications. I would expect in this case of a proposed meat plant, and I do not expect the Minister to discuss this case specifically, that the Department of Agriculture, Food and the Marine would have been consulted. I ask the Minister to make available to me, if possible, the various reports that were sought by the committee, what it sought, what was received and what was contained in what it received.

I have seen documentation pertaining to this case from officials in the Department of Agriculture, Food and the Marine and from the Chinese embassy and Bord Bia. Bord Bia says, for example, that this proposal is particularly opportune given that Ireland became the first European country to gain access to China earlier in 2018. Since then six Irish beef plants have been approved to export there by the Chinese veterinary authorities and Bord Bia says it is hoped that additional factories will become listed in the near future. This application, which I expect and hope will receive planning permission in the coming days, is exclusively dedicated and committed to serve the Asian market and others, which Bord Bia acknowledges it totally supports. Such a massive investment in my constituency, to the tune of €40 million, will provide 250 construction jobs and 150 jobs in its operation. I welcome the fact that Amazon created 1,000 jobs here recently, but this is the equivalent of that in a constituency or region that has been subject to huge job losses in recent times. I earnestly ask the Minister to make available the relevant documents pertaining to this application, in private if necessary, so we can scrutinise and analyse whether there was fair and due process in this case.

Again, I refer to the fact that it is only when the committee deems a project suitable for funding that the submission is made to me for final approval. What my Department must seek, and what I can benefit from, is the expertise that is available beyond my Department. That is why the structure is set up as it is. Obviously, the applicant is also subject to rigorous screening within my Department to examine the person's suitability for permission to enter and reside in the State. There is also an undertaking within my Department looking at detailed due diligence, politically exposed persons and sanctions, checks in respect of prospective applicants and accessing reputable international databases as and when required to ensure that only reputable individuals are eligible for permission. There is a vast amount of experience and knowledge coming from other Departments and from within my Department. It is only when all of that has been assessed that the final decision is brought to me, and I must base that decision on the expertise and knowledge that have been used in coming to that decision.

The investment should also be aligned with overarching Government policy. That is not to say, without knowing the details of this case, whether it is in line. However, at present, investment in social infrastructure, especially social housing and nursing homes, is a key priority as set out in Project Ireland 2040, but there are agricultural projects included in it as well. Applications are also assessed on the basis of the profile of the applicant, the commercial viability of the project, employment outcomes associated with the proposed investment and the overall benefit to the Irish State.

I can only assume that all this was taken into account when assessing this particular project.

As for the Deputy's questioning of the process, arising from an internal audit report completed in 2018, a recommendation was made that a strategic review of the IIP be undertaken. It was decided that this would happen in two phases. Following a public procurement process, EY was awarded the contract to undertake the review. The first phase was to consider and review the overall policy, the current objectives and future options. Following the outcome of phase 1, phase 2, which is currently under way, will consider governance and oversight arrangements for the process, the associated resource options and the risks, including financial and reputational, associated with the operation of the programmes. Again, this is under way, so if concerns are raised at that stage about the overall process, we hope to address them.

I thank the Minister.

Driver Licences

Will the Minister of State, Deputy Naughton, outline the steps that have been taken to address the current oversight for driver licences that have expired but fall outside the four-month extension period from March to 30 June? Will she consider an extension for the cases of those whose licence expired in July but who cannot renew online or obtain a timely appointment at a National Driver Licence Service, NDLS, centre? Will she make a statement on the matter?

The issue that has arisen is that someone whose licence was due to be renewed on 30 June could get a four-month extension, whereas for people whose licence was due to be renewed on 1 July, their licences are out of date from 1 July. That is a major anomaly. I note that on 26 June an extension was given where learner permits were due to expire on 30 June, that is, where the expiry date falls from 1 July to 31 October. They have been given a further four-month extension. I am asking that the same be granted to people whose licences expired post 1 July. I have had such cases come to me in Limerick. People over 70 cannot apply online. They have to apply for an appointment online with the NDLS centre. One gentleman I heard from applied on 3 July looking to get an appointment at the Parkway Shopping Centre, in Limerick. His driving licence was due to expire on the same date. He has not been given an appointment until 25 August, so he is not able to drive legally in a car because he has no driving licence. That has to be amended. Even at that, he is required to go to Nenagh, which is some distance away. Furthermore, some people cannot apply online; I have made reference to those who are 70 years of age or older. The Minister of State could look to amend that.

What I am asking, and the desired outcome, is that the Minister of State extend the validity of licences expiring from 1 July onwards for a further three or four months. This would ensure that drivers could continue to use their vehicles while awaiting their appointments. Alternatively, the Minister of State should issue an instruction that proof of an appointment at a National Driver Licence Service centre is to be recognised as valid for driving by gardaí on discretionary grounds. I also ask that the Minister of State consider extending the online service to vulnerable people, such as people who are over 70, so they can avoid attending NDLS centres as a long-term measure to protect them from Covid-19. There is a need for a practical solution here. The key point is that the Minister of State should extend that period for a further four months in order that we do not have an anomaly whereby someone whose licence is up for renewal on 30 June gets a four-month extension and someone whose licence is up on 1 July does not. The person whose licence is up for renewal on 30 June can continue to drive, but a person whose licence is up for renewal the following day could be waiting up to eight weeks to get an appointment with the National Driver Licence Service while being unable to drive. There is a major anomaly. I hope to get news from the Minister of State that this will be changed tonight.

I thank the Deputy for raising this very important matter. The National Driver Licence Service is the statutory responsibility of the Road Safety Authority and is provided under contract. The NDLS processes applications for learner permits and driver licences. The Covid-19 pandemic has had a profound effect on the provision of services, as the Deputy has outlined. As a result, a number of services ceased, including the national car testing service and driver testing, theory tests, and driver licence applications and renewals. The NDLS offices closed at the end of March 2020 due to the pandemic. Emergency regulations were brought in to provide for an extension of four months to the validity of driver licences and learner permits that expired between 1 March and 30 June 2020. This meant that a driver licence that expired on 20 March would not need to be renewed until 20 July. Similarly, a licence that expired on 15 July would not need to be renewed until 15 November.

In order to deal with the difficulties that arose due to the Covid-19 pandemic and to ensure consistency across EU member states, the European Commission eventually introduced a regulation in July 2020 to provide for an extension of seven months to the validity of driving licences that expired or would expire from 1 February to 31 August 2020. Member states could opt out of the regulation if they had already provided nationally for an extension. Ireland opted out under this provision as an extension of four months had already been granted in April up to the end of June and the RSA wanted to resume services as soon as possible. Learner permits, however, were further extended for an additional four months to the end of October. The reason for this extension was to ease the pressure on the NDLS to allow the prioritising of issuing of driver licences.

It should be noted that learner permits are provided under national law while driver licences come under EU law. There was no oversight in not extending driver licences at that time. The possibility of a further extension to the validity of driver licences along with that of learner permits was discussed with the RSA, but the authority believed, on the basis of its expectations at that point in time, that this would not be necessary. It is only fair to the authority to acknowledge that the Covid-19 crisis is an unprecedented and fluid set of circumstances in which it is difficult to be certain about future developments. While the reopened NDLS offices and the future expansion of online licence renewal options will eventually enable the RSA to clear the backlog, it is now clear that this will not happen quickly enough to facilitate the urgent needs of all applicants. The NDLS resumed services on a phased basis on Monday, 8 June 2020. All centres have reopened nationwide with the exception of part-time NDLS offices in Belmullet and Clifden, which are expected to reopen shortly. However, the NDLS is now operating at about 60% of its pre-Covid capacity. All appointments must be booked in advance and walk-in appointments are no longer available to ensure social distancing and compliance with occupational and public health requirements. It will naturally take some time for services to return to normal and, unfortunately, there are delays in acquiring appointments.

Since July the RSA has been working with its service providers to see how it can increase capacity while adhering to the return-to-work protocol. Options include extended opening hours, increasing the number of cases dealt with monthly, overtime and protective segregation barriers between booths. Having monitored the situation closely, it is now clear that the backlog cannot be dealt with in a timely manner while operating at 60% capacity and with an extended online system not yet in operation. Having considered the matter, I believe a further extension of driver licences in now appropriate.

An extension to driver licences is not possible without consent from the European Commission, in order to be compliant with EU law. My officials have now applied to the European Commission to seek agreement to a further extension for driver licences to ease the pressure on services.

I thank the Minister for that. I have three quick questions. First, when did the Department of Transport apply to the European Commission for this extension? Second, what is the length of the extension?

Third, how long does the Minister of State expect it will be before the European Commission will come back with a response regarding that extension period? It is unacceptable that we have elderly people and many others waiting for up to eight weeks to get their driver's licence renewed if it is up after 1 July. It is unacceptable on a number of levels, including mobility and the ability of people in business to function. At the same time, people whose licences were up between March and 30 June get a four-month extension.

Will the Minister of State clarify those points for me again? When did the Department of Transport, Tourism and Sport apply for the extension period, and for how long? When does the Minister of State expect the European Commission to respond? When will it come into operation for people? I want the Minister of State to give absolute certainty in this area. There are people, like the person I referred to earlier, whose licence was up on 3 July, who are being told they will not get an appointment with a National Driver Licence Service on the renewal until 25 August. That is nearly eight weeks away. That is completely unacceptable. Will the Minister of State give me a response in those areas?

I thank the Deputy. I agree the number of people waiting for appointments is at an unacceptably high level. I believe a further extension of the licences is the correct approach to deal with the issue. The extension is subject to EU approval and my officials have contacted the EU in that regard. We will also be prioritising work on the legislation required to get the online system up and running, which will also help to alleviate the pressure. I do not know the length of the extension. We will have to wait for the European Commission's response on that. My officials have applied to the European Commission to seek agreement to a further extension and the Road Safety Authority, RSA, will give priority to urgent cases if contacted by individuals outlining the details.

The RSA contacted the Department today to state that pending the extension of the online system, it cannot make significant inroads into dealing with the backlog and it has asked that consideration be given to further extension of the driving licences to ease those pressures. The Deputy can be assured getting this extension is a priority for me and my Department.

Ports Development

I appreciate the Minister of State is new to the portfolio and I congratulate her and wish her every success in the future. I would like to draw her attention to the need for investment in Rosslare Europort, which is Ireland's most strategic port in relation to accessing the European mainland once the UK leaves the EU, and currently. The landbridge will become defunct for the hauliers and their drivers, who wish to comply with driving regulation times and serve their customers' best interests post Brexit. I have spent 30 years as a haulier, working in logistics, and it is a fact that if a daily direct ferry service to the EU is not established prior to Brexit, confidence will not be with the exporters or importers, markets will not be reached and jobs will be lost. Hauliers and logistics managers cannot assure customers they will be saved from the chaos of the landbridge and HGV drivers are already anticipating chaos and will not do the job post Brexit if it involves unnecessary time delays which will lead to extra time away from their families. This can be avoided with preparation.

Rosslare has potential like no other port in Ireland. It is the first accessible port on the east coast, making it more attractive to any UK provider post Brexit. We must prepare Rosslare and maximise its potential for the benefit of the country and take rightful advantage of the ill wind that Brexit is for Ireland.

Will the Minister of State confirm she will invest in Rosslare Europort and make the necessary request to the EU to safeguard the national interest post Brexit by applying to the EU for tier 1 status for the port and make Rosslare a free zone?

My other point on Rosslare is that Carbon Trust said in a recent study that Rosslare is the most suitable site for the required wind energy base to construct turbines for the offshore wind farms planned to service Ireland and UK markets. There is a significant amount of preparation required in the port to accommodate the base. That is costly but ultimately an investment and, as such, is beneficial and value for money for the Exchequer on a national project basis. Many boxes can be ticked with one lump sum. Not only does it develop the port for freight and passenger services for the future, but the real value is that Ireland's future energy and fuel source must be carbon free. The Minister of State, as a previous Chair of the climate action committee, will appreciate that. We need wind energy if we are to be carbon free and my research points towards hydrogen as the fossil fuel replacement. Rosslare has the space for a hydrogen plant for the future.

Rosslare is about investing in Ireland's future. The investment is about joining the dots on all levels and giving the taxpayer value for money. Can the Minister of State unlock the potential for Ireland and be the first one to commit to developing Rosslare for the good of the country and its future?

I thank the Deputy for raising this issue. Rosslare Europort continues to work closely with the Department of Transport, Tourism and Sport and other Government Departments and offices in preparing for the border controls and other impacts that will arise from Brexit. The port's border inspection post, on a 16 acre site 1 km from the port, is ready for operation and additional staff have been deployed at Rosslare Europort since April 2020. Future Brexit configuration has been incorporated into the overall master plan for the port.  Rosslare Europort is actively seeking opportunities arising from Brexit to expand shipping services to continental EU ports, and I am aware that the Deputy, together with other representatives from the Irish Road Haulage Association, as well as representatives from the Department of Transport, Tourism and Sport and from Rosslare Europort, visited northern France in November 2019 to try to develop shipping links from Rosslare. I thank the Deputy for her work on developing such links. Since that time, Brittany Ferries has launched a new service to Roscoff and to Bilbao from Rosslare.

Rosslare is unique among the State's commercial ports as it operates outside of the Harbours Acts 1996 to 2009.  The port forms part of the Fishguard and Rosslare Railways and Harbour Company which owes its origins to the Fishguard Bay Railway and Pier Act 1893. The constituent ports of the company are nowadays the operational and financial responsibility of larnród Éireann and Stena Line Ports Limited, respectively. On account of this historic arrangement, Rosslare Europort is operated as a division of larnród Éireann.

Rosslare is the fourth largest port in the State in terms of overall tonnage handled, and the State's second largest passenger port. The port generates revenue of more than €10 million per annum, with surpluses of approximately €2.5 million. Rosslare is targeting growth and new business opportunities and has received the approval of the larnród Éireann board for a strategic plan to grow the port's business.  This includes plans for investment of about €30 million in customer facilities, port infrastructure, assets and new technology. Earlier this year, Brittany Ferries began operating between Rosslare and Roscoff and Bilbao. 

Rosslare has a significant proportion of Irish roll-on roll-off traffic at approximately 16%. Due to this, in preparation for Brexit, Rosslare has now been designated as an approved EU border control post and the Office of Public Works, OPW, is working with the various State agencies to put in place the necessary port facilities and infrastructure.

On offshore wind, in recent weeks the Dutch logistics company, XELLZ, has selected the port of Rosslare as its offshore wind supply base and has acquired private land around the port. It is early days but the company aims to tap into upcoming Irish offshore wind opportunities.

Rosslare Europort is on the Trans-European Transport Network, TEN-T, comprehensive network but it does not meet the EU criteria for TEN-T core port status. However, Rosslare Europort continues to be eligible for EU co-funding under the Connecting Europe Facility. This co-funding is available to projects on both the comprehensive and the core parts of the TEN-T network, subject to such projects satisfying the eligibility criteria of a given call for proposals, and being selected in the evaluation process.

The programme for Government commits the Government to continue to work closely with Rosslare Europort to ensure it is ready for all Brexit scenarios. The Government has underlined the importance of the UK land bridge with the European Commission negotiating team and we will continue to engage with our partners in France, the Netherlands, Belgium and Germany to ensure the land bridge remains a viable and efficient route to market. This is important for Rosslare. The programme for Government incudes a commitment to ensuring that systems at Rosslare Europort are Brexit ready and adapted to take account of Covid-19 at the end of the transition period. We will ensure this is the case and that Rosslare Europort can continue to play its full role as a critical part of Ireland's economic and social infrastructure.

I thank the Minister of State for her reply. To be clear, there was a requirement for a daily service to mainland Europe pre-Brexit, not just after Brexit has happened, which will circumvent the land bridge and the need for many customs operations. Although those systems are in place and will be ready, the process has done nothing for investment in the port itself. The figure of €30 million the Minister of State mentioned relates to an investment by Iarnród Éireann in a reconfiguration of the port. It will involve an expenditure of approximately €1 million on a number plate recognition system for the port. That is the extent of the port's electronic upgrade.

In regard to TEN-T funding, as the Minister of State mentioned, tier 1 facilities can access a fund that is worth €400 billion. This is the fund Rosslare needs to access and it requires tier 1 status to do so. Although previous Ministers have said the tier designation is based on volumes, Shannon Foynes Port was made a tier 1 port even though it did not have the volumes at the time. The tier designation was applied for by the Government and the then Minister for Finance was from the county in which Shannon Foynes Port is located. From a national perspective, tier 1 status should be applied for in respect of Rosslare Europort. As things stand, the only funds it can access from the EU, based on its tier 2 status, is the fund of €30 million to which I referred. That funding has not been drawn by the port but represents a re-investment by Iarnród Éireann, which has taken more than €2.5 million out of the port for the past ten years without re-investment.

I ask the Minister of State to address the position in regard to a free zone. XELLS is not guaranteeing that Rosslare will be its chosen wind base. There is a very real possibility that the wind base will go to Belfast, which would be an absolute travesty for the country when we can prepare and make Rosslare a centre point not just for wind energy but for the future replacement of fossil fuel through hydro energy. I ask the Minister of State to give serious consideration to these matters.

In regard to the free zone, Rosslare Europort is seeking the creation of such a zone at the port to facilitate and encourage the development of businesses. The port has been engaging with Wexford County Council on this matter. Among the business opportunities the port wishes to pursue in the context of a free zone is the creation of a facility to service the growing offshore wind industry. Free zones are secured customs areas within the European Union where non-Union goods can be introduced free of import duties and charges and commercial policy measures. These goods may, following time in the free zone, be released to the domestic market subject to payment of import duties and other charges. Rosslare Europort envisages that companies which locate in the port's business park free zone would have the ability to operate and install offshore wind farms in a cost-effective and competitive manner.

My understanding is that the proposal for a free zone at Rosslare is at a very early concept stage and a full business proposal would need to be developed and examined by the Departments concerned, including the Department of Finance, the new Department with responsibility for enterprise and the new Department with responsibility for transport, and compliance with EU state aid rules would be required. In the meantime, Rosslare Europort is to undergo a major transformation as part of its master plan, which will see more than €30 million invested in customer facilities, port infrastructure, assets and new technology by the port over the course of the next five years. This will entail the modernisation and digitalisation of the port.

The Deputy referred to the TEN-T process. The European Commission has published a methodology for establishing the core and comprehensive layers of the TEN-T network. Rosslare Europort is on the TEN-T comprehensive network, as I have outlined, and it does not meet the threshold for TEN-T core port status. I have run out of time but I can discuss these issues further with the Deputy at a later date.

The Dáil adjourned at 1.15 a.m. until 9.30 a.m. on Wednesday, 29 July 2020.