Saincheisteanna Tráthúla - Topical Issue Debate

DEIS Scheme

I thank the Minister of State for taking this Topical Issue matter and know that she will relay my concerns to the Minister for Education and Skills, Deputy Foley. I have a deep concern that in our fight against Covid-19, we have worsened the education inequality curve. Schools play a very important role in children's lives. That social relationship between school teachers and families is very important and disadvantage was highlighted while schools were closed. The Department of Education and Skills made additional provision for special schools and special classes in the context of the reopening of schools, which I welcome, but I am concerned that in the process, pinch points were discovered and nothing was done to fix them.

According to the latest census data available, the County Carlow town of Tullow had a population of 4,673, of whom 1,360 were under the age of 17 and 885 were under the age of 19. It is a growing town with growing needs. The reason I mention the census figures is I am going to speak about two schools in Tullow that I have been working with. The first is Scoil Mhuire Lourdes, an all-girls school of approximately 260 students. It has been applying for DEIS status for years but has not been accepted. The other school in Tullow is Scoil Phádraig Naofa, an all-boys school of approximately 250 students. The two schools, which are located beside each another, have been applying for DEIS status for years but have not qualified, even though they really deserve it.

I went to school at Scoil Mhuire Gan Smál in Carlow town, which is an excellent school of approximately 410 students. What I find difficult to understand is that the girls' school I attended tried to get DEIS status but did not qualify for it, whereas the school beside it, which is a boys' school, did qualify. As a result, there are now families in which the girls attend a school without DEIS status while the boys attend one beside it that does have DEIS status. I cannot understand why. What are the criteria? The two schools are right beside each other, with boys going to one and the same families' girls going to the other. One school has qualified but the other has not. I understand that a review has been ongoing for quite a long time. I will be looking for the review to be finished urgently and for all three schools to be given DEIS status. I return to the issue of Tullow. The reason I mentioned the town and its statistics is there are three schools in Tullow but none of them has DEIS status. I just cannot understand that.

I have also been speaking to principals in Carlow and Kilkenny about how fit for purpose the education system is to respond to the needs of children with special needs to access special needs assistants, SNAs. Schools are finding it very difficult. They are buckling under the pressure of one of the largest average class sizes in the OECD. Our towns and villages are changing, a point that has been raised with me several times. The review process needs to be examined so that children will not fall through the cracks in their academic years, especially now when we must be bound by public health guidelines on spacing and learning supports for those who cannot attend a classroom.

I am disappointed that my time is so short but I know the Minister of State, Deputy Madigan, will revert to the Minister, Deputy Foley, and I thank her for her attending the debate. I ask that she comment on the criteria for DEIS status and on why some schools qualify for it and others do not, even though they are located beside each other. Most importantly, she might outline when the review will be complete so that I can respond to the schools that have contacted me.

As the Deputy will be aware, delivering equality of opportunity in schools, DEIS, is the main policy initiative of the Department of Education and Skills to tackle educational disadvantage at school level. The DEIS plan sets out the vision for interventions in the critical area of educational disadvantage policy and is based on the findings of an extensive review of the DEIS programme, which involved consultations with all relevant stakeholders. In 2020, the Department will spend in the region of €125 million on the DEIS programme, providing for smaller class sizes and other supports, including additional teaching posts, home school community liaison co-ordinators, DEIS grants, enhanced book grants, curriculum supports, priority access to continuing professional development and the school excellence fund for DEIS. Furthermore, the Government has allocated more than €375 million under the roadmap for the full return to school, with comprehensive supports for a range of areas.

The Deputy mentioned SNAs, a matter which is under my remit, whereas DEIS schools are not. Nevertheless, to satisfy the Deputy's interest, there are approximately 17,000 SNAs in the country at the moment and we have made it a stipulation for the reopening of schools that every absent SNA will be replaced immediately. That is something I made sure would happen.

It is also recognised that schools may require some reconfiguration works and this is being supported by a once-off enhanced minor works grant of €75 million to prepare the buildings and classrooms for reopening, including an uplift for schools with children with special educational needs.

The Deputy asked about the DEIS model. A key part of the DEIS plan was the introduction of a new DEIS identification process based on an objective, statistics-based model to determine which schools merit inclusion in the programme. As the Deputy may be aware, following the application of this model in 2017, a further 79 schools were included in this programme and 30 schools were upgraded form band 2 to band 1 status.

As for the extension of the DEIS programme to more schools - the Deputy mentioned two in Tullow, namely, Scoil Mhuire Lourdes and Scoil Phádraig Naofa, the boys' school - an extensive body of work has been undertaken on the refinement of this model, based on the latest school enrolment data and data available from census 2016 under the HP deprivation index. The Deputy also asked about a review. A detailed quality analysis of the data has been carried out by members of the DEIS technical group, which includes representatives from the Department and the Educational Research Centre. The Deputy asked when the work will be finished. I understand that the work of this group is at an advanced stage and a consultation process with education stakeholder representatives on the technical aspect of this model commenced earlier this year. It is envisaged that this will ultimately provide the basis for a refined DEIS resource allocation model to match resources to identified need.

On the Deputy's query regarding class sizes in DEIS schools, the DEIS programme currently allows for a reduced class size in urban band 1 primary schools, with the application of a preferential staffing schedule to these schools of 20:1 at junior classes and 24:1 at senior classes to support those students at the highest risk of educational disadvantage.

I am confident that the culmination of all of this work on the refined identification model will facilitate the ultimate aim of matching resources to identified need and allow us to target additional resources at those schools that are most in need. Until this work is complete, it is not intended to extend the DEIS programme to further schools.

I am disappointed with the reply. Some schools are constantly applying to the Department for DEIS status and have been refused on grounds that do not make sense. When schools that are beside each other, with the girl from one family attending a girls' school that does not have DEIS status while the boy attends a school beside it that does have it, the whole system is wrong. Whatever the criteria are or whatever the information is that needs to be given, that needs to be changed. It is so important that schools that apply for DEIS status get it. As I said earlier, children's lives are deeply affected by school and DEIS status gives many additional supports to schools, particularly in disadvantaged areas, where it is very important.

There are three schools in Tullow and not one of them has DEIS status. That should not be allowed to happen in a town such as Tullow. Of the two primary schools in Tullow that have contacted me, neither has DEIS status.

I presume the Minister of State is getting a lot of requests about the review in respect of DEIS status because it is being looked at in terms of new criteria and so on. I do not want to be back here in six months or a year's time to hear the Minister of State telling me the same thing again. I do not want to hear the issue is still being looked at because these schools I am representing cannot wait any longer. They need the supports and that includes the teachers, students and families involved.

I hear the Deputy's frustration and I understand that. It is important to stress, however, that there is no application process for a school to receive DEIS status. The underlying principle for inclusion in the DEIS programme is evidence of the need to make provision of supports to schools catering for concentrated levels of disadvantaged pupils. The identification process for DEIS status is based on an objective statistics-based model to determine which schools merit inclusion in the programme. Variables used in the compilation of the HP deprivation index include those related to demographic growth, dependency ratios, education levels, single parent rates, overcrowding, social class and occupation and unemployment rates. These data are combined with pupil data supplied by schools that are anonymised and aggregated to a small area, which provide information on the relative level of concentrated disadvantage present in the pupil cohort of individual schools. There are a number of resources available in the DEIS section of the Department's website to assist schools to understand how the process works and to explain how schools can use the data sources to assess their disadvantage levels.

The rationale for allocating DEIS resources and supports, based on a school's level of concentrated disadvantage, is based on the existence of a multiplier effect, whereby students attending a school with a high concentration of students from a disadvantaged background have poorer academic outcomes, even taking account of individual social background. Research by the European Research Council, ERC, and the Economic and Social Research Institute, ESRI, indicates that there is a strong evidence base, in the Irish context, that the social class mix of a school matters, providing a rationale for prioritising supports for those schools that cater for those from lower socioeconomic backgrounds. I assure the Deputy I will bring the concerns she has raised back to the Department.

That is not proper information. That is wrong information.

That was the second Topical Issue matter and we will move back to the first Topical Issue matter now. I thank the Minister of State and the Deputy for facilitating that.

Insurance Industry Regulation

I thank the Acting Chairman for the opportunity to discuss the issue of dual pricing. It is important that we acknowledge the work of our parliamentary colleague, Deputy Doherty, in respect of this issue. Had it not been for his foresight, I would not be here talking about it today and we would not be dealing with this as an issue.

We hear terms such as "price walking", "price signalling", "dual pricing" and "differential pricing" but it all amounts to the same thing, namely, how much more money can be squeezed and screwed out of the consumer. It permeates the insurance industry and it is self-evident. The Competition and Consumer Protection Commission, CCPC, is acknowledging it and the Central Bank is latently acknowledging it.

I welcome the Minister of State at the Department of Finance, Deputy Fleming, and I ask him what the Government's response to this will be, given that there is a programme for Government commitment on it. If the programme for Government is saying we need to ensure there is a level playing field for consumers on the price of car insurance, for instance, what is the solution and what solution is the Government offering? The Labour Party is of a mind to support the Sinn Féin Bill that is before the House because that is a solution to this issue.

The Central Bank's response to the issue of dual pricing does not leave one inspired and I refer to an article in The Irish Times on 9 September, which references a senior official in the Central Bank. When this official was questioned about this issue, she advocated for a: "measured and proportional approach, based on actual tangible evidence". We have the tangible evidence. That has been self-evident since 2015 and 2016. The dogs in the street know about this. The official went on to state that the Central Bank was keen to avoid unintended consequences from any new regulations such as the stifling of competition, saying: "If you ban the practice, it might result in some industry firms exiting the market, reducing competition and choice for consumers". My analysis of that response by the Central Bank to this important issue is one that reminds me of how the Central Bank regulated the banks in the worst days prior to the recession. It seems to me to be signalling that there is almost a hands-off, conservative or light-touch approach to this issue and that does not augur well. We want the Central Bank, the Government and this Parliament to finally deal with this issue to ensure there is fairness on how people consume products within the insurance industry. We want to ensure that cartel-like behaviour is done away with once and for all and that Ireland follows the model of the UK on the issue of dual pricing.

The Minister of State before us has a stout record as an advocate for the consumer. I am hopeful that the Government will take this issue extremely seriously and that the Central Bank will not be conservative in its approach to this issue because everybody is watching it right now to see what way it will move on this issue. We have already had a signal from the CCPC on 17 September on anti-competitive co-operation or in other words, cartel-like behaviour and the consumer is demanding a response. We have crossed a Rubicon and we need an adequate response.

I thank the Deputy for raising this issue today. He will know that both the Minister, Deputy Donohoe, and I have stated publicly that the insurance industry needs to treat its customers fairly and in line with the Central Bank consumer protection code. The same applies in relation to any practices in pricing that are not fair to its customers. Not only does it have to be fair but it has to be transparent as well.

The former Minister of State, Deputy Sherlock, has asked what the proposal is for dealing with this matter. I hope the Deputy understands me when I say the programme for Government includes a specific commitment to work to remove dual pricing from the market and a proposal will be brought to Government to commence and implement that proposal as soon as practicable. This issue has been hanging out there for quite some time and it was raised by all parties in the run-up to the general election. That is why it is specifically itemised in the programme for Government so it is an issue of concern to everybody here.

Dual pricing, also known as differential pricing, is the practice of quoting two different prices to different customers for the same product or service, even where those customers have the same risk profile and cost of service. This is also an issue in the UK, where the UK's Financial Conduct Authority has been undertaking a review, which was completed in recent days. However, I stress that just because something is happening in the UK does not mean the same practice is happening here and it would not be appropriate for us to just copy what is being implemented in the UK without detailed examination because each market has its own particular criteria and it is important that they are looked at.

Late last year, the Central Bank of Ireland announced that it would carry out a study into the practice of dual pricing. I thank the members of the Joint Committee on Finance, Public Expenditure and Reform, and Taoiseach of the last Dáil, which had the various insurance companies before the committee and they denied the existence of this practice. As a first step, the Central Bank commenced a review and contacted and interviewed various people in the major companies involved.

There are fewer than 20 of those companies. They established that the practice is happening and some of the boards of directors in some of these companies were not aware of what was happening in those companies. No information was yielded with regard to the extent of the practice, the number of customers affected and the possible extra income raised by the companies because of the practice.

We must establish all of this information and what I would call phase one of the work has been done. It has been established that the practice exists and the chief executive officers of each of those companies have been written to asking for detailed proposals on how to deal with the matter. They have also been asked to bring the issue to their boards of directors, which did not always happen, and to co-operate with further investigation of the Central Bank.

The Central Bank is moving to phase two of its investigation, which is a quantitative analysis. It will trawl through millions of computer records relating to motor insurance as it is the biggest end of the market in Ireland. There are millions of policies out there so the investigators will be able to check what happened in the past number of years through computer profiling. When the investigators have specific information on the extent of the problem and which companies are operating the different practices, they will issue findings and recommendations at that stage.

I know some people believe we should pass legislation on this because we know there is a problem. I would like to know the extent of the problem, where it occurs and why it happens before moving to commit to legislation. It will take a little time to get more information from the Central Bank but at that point we will be in the position to take definite action.

I accept the bona fides of the Minister of State but the response does not inspire me, to be honest. If the Central Bank was fulfilling its obligation as the "watchdog", it would already have the evidence. If the Competition and Consumer Protection Commission, CCPC, tell us it has investigated practices as far back as 2015 and 2016, what was the Central Bank doing in that period? There should already be a book of evidence on the matter.

I take the point that the Minister of State is making in respect of legislation but if a legislative proposal is brought before the House, we will look seriously at it and support it. Right now, people looking at this matter are demanding a robust response by the Central Bank, the Government and this Parliament.

The idea that lower introductory rates can be offered to new consumers of car insurance is not a competitive practice. It is not morally right if there is a penalty applied to a person who is loyal to a particular company. We know that is happening. It would not take a trawl through millions of pieces of data to get the required information as there are enough people in the insurance sector to yield it. There is enough of a body of evidence from consumers and the complaints they have made about this issue and the decisions made against insurance companies.

This comes down to the refusal to charge the same price for providing the same service to existing and new customers. It is really a form of pyramid scheme that makes sense only in the context of an exponentially expanding customer base. In other words, it makes absolutely no sense at all.

I understand completely Deputy Sherlock's statement and his impatience about particular actions being taken at this point. I have explained why we are taking this correct route. I would prefer to gather more information and base any legislative proposals on clear facts that we can stand over rather than jumping the fence too soon and not knowing what is on the other side.

I understand the Deputy's impatience with the Central Bank and note his remarks that the bank should have been wise to this matter and that it should not have had to work its way up through consumer complaints, Oireachtas committees and complaints heard when canvassing for the general election, which led to it being included in the programme for Government. I understand the Deputy's reasoning for saying the Central Bank should have been ahead of the curve on the matter.

The bank's work will engage not just in examination of computer records of insurance companies but directly with consumers. I do not know how it will do that; it may be a survey or contact with a sample of particular consumers that may feel they have suffered because of dual pricing in order to get direct feedback. It will be an important point. It will take some months to get to the bottom of this and we are only in government a matter of weeks.

What is dual pricing? For example, I might get an insurance quote of €500 for my comprehensive insurance but a person of the same age, in the same village or town, with the same car of the same horsepower and age, with the same number of penalty points may get charged €600. We must know why that happens. Sometimes the person who gets the €600 quote will write a cheque and send it in the post but another person may ring the insurance company and argue about why the price has increased. When the person indicates he or she will shop around, a lower price may be offered. It is not fair as companies are abusing people who may be seen as a soft touch. It is a practice we must stamp out.

We are with the Deputy on this and it is in the programme for Government. We want more specific evidence before passing legislation on the matter.

Healthcare Policy

I was contacted by a constituent both of mine and the Minister of State named Natasha and she asked me to read into the record her experience. She states:

I want to tell you my story and I hope that the Government will soon reverse the decisions it has made to underestimate the need for women to have some support during their pregnancy. I have two gorgeous little boys. I surprisingly fell pregnant for the fourth time. My partner and I lost our first baby to a miscarriage in 2016.

I am sure you can imagine the first few weeks after finding out we were expecting again were pretty stressful and filled with anxiety and fear over having a 13-month-old and newborn. But then as the weeks went on that fear turned into hope and love for another beautiful perfect little bundle of joy that would complete our family.

Eight weeks into the pregnancy I started to bleed. I was called to University Hospital Waterford. I got to the hospital and had to make my way in alone. I waited in the corridor alone. I was seen by a lovely doctor and midwife, who checked me out and found a polyp. When the doctor started scanning me I could see her face change. She explained she was going to see her senior doctor, who would come to check as she had more experience, and left me in the room alone. I cried when I found out that I had lost the baby and I had to experience this on my own. The only person who was there to hug me was a doctor, not my partner.

Natasha is not alone and the Minister of State knows many women are in a similar position. I ask her to look at this compassionately to ensure such scenarios do not happen again.

We all appreciate that Covid-19 has thrown up some unprecedented challenges for our health service and staff and it most certainly did so for our patients in vulnerable positions and their families. Covid-19 arriving on this island has seen great demands on our people, including behavioural and habitual changes to what we have long been accustomed. That should be recognised by this House.

I will focus on the discontinuing of all visitors to our hospitals, including maternity hospitals, and nursing homes or care facilities. In Clare and across the State we have heard heartbreaking stories of loved ones facing difficult information or diagnoses, including diagnoses of cancer, on their own, not having their family with them for support or even as another ear to receive the difficult information.

People with disabilities are living in nursing homes where they should not be but they cannot receive visitors. Visitation could be facilitated and we could allow these visits on compassionate and critical grounds with proper planning, personal protective equipment and procedures in place. This cannot be a blanket decision and one size will not fit all when we are dealing with people's health and care.

I will address this matter in the context of maternity services and appointments. Speaking on my own behalf, I am very happy to say my wife is 40 weeks pregnant plus one week and her due date was yesterday. We have lived with these restrictions in place at the Rotunda hospital just like everybody else. We would rather if it was different.

I am grateful that the pregnancy is progressing well. Deputy Cullinane can speak about the other side of this issue. I am also grateful that this is not our first child. People's first experience of pregnancy, especially of a difficult pregnancy, is very difficult. We have heard that from "Liveline" with Joe Duffy and we read it in our local newspapers. Things are really difficult for people in those situations. I am not speaking on my own behalf but on behalf of people facing additional challenges, risks, anxiety or other strains. Any measure that can be taken on compassionate grounds on a case-by-case basis is very important.

I thank Deputies O'Rourke, Wynne and Cullinane for raising this really serious issue. I was under the impression that I was coming to the House to discuss issues concerning visitations to nursing homes, but I will address both issues.

This was raised in the Dáil a couple of weeks ago by a Sinn Féin Deputy from Cork. I know it is a very challenging issue. I am a mother of three and I brought either my mother or my husband to every single appointment I ever had when I was pregnant. I want to congratulate Deputy O'Rourke on the baby who will be born very soon. It is a magical time but I know how challenging it is. It is very hard for an expectant mother to face these visits on her own. What Deputy Cullinane read out was devastating. It is absolutely devastating for any woman to be unsure of where to go in a clinic and to get bad news.

When I stood here to discuss this previously, we were told that the reasons for the policy were purely to do with the prevention and control of infection and the need to limit footfall in hospitals. Very young and premature babies and new mothers are very vulnerable, but obviously partners want to be involved. Though it varies from constituency to constituency and from hospital to hospital, I understand that the majority of hospitals allow partners to be present during the birth, including in the case of a Caesarean section. The main issue is that partners are not allowed to attend a 20-week scan. That scan comes at a very important time during a pregnancy, when parents are able to see how their baby is developing. This restriction is very difficult, as a mother could receive very bad news at this appointment.

This was raised with the Taoiseach in the Dáil last week. He said he would discuss the matter with the acting Chief Medical Officer to see if any compassionate grounds would be allowed. I imagine this will be extremely difficult in counties where restrictions are at level 3, such as Dublin and now Donegal. I have raised this with the Minister for Health, Deputy Stephen Donnelly, and I will certainly do so again. This is an extremely difficult situation. A mother is likely to feel emotional, vulnerable, tired and stressed at that time in her life. She is looking forward to the birth of her new baby, but it is very difficult to face that alone. Everybody needs support.

Deputy Wynne spoke about visitations to other facilities. Unprecedented challenges have arisen throughout our health services, and nowhere more so than in the area of older persons' services. As we all know, nursing homes closed down in early March and family members were unable to visit for almost six months. That was really trying, and I think we have learned that it is not the correct approach. We need to reduce footfall in nursing homes as much as possible and we have to protect our older and vulnerable people, but they are lonely and afraid and want to see their loved ones as well.

I appreciate the Minister of State's presence here. The Minister for Health, Deputy Stephen Donnelly, needs to look into this matter personally. We need to end the blanket ban on visitors in our hospitals and other care facilities. We need more humanity, more leadership and more solutions. Warm winter gardens could be considered for nursing homes. We are social creatures after all, and we need our families and loved ones when we are at our most vulnerable.

I thank the Minister of State for her compassionate response and her understanding of this issue. I raised this issue with the acting Chief Medical Officer myself at a meeting earlier this week. I completely understand the infection control measures that are in place in hospitals and the need to maintain social distancing and keep people away from hospitals to protect newborns and pregnant women. We all accept that this is a very challenging time.

At the same time, we need to consider allowing critical and compassionate access for visitors to residents of nursing homes and the partners of pregnant women. I do not believe that any resident of a nursing home should have to die alone. My own mother died several years ago. I would never allow it to happen if it was my mother, and the same is true for the vast majority of people. When I met the acting Chief Medical Officer he said that two reports were making their way to his desk. One concerned critical and compassionate access for visitors to the residents of nursing homes, and one was on the issue of access to maternity hospitals for partners. Perhaps the Minister of State could find out the status of those reports, the recommendations that have been made and the changes that can be implemented to support Natasha and many others.

The Covid-19 guidance on visitations to residential care facilities has been developed and is reviewed and revised on an ongoing basis in consultation with key national stakeholders. This is an important document that provides a pathway for safe visiting. Any updates are expected to encompass recent developments in the response. As I stated, however, the existing guidance is not without consideration for visiting on compassionate grounds. That is allowed. It behoves all providers of long-term residential care to balance their responsibility to ensure their residents' autonomy and right to have visitors with the need to ensure that visitations do not compromise overall residential care.

Visitation was suspended in all nursing homes when Dublin went to level 3. However, a situation arose where window visits were stopped completely. I wish to state on the record that this was not a recommendation of the National Public Health Emergency Team, NPHET. The onus is on each nursing homes to set out its own guidelines. I appeal to all nursing homes to allow window visits at a minimum. This does not entail contact between a visitor and his or her loved one, but a visitor can at least see in the window, wave and perhaps have a conversation, especially if a mobile phone can be used.

I will certainly raise the matter referred to by Deputy Cullinane with the Minister again. I have been contacted by many very distressed pregnant women from all over the country. This situation is very fluid and as we have seen today, it is changing by the day, but I will certainly raise it with the Minister again.

Tuberculosis Eradication Programme

I note that the Minister of State at the Department of Agriculture, Food and the Marine, Deputy Martin Heydon, is here. Since this his first Dáil appearance in this role for which I have been present, I would like to say that it is a great privilege to see a constituency colleague appointed as Minister of State. I wish the Deputy every success in his new brief.

I wish to begin by thanking the Ceann Comhairle for selecting this vitally important issue for discussion. I also wish Deputy Heydon well in his new role, which is now more important than ever to rural Ireland and the rural economy.

As the Minister of State is aware, the proposal to implement a new TB herd history risk statement and report system has generated a furious response from farmers throughout the State. I am particularly aware of this reaction in Laois-Offaly and among farming organisations.

The proposal is totally unacceptable. It is my understanding that the Department of Agriculture, Food and the Marine took action on this issue before it was agreed by the TB forum. However, the report was meant to have been agreed by the TB forum before any action was to be taken. There is great frustration and anger over that situation. There is significant concern that the new system has the potential to seriously devalue herds, with no protection afforded to farmers.

In a reply to a parliamentary question I recently tabled on this matter, the Minister, Deputy McConalogue, stated that the reports present TB risk information in a user-friendly, detailed and practical form. He also made the point that the development of herd risk categories that are simple, clear and convey sufficient information enables farmers to make the decisions appropriate to their situation. However, there is nothing simple or clear about how this matter has been handled to date. Rather, there is, as I stated, much frustration. It is not acceptable and I hope this system will be taken off the table. It is only right that that be done.

If there was consensus that this was an appropriate way to handle the TB issue and the whole situation, it would not have generated the level of outright hostility that has ensued. Mr. Pat Farrell, chairman of the IFA animal health committee, stated that the letters are a ridiculous and weak response to the dramatic deterioration in TB levels in herds. Farmers are being told in these letters that if they bring unsold animals back from the mart, they cannot consider the herd to be a closed herd. However, as the Irish Cattle and Sheep Farmers Association, ICSA, has pointed out, we have not seen any scientific research to underpin that stipulation. What is worse is that it will be seen as an assault on the mart trade.

It is clear that farmers will continue to bear the disproportionate financial burden for the eradication of TB even though we know that the real area of difficulty in terms of the source of the disease is within the wildlife population, specifically the badger population. I am aware that there are EU provisions such as the habitats directive which protect badgers and other wildlife, but there are derogations to the provisions on species protections which are permitted in circumstances involving the prevention of serious damage to livestock. We need to give these derogations far more serious attention because there is clearly a lack of balance between production of herds and the unwillingness to engage in proportionate levels of badger culling where required. Only this week, I received many reports from my own county of Offaly where there are issues of TB and livestock have been affected.

More ongoing assessments should be carried out by the Department in areas where there is an ongoing problem with TB. There should then be a targeted response and follow-up, which could involve the culling of badgers or deer in these areas.

I thank the Deputy for raising this very important issue and for the kind sentiments she expressed at the start of her contribution. I also thank the Ceann Comhairle for his kind words. I look forward to carrying out my duties to the best of my ability.

The issuance of herd test history statements and reports to all cattle herd owners is viewed as just one of several measures that will help herd owners to reduce the risk of bovine TB in their herds. The bovine TB forum interim report identified the need to provide more effective information to farmers to help them to reduce the risk of TB in their herds. It advocated for the development of herd risk categories that can clearly convey sufficient information to enable farmers to make the decisions appropriate to their situation. Against that background, the Department developed individualised reports that provide a simplified TB herd risk category for farmers, with herd-specific advice on how to reduce the risk of TB.

I reassure the Deputy that I completely understand the frustration among the farm organisations that attended the TB forum. I consulted them and discussed the matter with them. The individualised reports are being seen as though they are the panacea to fix everything. They are one part of a much wider approach that will only work in partnership with farmers and farming organisations, my Department and the other bodies that are involved. That is why I welcome the TB forum being reformed. It will meet next week, on 1 October, and the Minister, Deputy McConalogue, will be in attendance. The farmers and my Department can discuss all the key issues we must address. This report is only one part of that.

There is a large and robust body of scientific evidence on bovine TB and this underpins the advice contained in the herd history statement. Furthermore, the content of the statement is consistent with the advice that has been provided by my Department for several years in newsletters, videos, leaflets and other media. Farmers have already been provided with information relating to their TB risk, but the new report presents it in a clearer and more detailed way. Following many successful years of reducing bovine TB levels to the benefit of Irish farmers, there has been a concerning incremental increase in the disease since 2016. This has continued in 2020, with further increases in herd incidence and reactor numbers observed. Herd incidence on a 12-month rolling basis has breached 4% for the first time since 2012 and reactor numbers have exceeded 20,000, the highest number since 2011. These trends highlight the need for urgent action by all stakeholders to manage the risk more effectively across all transmission routes. It is this need for action that is my Department's primary motivation in issuing the herd history statements.

Although the immediate trends are disappointing and worrying, great progress has been made in the past decade. In 2009, 5,860 herds were subject to restrictions, but in 2019 the number was only 4,060. That is a significant reduction which needs to be recognised. I again make the point that it is only by working together that we have been able to make that progress. We can do so again. That is why the meeting of the TB forum next week will be of such importance.

My Department remains committed to reducing TB in Ireland, as demonstrated by the recent sanctioning of an additional 16 officers to assist the TB programme. Attaining TB-free status remains critical from a farm family profitability and sustainability perspective, as well as from a trade perspective at national and international levels. I am acutely conscious that every TB restriction represents a significant challenge to the farm family concerned. It is a deep regret of mine that more than 2,700 herds are currently restricted, which represents a 20% increase on the same time last year. We wish to work with all stakeholders in ensuring that fewer herd owners experience the challenges associated with TB restriction and that we all work purposefully towards the eradication of this disease, thus eliminating this ongoing cost on farmers and the State.

I thank the Minister of State for his comprehensive response, but the fact is that there was a blatant lack of consultation or agreement on this issue and the TB forum was undermined. This heavy-handed proposal needs to be taken off the table. The Department was heavy handed in its approach. I welcome the fact that the Minister of State hopes to engage with all stakeholders and accepts that that needs to happen, but the whole problem is that there was not meaningful and proper engagement with stakeholders. Heavy-handed actions were taken. The decision needs to be reversed and we need to go back to the TB forum and put actions in place that are agreeable to everybody and which will not devalue herds or cause more hardship for farming families throughout the State. The proposal has not instilled confidence in farming organisations or farmers and, as such, it should be taken off the table immediately.

The costs of the current eradication programme as provided by the Department are slightly more than €90 million per annum. As I understand it, that does not include the significant labour costs associated with the TB programme for farmers which the IFA estimates amounts to a further €20 million annually. Irish farmers contribute a total of €55 million each year to the TB programme, comprising €27 million in annual TB testing costs, more than €7 million in disease levies, and €20 million in labour when facilitating more than 9 million animal tests per year and implementing the disinfection protocols following a disease outbreak. Despite this massive contribution by farmers - it is always farmers who bear the heaviest burden - there is a clear sense that they are being shafted by the new system. That is why I wish to emphasise that it needs to be taken off the table.

Instead of assisting farmers, it is penalising them and making their lives much more difficult and costly. It also creates significant potential for reputational damage around herd categorisations. I am pleading with the Minister of State to commit to meaningful consultations with farmers and the Rural Independent Group and to stop the roll-out of this system before it does immeasurable harm to farmers at a time when they can least afford it.

I need to clarify that, although the Deputy calls it a system and a proposal, it is neither a system nor a proposal. It is information that has been distilled to farmers previously and that now has been distilled in a clearer way, giving very clear identification as to the risk. It is one key element for farmers in decision making. Farmers make decisions every year on what stock they keep and what stock they cull when bringing in new stock and updating their herd. It is important that farmers have clear access to all of that information when they are doing that.

Deputy Nolan talks about the financial burden. The Deputy is dead right. The financial burden is significant on farmers because of TB in general. The best way we can ease that burden is to get the trajectory back in the right direction - unfortunately, in the past couple of years it has been going in the wrong direction - and work towards its eradication by 2030, which is a real determination of the Department, me, the Minister, Deputy McConalogue, and all of the team, as it is of farmers and farm organisations. I believe that is achievable. It will only be achieved by working together. We see the reducing level of support there has been from the EU for this disease control because our trajectory has been going the wrong direction. If we all work together and get the figures going in the right direction, thus making more progress on this, that will benefit everybody financially to the point where we can eradicate this.

I also say, wearing my hat as Minster of State with responsibility for new market development, that the fact we have TB status in this country is an impediment to us in accessing new markets and expanding the markets we have. That is bad for farmers as well. It is bad for the overall industry because it restricts us in that regard.

I was a schoolboy back in the day when we had a reactor at home. Thankfully, it was a long time ago, but I remember the devastation of it. It is awful. That is why we have to work with farmers. It is awful for those in that position.

This letter and this report were just one part of an approach to that. We will work closely with farmers. We want to eradicate this disease and we will only do that by all working together.