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Dáil Éireann debate -
Thursday, 11 Mar 2021

Vol. 1005 No. 2

Saincheisteanna Tráthúla - Topical Issue Debate

Medical Cards

I welcome the new arrangements announced recently by the Minister of State, Deputy Feighan, for those with medical prognoses of up to 24 months to be eligible for a medical card. I would go further in this regard and state that all cancer patients, regardless of their prognoses, should be automatically approved for a medical card. Cancer patients can be given a discretionary medical card, but there are no common rules for applying that discretion and there are delays in the application system. I ask the Minister of State to examine this situation.

The existing medical card system has many issues. While this temporary arrangement fixes one issue, there are others and I am here to discuss one of those issues today. The provision of routine blood tests without charge to holders of medical cards or general practitioner, GP, visit cards is included under the current general medical services, GMS, contract. However, some GPs continue to charge GMS patients for blood tests in some circumstances. There is no provision under the contract for medical card or GP visit card holders to be charged for blood tests provided by their GP to either assist in the diagnosis of illness or the treatment of a condition. These blood tests should be free of charge for patients who hold a medical card or GP visit card.

In the midst of a pandemic, my office is still inundated with calls about GPs charging some people who have medical cards for blood tests. I am concerned that the only way to have these charges refunded is to write a letter to the HSE seeking it. The patient in that case must compose a letter outlining why he or she went to the doctor to have their blood test and they then have to send the letter to the HSE.

I recently submitted a parliamentary question on the numbers seeking such refunds in my constituency. I was informed by the HSE that seven refund applications were made last year and seven refunds were issued. My office is inundated with calls on this matter, so I am certain that the procedure to apply for the refund is a barrier to applicants. More people come to me than these figures would suggest and we do our best to help them. The act of having to lay out all the information in a letter is difficult, however, and I do not think we should be allowing this to happen.

If legislation is needed, I am happy to work with the Minister of State on it. If GPs need to be guided in a better way, I am also happy to assist the Minister of State with that endeavour. At the very least, however, we must stop this charging for blood tests for medical card patients when they are not supposed to be charged. I am happy to help and to seek the refunds on behalf of my constituents, but it is wrong that this must be done. It is wrong to put patients through this process and I ask the Minister of State to examine a better option. These tests should be free and we must get some legislation in this area.

While I am talking about the subject of medical cards, another issue on which I am receiving many calls concerns dentists not taking medical cards. I have been contacted by several people with medical cards and they have told me that dentists will not take their medical cards. That is unacceptable. We must ensure that cannot happen and I ask the Minister of State to ensure that we get this situation sorted out as soon as possible.

It has been a year and the issue persists.

I thank the Deputy for raising this important issue. Persons who are eligible for GP care without charge under the Health Act 1970 are not subject to co-payments or other charges in respect of such services. There is no provision under the general medical services, GMS, GP contract for persons who hold a medical card or GP visit card to be charged for routine phlebotomy services provided by their GP that are required to assist either in the diagnosis of illness or in the treatment of a condition. The HSE has advised GPs that where a blood test forms part of an investigation or necessary treatment of a patient's symptoms or conditions, this should be free of charge for patients who hold a medical card or GP visit card. Routine blood tests that are deemed clinically necessary by the patient's GP are comprehended by the scope of this service.

Notwithstanding this, the Minister, Deputy Donnelly, is aware that some GPs are charging GMS patients for phlebotomy services in some instances. The issue of charging GMS patients for phlebotomy services is complex, given the numerous reasons and circumstances under which blood tests are taken. The matter is further complicated by the fact that it is difficult to make precise distinctions between routine and non-routine phlebotomy services.

It is a matter for the treating GP to determine in the case of each individual patient what is proper and necessary care. In circumstances where a GP determines that a particular treatment or service requested by a patient is not clinically necessary but the patient still wishes to receive same, it is at the GP's discretion as to whether a charge is imposed for providing the service. The GP chronic disease management programme will involve the ongoing monitoring of patients' condition, and any blood test required in this context will be covered by the fees payable for this care. Where a patient who holds a medical card or GP visit card believes he or she has been incorrectly charged for routine phlebotomy services that he or she should have received without charge, he or she should report this to the HSE local primary care management, which will investigate the matter.

The role of local primary care management within each community healthcare organisation, CHO, is to investigate in the first instance the validity of any claim a GMS patient makes regarding charges inappropriately levied by his or her GP of choice for blood tests undertaken at the GP's practice as part of the investigation and necessary treatment of the patient's symptoms or condition. If it is established an inappropriate charge was levied on the patient for routine phlebotomy services, the HSE primary care eligibility and reimbursement service, PCERS, is notified accordingly. PCERS will, based on the recommendation of the local health manager, make a full refund to the patient concerned. Given the complexity of the issue, it is not possible to further streamline the process of seeking refund for blood test charges.

That is not acceptable. If a patient has a medical card or GP visit card, he or she should be entitled to a free blood test. I compliment doctors. I know how hard they have worked, particularly in the past year with Covid. It has been very difficult for everyone. Even so, vulnerable, often elderly, people who have medical cards have approached me on the matter. When someone has a medical card or a GP visit card, he or she should automatically be entitled to a free blood test. I do not accept the Minister of State's response. It is not the right answer and I ask him to reconsider it. We need to address the issue. I have had several phone calls about it. It is very unfair for people who have to write to the HSE and explain why they had a blood test. It is not acceptable. I urge the Minister of State to seek that all medical card and GP visit card holders will be allowed to get a free blood test.

I wish to raise also the issue of medical cards in respect of dental treatment. Covid has been so hard on everyone. This year has been very difficult. I know how hard our front-line workers and doctors have worked, but I had phone calls this week from two people who have medical cards. They were both told by dental clinics that they would not accept medical cards. Again, this is unacceptable and we need to examine it. What can we do to sort this out? What can I do to work out the issue for those people who came to me? We need to do something. I do not know how many dentists are refusing medical cards but I have received phone calls to say that some are. The same is true of some doctors. I ask the Minister of State to reconsider this and to revert to me with some sort of answer and solution. We cannot have this going on. It is unacceptable.

I again thank the Deputy for raising this important issue. I will bring her concerns to the Minister because she has articulated them in a passionate and informative way, and I hope this will be dealt with. The position of the Department and of the HSE has consistently been that routine blood tests are comprehended by the provisions of the GMS and that there should be no charges for routine blood tests. As I mentioned, however, the issue of GPs charging GMS patients for phlebotomy services is complex and the Department and the HSE have discussed this issue with GP representatives. Unfortunately, it did not prove possible to reach agreement that no charges for blood tests would be applied in any circumstances, but it is intended to raise the issue again at an appropriate time. The HSE has put in place a process whereby the local health office will investigate on a case-by-case basis complaints from GMS patients who believe they have been inappropriately charged and will, where appropriate, arrange for a refund to the patient.

I have listened to the Deputy and will bring the issue to the Minister to try to get it resolved as quickly as possible. It is not satisfactory but issues need to be resolved between all the stakeholders. I hope they will be resolved as quickly as possible.

I am charged through Standing Orders with adjudicating on complaints from Deputies about responses to parliamentary questions or to Topical Issue matters, and I get many complaints. I would certainly welcome a complaint about this response because, while I do not in any way blame the Minister of State, who always comes to the House to do his very best, it seemed to be nothing more than an unadulterated fudge.

Drug Dealing

I welcome the Minister of State, Deputy Browne.

This matter arises from a meeting we had with community drug project managers last week. The meeting represented a cry for help and an appeal for help to the Minister of State and the Government in respect of the projects in Tallaght and Whitechurch and, I am sure, throughout the city and country. There is a new drugs crisis in our communities. Widespread crack cocaine use is devastating families. They are paying drug debts, unable to afford food or to heat their homes or pay for electricity, going to the local shops and having to give up all their money for debts in advance of getting to the shop to pay the bills or to buy food. It is horrendous. Abuse and addiction are deeply rooted societal issues connected to alienation, deprivation and so on, but one important part of the solution is the heroic work done by drug projects in our communities. They have suffered cuts and are scrambling around for funding, unable to do what they want to do. They need assistance.

As my constituency colleague said, this is a plea from and on behalf of those on the front line in meeting the consequences of drug misuse in our constituency, namely, the drugs and alcohol task forces and those who work with them. It is a plea for help, not just to the Department but also to the Departments of Health, Justice, Education and Children, Equality, Disability, Integration and Youth.

Without drugs task forces, children, sons, daughters, fathers and brothers would simply have nowhere to go to seek help. This House really has no idea of what these workers confront every day and every week. We have an opportunity to start again, to start afresh and to analyse the supports that are required, the interventions that are needed and whose responsibility it is to provide them. The only answer is for every stakeholder with a responsibility and a role to play in this area to come to the task forces' table and to be an active participant on a monthly basis. If these stakeholders play their role, we will look for the resources necessary to back up any required interventions.

My constituents should be able to go to their local shop to buy a newspaper or a pint of milk without having to pass through a gang of drug dealers. They should be able to go to their local medical centre without having to witness drug dealers buying or selling drug prescriptions from patients leaving the doctor's surgery. They should be able to go to their local post office without having to witness the drug dealers handing out children's allowance books to mothers who supposedly have a drug debt. The mothers collect the payment and then hand back the book. Children should be able to go to school without having to witness drug deals going down at the school gates, but this is happening. Children should not be going to sleep hungry, but this is also happening in my constituency. Many of them would not be fed if not for food parcels. My constituents who are in recovery and rehabilitation should not have to pass drug dealers outside the very services they attend for counselling and addiction supports.

I thank the Minister of State for his time in addressing this issue. I echo my colleagues' statements and reiterate the gravity of the situation in Dublin South-West. It is dire and, in the words of a local drug and alcohol task force worker, the area has become a drug trade ecosystem. It is necessary to work towards establishing safe zones protected by the Garda to allow people to go about their daily lives without feeling intimidated or fearing for their safety. I would appreciate it if the Minister of State would commit to considering this. I also ask the Minister of State to review the funding given to these task forces to sustain their projects considering the significant cuts in funding made due to the financial crash. Funding could potentially be drawn from the moneys seized by the Criminal Assets Bureau.

I thank the Deputies for raising this very important matter. I am acutely aware of the impact that open drug dealing and the associated intimidation is having on communities across the country. Organised criminal activity, including drug dealing, represents a serious threat to community safety but it is also important to remember that drug-related intimidation and open drug dealing cause sustained and significant damage to communities over time, contributing to a lower quality of life for local residents and an erosion of community esteem.

The continued disruption of the supply of illicit drugs, including crack cocaine, remains a priority for An Garda Síochána and the other State agencies tasked with responsibilities in this regard. A concerted effort has been made over the past year to ensure that the detection and prevention of these types of criminal activity are not adversely affected by the unprecedented demands placed on policing services by the vital enforcement of public health restrictions.

The Garda National Drugs and Organised Crime Bureau is having continued and significant success in disrupting drug trafficking and the supply of illicit drugs by organised crime groups. Its work is supported by divisional drug units which tackle drug-related crime locally throughout the country. There is collaboration with other law enforcement partners and by all gardaí working in local communities. Divisional drug units are now established in every Garda division.

Recent major seizures include €12 million worth of cocaine seized in a collaborative operation between the bureau and Revenue's customs services in Cork on 18 February and the seizure of €1.1 million worth of crack cocaine, cocaine and cannabis herb in an operation led by the district detective unit in Tallaght on 2 February. The Deputies may wish to note that the Garda National Drugs and Organised Crime Bureau has seized controlled substances worth a total of more than €26 million in the first two months of this year alone. I welcome these significant seizures and the reassurance that these policing successes bring to communities.

I can confirm that there was a 10.7% rise in the number of gardaí assigned to the Dublin metropolitan region south division between December 2017 and February 2021. The total number of members serving there is now 589. There has also been a significant rise in Garda civilian staff assigned to the division. There are now 55 such staff, an increase from 36 in 2017.

The Deputies will be aware that the Government has in place a national drugs strategy, Reducing Harm, Supporting Recovery, a health-led response to drug and alcohol use in Ireland for the period from 2017 to 2025. The strategy is unique among the national drugs strategies across EU member states in recognising the need to address drug-related debt and intimidation at a community level. An Garda Síochána is working to provide strong supports for those who fall victim to this behaviour. A Garda inspector is nominated in every Garda division and individuals and families experiencing intimidation can make contact with their local inspector through their local Garda station.

An Garda Síochána regards drug-related intimidation as a very serious issue and urges people to seek help and support from their local gardaí, even where a person has felt compelled to pay money to those engaged in drug-related intimidation.

This Government will continue to support the drug-related intimidation reporting programme developed by the National Family Support Network in partnership with An Garda Síochána to respond to the needs of drug users and families facing the threat of drug-related intimidation in line with the programme for Government.

The Minister of State's response really sums up the problem. That is not personal but the problem is summed up in the fact that it is the Minister of State, Deputy James Browne, giving the response rather than the Minister of State, Deputy Feighan, and the fact that the major thrust of the answer relates to justice, gardaí, extra resources and so on. This approach is not working. The crisis is getting worse. Those on the front line, who are playing a crucial role in helping a great many individuals with their problems, in helping to get free of drugs and in improving our communities, are not getting the support they need. There is a crisis with regard to funding. There have been cuts in direct funding and staff funding. Occasionally these services can get one-off funding for pilot programmes. If they then find the pilot programme works and want to keep it running, they cannot get more funding and have to try to get it from somewhere else.

I mentioned in my opening remarks that every Department - and I named them - needs to come to the table, to meet the drugs task forces and to make sure that the people who traditionally sat around this table but who have fallen away over the years get back to it. I welcome the Minister of State's comments about drug seizures but, with regard to the Criminal Assets Bureau, what could be more symbolic a gesture than the money found in the boot of a car on the Firhouse Road being returned to the community that is fighting drugs? I ask the Minister of State to make the case for finding a procedure to allow proceeds of the drugs trade found and seized by the bureau to be returned to the community to fight the scourge of drugs.

In his reply, the Minister of State said that this is a priority, but what exactly does that mean? Is the issue prioritised with regard to resources? The Minister of State talked about significant success and the seizures that have occurred. All of this is very welcome, but the reality is that it is not a success for a community if it is still suffering every day of the week. That is what my community is saying to the Minister of State here tonight. It is saying that we are not being successful but are actually failing the young people we represent. We are seeing open drug dealing every day of the week. Those who are at the other end of the issue and who are trying to get support have to run a gauntlet of drug dealers. It is wrong and we need to do things differently.

This is very simple. There are two issues involved; the task forces are seriously starved of funding and gardaí are just not doing anything and are letting this situation continue. That needs to be dealt with. Gardaí need to get tough on these guys and move them on while the funding issue must also be dealt with.

I reject the statement that gardaí are doing nothing and are simply letting things happen. That is not an acceptable statement to make about An Garda Síochána and about what its members are doing on the front line, especially during the Covid pandemic of the last year.

I understand the Deputies' justifiable concerns around drug dealing throughout our communities. The principal aim of the Department of Justice, An Garda Síochána and everybody under them is that we have safe communities. There are serious concerns around certain communities where people feel intimidated and under serious threat.

Under my remit, I will be bringing the youth justice strategy to the Cabinet table in the coming weeks. Within that, for the first time we are bringing all of the Departments together to tackle the issue of young people getting involved in crime. The Greentown project is targeting the disruption of criminal networks that are bringing young people into crime. We have the Probation Service, and the strategy itself will involve every community. We also have three pilot projects in community safety partnerships. These will effectively address what Deputy Lahart is talking about, namely, getting those people around the table. The community safety partnerships will set up a system somewhat similar to what local community development committees, LCDCs, work on by getting everybody around the table and working together to try to tackle the issues that are there. I will bring forward the issue of money seized by the Criminal Assets Bureau being reinvested into the local community. It is probably a matter for the Department of Finance in the first instance but I will bring that issue forward.

There are real concerns, I hear the Deputies and I will bring these concerns to the Minister to see how much further we can bring them. The youth justice strategy that is coming forward will not address all of these issues by any means, but it is possibly a strong template we can look at to work at getting everybody around the table together.

School Enrolments

I thank the Ceann Comhairle for selecting this Topical Issue matter and I thank the Minister of State for being here. Every year we have pressures in east Cork with regard to second level school places. Thanks to the work of the departmental officials, the education and training board and the principals of the local schools, it has been resolved every year, but every year it becomes more pressurised and it takes longer. I am sure the Minister of State will appreciate the stresses and worry that occur in families where a child does not have a place in a secondary school and that child is asking what is wrong with him or her and wondering why he or she has not been offered a place.

I am particularly concerned about this year. All of the principals came together earlier in the year and they compared notes, lists and so on, but from the work I have done on the ground, I am concerned there could be up to 100 students without school places in September unless serious action is taken. I wrote to the Minister on this last December. She responded to me after Christmas and I thank her and her office for that. She spoke about duplication of applications, school of choice, pupils being unable to get a place in their preferred school, some towns having single-sex schools, and an external draw with people coming from outside of the area. All of these issues have been dealt with by the principals and we still have a situation where in some schools there are up to 40 students who have not applied to any other school and who are on a waiting list to go to one particular school.

The principals are working hard, their staff are working hard and I pay tribute to what they have done over the Covid period but this is coming up fast and we need to get a plan in place now. We know it takes time to put a plan in place so that all of these students can be offered a place in September. The forward planning needs to be addressed. I am lucky to be in an area that is growing where more housing is being built and planned, and as we know, it takes quite a while to put a school in place. Some of the schools there are old, the buildings are old and the campuses are already very cramped and need to be replaced, especially St. Aloysius' College in Carrigtwohill and St. Mary's High School in Midleton. They could do with new campuses. A couple of years ago, Midleton CBS Secondary School got a brand new campus, and St. Colman's Community College in Midleton has also got a big extension. The area is growing rapidly and the waiting lists are there now. The principals have worked as hard as they can and I have spoken to quite a few of them.

The only entity that can deal with this and take a bird's eye view is the Department of Education. I know some of the officials are seized of this but I ask them to redouble their efforts, engage with the schools, double-check the lists, find out exactly what the real number is with respect to children who do not have a place, and work hard to make those places available. I know my other Oireachtas colleagues are available to assist and support with our local knowledge if that is required or helpful.

On that issue, we have been arguing for quite a while about a new second level school in Carrigtwohill. It has been in the planning process for a long time. We are told the tenders will be issued at the end of the first quarter, which is very soon. The students in that excellent school are in temporary accommodation and they have been there for quite a while. We need that school to advance. It will possibly take two years to build before students can go in the front door.

The Ceann Comhairle will appreciate my concern that, at the end of August and in early September, we will still have students without school places. What do we tell the parents? Where are these children to go? What is the solution? It is serious and urgent. I need officials from the Department to drill down into the waiting lists and figures and come up with answers and solutions on accommodation for these children pretty soon.

I thank the Deputy for raising this matter as it gives me the opportunity to outline for the House the position with regard to post-primary school development in east Cork. To plan for school provision and to analyse the relevant demographic data, the Department divides the country into 314 school planning areas and uses a geographic information system, GIS. The GIS uses data from a range of sources, including child benefit data from the Department of Social Protection and the Department's school enrolment databases, to identify where the pressure for school places across the country will arise.

This process has been strengthened this year through three specific initiatives. First, there has been enhanced engagement with local authorities on the information on residential development incorporated in the analytical process. Second, there has been additional engagement with patron bodies on their local knowledge on school place requirements. Education and training boards, diocesan offices and national patron bodies such as Educate Together and An Foras Pátrúnachta can also be important sources of local knowledge. This will add to information provided to the Department by local authorities or individual schools. Third, there is a utilising of information which is gleaned from schools under the national inventory of school capacity, which was completed by individual schools last year as part of the primary online database, POD, and post-primary online database, P-POD, returns process.

Where data indicate additional provision is required at primary or post-primary level, the delivery of such additional provision is dependent on the particular circumstances of each case. It may be provided through either one of the following measures or a combination of them: utilising existing unused capacity within a school or schools, extending the capacity of a school or schools, or provision of a new school if and where required. In a regular year, addressing the increased demand for school places, while challenging, is manageable. Generally, there is a utilisation of existing spare capacity within schools, rental, temporary accommodation or other short-term measures, pending the delivery of permanent accommodation.

Where capacity issues arise, it may not be as a result of lack of accommodation but may be driven by other factors. The Deputy mentioned the Minister wrote to him after Christmas and outlined the matter of the duplication of applications. The Deputy mentioned the principals say they have dealt with this and I will inform the Minister of that. That is a factor that is taken into account. The duplication of applications occurs when pupils have applied for a place to a number of schools in an area. School of choice is another factor whereby pupils cannot get a place in their preferred school, while there are places in other schools in the town or area. Some towns or areas have single-sex schools, and while places are available in that school, they are not available to all pupils. An external draw also takes place, whereby pupils are coming from outside the local area.

Similar to the process adopted in advance of the current academic year, the Department has been engaging with patron bodies in east Cork to identify particular capacity requirements for the forthcoming year which may necessitate action. I heard the figure the Deputy mentioned. I understand this process is nearing completion and the schools in the area will be in a position to offer additional places in the coming weeks.

It is also open to patrons of schools to submit applications for additional interim accommodation to the Department for consideration should this be required.

I thank the Minister of State for her response. I note the three points she made. She spoke about availing of unused capacity. However, all the schools are full and they all have waiting lists. She also suggested extending capacity. Some of the schools cannot do that because, physically, it is very difficult for them to do that. Two of the schools will probably need a brand-new campus because they are old and already stretched to the limit. I would welcome a new school but that will take some time to be delivered.

I ask the Minister to keep me and my colleagues apprised of the figures that have been made available to the Department. I am concerned about patrons asking for extra accommodation because there is no compulsion or onus on them to do that. If schools are already stretched to the limit and do not have space, they will be slow to do that. We must also consider health and safety requirements. If a school is already creaking under the number of students it has and cannot take any more physically, it is unsafe and unfair to shoehorn more students in there for want of a better way of putting it. That is also wrong.

There may be other solutions involving other buildings in the area that might be utilised in the interim. There are plans to build more houses in the area for young families. Indeed, more houses are being built in the area and are coming on stream quickly. We need advance planning in order to have more secondary school places. I listened to the earlier debate on further education. Students need the best of facilities that we can offer. They need gymnasiums and other physical education facilities, science labs, workshops and so forth. In some instances, these can only be provided by building new schools.

I recognise that departmental officials have been working on this matter. I ask them to redouble their efforts. This is serious. Even with what they have planned already, we could still have up to 100 students without places in September and I am at a loss to know what they will do. I ask the Minister of State to take those issues back to the Department. I thank her for being here and for her words.

I thank the Deputy for raising his concerns on the matter. Obviously, it is critical from the perspective of the Department and of the Minister, Deputy Foley, that we do not just provide school places for the existing school-going children but also forward plan into the future as the Deputy correctly stated in his contribution. That is why the mechanisms by which we do our forward planning are used by the Department. For example, I mentioned the GIS earlier for the 314 school planning areas and that needs to be done.

I understand that there have been ongoing conversations with the patron bodies. We do not want any child to be without a school place in September, let alone the 100 children the Deputy mentioned. I understand how the Department will meet those capacity challenges. One of the ways of doing that is by accelerating the delivery of school building projects. There are 200 ongoing building projects and some of these will provide additional accommodation. They will also accelerate the delivery of small-scale projects which are currently at the preplanning stage. In addition, they will deploy prefabricated modular accommodation solutions to provide additional classroom capacity where it is required.

The Department can also rent available spaces within the community for use by schools. All these mechanisms will be used where necessary. There are three very strong post primary schools in east Cork: the Ballincollig school; the new post-primary Carrigtwohill community college - I acknowledge that a permanent building is still to be constructed; and the new post-primary school in the Cork south suburbs. I reassure the Deputy that I will take his concerns back to the Minister and ensure that every child in east Cork will have a secondary school place in September.

Gorse Burning

I thank the Minister of State for coming to the House. As he is aware, just four days ago, on Sunday 7 March, 18 firefighters, two Civil Defence units and the National Parks and Wildlife Service tackled a large gorse fire at Scarr Mountain in County Wicklow. This fire ended up scorching 50 ha of land designated as a special area of conservation, which is our national park in Wicklow. These gorse fires are illegal from 1 March and this fire marks the start of the illegal fire season, which is a cyclical event that causes untold environmental, human and economic damage, not to mention putting firefighters, the Air Corps and emergency workers at risk.

Last year, a disproportionate number of illegal fires occurred in the Wicklow Mountains National Park. There were six as of June 2020 with one other major fire recorded in Killarney. More than 400 ha of protected land as well as wildlife were destroyed. In one area of commonage in the park, there have been illegal fires on the same land for 11 of the 19 years up to 2019. This land will take years to recover from an environmental perspective. The fire damage has been so frequent and intense that the land may never recover. It is not just from an environmental perspective because the burning of this land also impacted heavily on the air quality in the area, on the headwaters of the Liffey and on drinking water piped into Dublin.

Illegal fires on that scale also contribute greatly to our carbon dioxide emissions which we struggle to try to drive down. From an environmental and biodiversity perspective, they are devastating. It can take years for land to recover and for wildlife to recover. They are devastating for wildlife and for bird populations. According to Birdwatch Ireland, red grouse, whinchat, meadow pipit and amber-listed species including skylark and stonechat are most at risk from gorse fires. Of course, for any birds that are breeding at the time, their nests and their young could be burnt, and it will stop them from foraging for food in nearby areas.

My constituents, both urban and rural, are tired of these fires happening every year. They are tired of seeing our firefighters having to fight fires that should not be happening in the first place. They are tired of the pollution and the threat to lives and property, and of the damage to our wildlife and to our national park. When I was first elected, I spoke about these fires and we are here again saying the same things and asking the same questions. We need to tackle the problem properly. The measures that have been put in place so far are not achieving what we need them to achieve. We cannot tolerate these fires anymore. We need to put a major effort into ensuring they do not happen.

I welcome that the Minister of State visited this site this week and I thank him for coming to Wicklow to check the land out. However, we need to see tangible action. What actions is the Minister of State taking to ensure these fires are stopped once and for all?

I visited the Wicklow Mountains National Park this week and I met Wesley Atkinson and Hugh McAlinden, two members of the National Parks and Wildlife Service team the Deputy knows. I witnessed at first hand very significant damage to the habitat there. It was quite disturbing to see it close up.

I thank our team in the National Parks and Wildlife Service, the fire service, An Garda Síochána, the Civil Defence and all who worked to tackle this blaze and are continuing to work throughout the country. Similar fires have taken place in the Slieve Bloom Mountains and on Brandon Hill in my county.

These wildfires do not occur naturally in Ireland. The main cause of such conflagrations is thought to be the deliberate starting of fires without concern for the emergency services, the wildlife habitat, communities or even private property close by. Important upland habitats are destroyed with local wildlife potentially killed or displaced at a critical time of year for many species. These sites are special areas of conservation and among the most precious places in Ireland for nature, and home to thriving populations of rare bird species. Setting these fires is absolutely criminal and an all-too-frequent tragedy. These fires impact on water quality and on soil stability, on climate and on human health.

As the Deputy will appreciate, Wicklow Mountains National Park comprises more than 20,000 ha and so it is very difficult to provide a visible presence on the ground to discourage and prevent unauthorised burning in the countryside. Equally, trying to identify the culprits - those who deliberately set fires in open areas without concern for the consequences - can be difficult. The Deputy made that case in regard to an area that has been burned 11 times. It is very difficult.

In the past week, the National Parks and Wildlife Service, NPWS, has deployed increased fire patrols at our sites and remains in close liaison with the Garda and the fire services. These patrols have targeted known fire high risk areas. Where appropriate, cross compliance is pursued with the Department of Agriculture, Food and the Marine. My staff are committed to finding solutions to these fires and I call on all stakeholders, including the local communities, to work with us to find a way forward. Where evidence is forthcoming, we will pursue appropriate enforcement under the Wildlife Act or other legislation. Section 40 of the Wildlife Acts 1976 to 2012 prohibits the cutting, grubbing, burning or destruction of vegetation, with certain strict exemptions, from 1 March to 31 August, during the nesting and breeding season for birds and wildlife. Burning of vegetation on uncultivated land is prohibited without exception during these dates. These fires are criminal and frequently end in tragedy.

Considerable inter-agency efforts have been made to reduce the incidence of wildland fires, led by my colleague, the Minister for Agriculture, Food and the Marine, whose Department monitors conditions and issues wildland fire warning notices. That Department has led inter-agency reviews with a view to enhancing the mitigation of wildland fires.

The main challenges include encouraging members of the public, including landowners, farmers and recreational users of publicly accessible land, to act responsibly at all times, to be mindful of their own safety and the safety of others, to be mindful of the need to protect property both publicly owned and privately owned, to appreciate the value of our natural heritage, particularly in our national parks, nature reserves and designated Natura 2000 sites. I appeal to all members of the public to be conscious of the danger posed by fire - any fire - but particularly a fire on open ground which can very quickly get out of control. We have all seen how homes and lives can be threatened and we have seen also the damage to the landscape and to valuable habitats caused by uncontrolled fires. Largely, it is a question of individuals being more responsible about actions they take and being mindful of the potential damage to life, private property and public property that can be caused by carelessly setting fires.

I thank the Minister of State. I welcome that national parks are being tasked with more intensive targeted measures, but, unfortunately, it seems to me like it is more of the same. Each year this happens, there are calls for more penalties and greater investigations, but each year it happens. We need a rethink and to look again at how we are managing this problem because the solutions that are being put in place are not working. Fundamentally, it comes down to the fact that we are talking about a national park, an area that is one of our few protected areas in the country, and we do not even have a management plan for it. We do not have a plan that states biodiversity protection is the number one priority in this area. That is key. None of our national parks has a management plan. It is a derogation of our duty not to have such plans in place.

The second issue we need to look at is why people are burning. People know it is not good to do it. They know it is not good for the land or their neighbours. They know also that it is not good to have firefighters trying to put out these fires. Why then are they burning? They are doing so because the policies of the Department of Agriculture, Food and the Marine over years incentivise them to burn. The Department has identified land that is deemed marginal and scrubby and it will not make payments on land in that condition. Essentially, we are saying to farmers that if they want payment for that land they need to make it productive. We need to flip that on its head. We need to make sure that farmers are paid to protect our land and that we value what they are doing in protecting our biodiversity, our environment, our soil, our trees and so on. We need to rethink and flip what we are doing on its head because what we are doing is not working. We need to work with farmers and local communities and put in place measures that will work.

I ask the Minister of State to establish a task force comprising officials from the Departments of Agriculture, Food and the Marine, Housing, Local Government and Heritage and Environment, Climate and Communications to look again at how this is happening and to work with the farming community, the ecologists and the local communities to make sure that measures that will work and achieve our aims are put in place.

In terms of reassurance, it is important to note that significant conversations are taking place in regard to the next CAP strategic plan, looking at results-based payments for Natura 2000 sites, special protected areas, SPAs, and special areas of conservation, SACs. Those conversations are ongoing. It is fair to say that there has been a significant increase in investment in our national parks and nature reserves. We are employing additional park rangers and ecologists throughout the country. There is a significant challenge there, but that challenge is being met by Government acting to try to respond. I understand from the conversation I had on Tuesday last with the rangers on the ground that it is notoriously difficult to secure prosecutions and to catch people in these situations. Increased patrols, drones and other technologies to help in that regard are being deployed at all times, along with the additional work with the fire services.

I assure the Deputy that in regard to these incidents the Department of Housing, Local Government and Heritage, the National Parks and Wildlife Service and the Department of Agriculture, Food and the Marine are working closely to try to tackle the root cause of these fires. The Deputy is correct in terms of the eligibility around farm payments. The Department of Agriculture, Food and the Marine has made clear that clearing lands of scrub will not be a conditionality of additional payments the following year. The Department is being clear in its messaging to landowners.

It is important as we enter into an opening up of the country in the coming months that everybody behaves responsibly around our uplands, nature reserves and national parks because they are a huge asset and have proven to be a huge asset to us over the past year in particular. I assure the Deputy that we will do all we can to try to eliminate this problem.

Gabhaim buíochas leis an Aire Stáit agus leis an Teachta. Leis sin, táimid tagtha go dtí deireadh na seachtaine. Bíodh Lá Fhéile Pádraig taitneamhach agaibh uilig. Tá an Dáil ar athló go dtí 10 a.m. Dé Céadaoin, 24 Márta, anseo san ionad.

Written Answers are published on the Oireachtas website.
The Dáil adjourned at 8.17 p.m. until 10 a.m. on Wednesday, 24 March 2021.