Saincheisteanna Tráthúla - Topical Issue Debate

Covid-19 Pandemic Supports

I and the other Deputies raising this issue are making a plea to the Government. The issue was raised by Deputy Joan Collins during Questions on Promised Legislation earlier. We are seeking a change to the regulations in respect of groups such as the Ballyfermot Sports Complex, which is located on Gurteen Avenue. It is a wonderful sports complex that has been open since 1985. It has had to change its modus operandi over the years but, basically, it is used by an impressive number of community associations, groups, youth clubs, schools and local projects. Even prison officers from Wheatfield Prison benefit from the use of its squash courts. There are soccer, GAA, boxing, martial arts and indoor handball clubs that use the complex. You name it and the Ballyfermot Sports Complex can cater for it. In normal times, it does so in a very efficient manner. However, we are living in abnormal times. The complex has lost income during the Covid restrictions and is finding it very difficult to manage financially. We need measures to be brought in to give the complex access to the supports of which other companies and associations can avail. I will let the other Deputies elaborate in that regard.

As Deputy Bríd Smith stated, Deputy Joan Collins raised this issue earlier today with the Tánaiste, Deputy Varadkar, who indicated that there is an anomaly whereby a facility such as this cannot access the grants that other facilities can. For instance, the Pobal grant is available for community sports facilities with a swimming pool. The Ballyfermot complex does not have a swimming pool but it caters for the more than 80,000 people who go through its doors each year. There is a shortfall because those people have not come through its doors in the past year as the hall has been closed due to Covid restrictions. It complied fully in that regard yet it has outlays, such as insurance and upkeep of the building, which cannot be met without income from the many clubs and schools that use it.

The school next door to the complex is more than 60 years old and does not have a sports hall yet it is a DEIS band 2 school which caters for 300 children. It uses the hall for sports and recreation activities. There is an urgent need to ensure that this facility and similar facilities and halls around the country which cannot avail of the current schemes because they are not-for-profit organisations, are not registered for VAT or do not have swimming pools can access some type of grant aid.

I echo the strong words of my constituency colleagues. Ballyfermot Sports Centre is at the heart of the community. When its representatives met me and the other Deputies, they stressed its importance to the community and the significant number of schools, community groups, clubs and associations that use its facilities. It has a significant impact on the community at large as it provide alternatives to the antisocial behaviour that is often discussed in the House. It is a real success story and it needs to be supported.

The anomaly whereby the complex does not qualify for Covid support schemes or any of the grants really needs to be corrected. As Deputy Ó Snodaigh noted, it is unlikely to be the only organisation in this boat. We need to find ways to support such organisations not just to keep the jobs going and facilities open, but also to recognise their valuable contribution to the communities in which they are based.

I thank the Deputies for raising this matter. We know that Covid-19 has imposed a severe economic shock which poses many challenges across the economy and society more broadly. Its impacts are particularly strongly felt in the sporting and community and voluntary sectors. While level 5 restrictions include the closure of many business premises in non-essential retail, personal and business services and construction, the restrictions have also impacted on the services provided by the community and voluntary sector across the country. As a result of the sacrifices of all parts of the economy and society, we now have a roadmap for moving to a reopening of the country, as announced on Tuesday by the Taoiseach. That will benefit the community sector as well as the catering, wholesale, distribution, hospitality and tourism sectors.

As the Deputies are aware, the Covid restrictions support scheme, CRSS, benefits the many premises that are consumer-facing and to which public access is now restricted. Although the CRSS has provided significant and welcome aid for a large number of businesses, the Government is aware that some classes of business fall outside its legislative remit. Although the Department of Enterprise, Trade and Employment does not have policy responsibility for the community and voluntary sector, which is the responsibility of my colleague, the Minister for Rural and Community Development, Deputy Humphreys, we are endeavouring to help those parts of the community sector that are trading through our €60 million small business assistance scheme for Covid, SBASC. These businesses in the community sector include charity shops, which are not eligible for the CRSS. We are also helping businesses in sports clubs that operate from those rateable premises, such as caterers and other service providers.

The community business restrictions support scheme which the Deputies are seeking is a matter for my colleague, the Minister for Rural and Community Development. As the Deputies will be aware, the Department of Rural and Community Development has already introduced assistance for the sector through schemes including the €10 million Covid-19 stability fund for community and voluntary organisations, charities and social enterprises. My colleague, the Minister of State, Deputy Joe O'Brien, announced the scheme on 11 December last, under which €45 million is available to the sector. I understand that the Department of Rural and Community Development also ran two rounds of a Covid-19 emergency fund during 2020. The second round, comprising €1.7 million, was focused on providing small grants towards adapting premises and assisting with the Government's Keep Well campaign, but also provided small grants towards operational costs of community groups where needed. The fund closed in February.

We are providing assistance through the wage subsidy scheme, of which I am sure community groups and enterprises such as the one in question are availing. However, I am listening to the Deputies. It is clear that if the grants to which I have referred were of benefit to the fantastic community facility in question, they would not be in here making a case for it to be provided financial assistance. I do not have the jurisdiction or authority to state that I can open a new scheme this evening. The matter does not even come under the remit of my Department. However, I will give a commitment to bring the matter back to the relevant Ministers at the Department with responsibility for the community business in question, that is, the Minister and the Minister of State, and relay to them the points the Deputies have raised. As Deputies Ó Snodaigh and Costello noted, this issue is not exclusive to the Ballyfermot complex. It is having an impact on other community facilities around the country. To be fair, when my Department has seen businesses falling through the cracks and unable to avail of schemes, we have come forward with new schemes. There is an onus and a responsibility on us to come forward to help businesses such as this one.

I will give an undertaking to bring back this matter to the relevant Ministers on foot of the representations this evening.

We appreciate the positive response from the Minister of State and look forward to the Government going back and looking again at the schemes and the benefits that may be available. We are representatives of Dublin South-Central and it is important that the Ballyfermot club remains in situ. It is an interesting club because it is lean in its staff and flexible with the community but it caters for a huge number of groups and individuals and schools. I think it is worth a little bit of flexibility from the Department and all Ministers concerned to look at ways in which it can be supported. We have all said this. The issue goes beyond the boundaries of Ballyfermot. There are bound to be hundreds of other projects like it around the country that have been affected. We will bring this information back to the people who run the club and the community. We appreciate the positivity that the Minister of State has displayed tonight and look forward to a resolution. I thank the Minister of State and the Department.

Like my colleague, Deputy Bríd Smith, I thank the Minister of State. This is obviously an anomaly but it is not one that applies only to Ballyfermot sports complex. There will be other such cases because Ballyfermot sports complex is not unique in the way it runs its business. It is probably unique in many ways, given the amount of people who are dependent on it. We are coming out of Covid-19 restrictions and I hope that the likes of these halls will be able to deliver services and cater for groups as it has done in the past but that will not happen without some level of grant aid and help.

The Ballyfermot sports complex has an impressive list of groups for which it caters. The list includes: Mary Queen of Angels national school; Ballyfermot youth service; Ballyfermot Youthreach; Kylemore College, Ballyfermot; Ballyfermot Candle Centre; Lifestart, Cherry Orchard; Caritas College, Ballyfermot; De La Salle GAA club; St. Patrick's GAA club, Palmerstown; Ballyfermot kenpo club; Ballyfermot martial arts club; Irish dancing; ballroom dancing; roller hockey club; Gurteen Youth Club; after-school sports clubs; soccer clubs; the Dublin-Philippines basketball club; late night crime diversion soccer programme; and the Ballyfermot Gymnastics Club. The staff of Wheatfield Prison use the complex for squash and the Traveller community uses it for handball. That is the considerable reach of the complex.

I thank the Deputy. Deputies Healy-Rae would not have done better in listing all those groups.

I am here a long time.

Deputy Ó Snodaigh has gone easy on the number of people in the community who benefit from the sports complex to show how valuable it is. I thank the Minister of State for his flexibility and positive answer. We look forward to working together on this.

The Deputies have made the valid point that these community groups provide an invaluable service right across each of our constituencies. The Deputies have made their point well tonight about Ballyfermot. The Government is committed to supporting the people, businesses and communities in this difficult time. I reassure the Deputies that my Department and those of my ministerial colleagues in other Departments are keeping programmes that are administered by the Departments under constant review. I alluded to the new programme that we launched, the small business aid scheme. It was launched as a direct result and consequence of the fact that many groups were excluded from the Covid restriction support scheme, CRSS, as was identified to us. We have demonstrated that when something is brought to our attention, we want to intervene. This issue has been brought to my attention by the Deputies this evening and I will revert to the Minister, Deputy Humphreys, and the Minister of State, Deputy Joe O'Brien, who are the responsible representatives in the Department and I will articulate to them what the Deputies have said to me. I will ask them to converse directly with the Deputies in the hope that we can offer some assistance within the confines of the available budgets.

Dental Services

I thank the Ceann Comhairle for allowing me the opportunity to raise this issue with the Minister. Dentistry and orthodontics, obviously, play important roles in keeping people healthy. People who have problems with their teeth and gums can find they leads to other, associated physical problems but they can also lead to psychological and esteem issues, particularly for young people. From the point of view of physical health, we know the importance of looking after our teeth. We must also remember the cosmetic reasons why people want to have a good-looking smile. It helps with self-esteem. It helps people to feel more confident in themselves and, naturally, that means they are happier.

My Topic Issue matter refers to the orthodontic care system. The HSE states that:

A patient may be referred by a primary care clinician for initial orthodontic assessment. In general, this referral takes place around the ages of 11-13 years of age ... but can be provided anytime up to 16 years of age.

Based on that, it would be safe to assume that between the ages of 11 and 13 and up to the age of 16 are the best times for these assessments and interventions to begin. No such assumption should be made. I will give some examples of the correspondence I am receiving on the topic. I will be referring to the parents of a constituent of mine whose details I have also emailed to the Minister's office. A parent told me about receiving the very good news that their 15-year-old daughter qualifies for free dental braces as her teeth are deemed bad enough to qualify for free dental assistance. She has already waited three extra years from her sixth class appointment with an orthodontist; such a consultation usually takes place when a child is aged 12. The parent went on to say that one could imagine how horrified they were to be told that it will be an extra six years before they hear about her next appointment in County Wexford. The girl in question is now 15 and will have to wait until she is 21 years old to have braces fitted. She is distraught, as are her parents.

A letter from another parent stated that their child was assessed by a HSE orthodontist in Enniscorthy on 8 June 2018. The parent was informed that the child would definitely qualify for dental treatment through the HSE as he is an extreme case but there is a four-year waiting list. The parent was extremely shocked by this but reassured by the orthodontist as she explained that this would be the optimal time for the child. The parent rang the orthodontist's department during the first lockdown but the phone was not answered and no one responded to the parent's voicemail. The parent finally managed to get through last week and was horrified, upset and frustrated to be told by the secretary that the child, Robbie, will have to wait for another three years. That waiting list has now gone from four years to six years.

This is the reality for many parents and patients. I wrote to the Minister of State's Department a couple of weeks ago. I received a response to the effect that the waiting list is now approximately 72 months' duration. Due to the Covid-19 pandemic and the additional measures in place, the orthodontic department has reduced capacity and has been unable to take any new patients off the treatment waiting list since March 2020.

With all of that information in mind, and given how important the scheme is, will the Minister of State outline when the system will resume taking new patients from the treatment waiting list which has now been suspended since March 2020? What steps are being taken to reduce and speed up waiting list times? A six-year waiting list clearly means that there are major problems in the system and something has to be done urgently. These issues also come on the back of Wexford General Hospital having an increase of 69%, accumulating now to almost 5,300 patients on a waiting list. We have had no psychologist or dietician in the children and adolescent mental health service, CAMHS, for nearly three years. There is now also no podiatrist at Wexford General Hospital.

I thank the Deputy for the opportunity to address the issue of waiting lists for orthodontic services on behalf of the Minister, Deputy Stephen Donnelly. The HSE provides orthodontic treatment to those who have the greatest level of need and have been assessed and referred for treatment before their 16th birthday. An orthodontic assessment determines if the referral meets the criteria for the service and, if so, what priority the patient is given. Those with the greatest clinical need are prioritised.

Orthodontic services are generally provided by orthodontic consultants and specialist orthodontists who are based in the HSE orthodontic clinics throughout the country and, in addition, orthodontic therapists assist in providing services in some areas.

The Minister and I accept that there are significant delays in accessing some services provided by the HSE, caused in part by the necessary concentration of resources on managing the current Covid-19 pandemic. I also acknowledge that prior to the pandemic, there were already ongoing difficulties which led to lengthy waiting periods in accessing orthodontic services. Waiting lists vary regionally and according to the complexity of the condition. There are generally longer waiting lists for the least complex care. At the end of 2019, more than 10,000 children were awaiting assessment, while 19,000 were awaiting treatment. However, a further 17,000 children were in active treatment. I do not have total waiting figures for 2020 because the staff involved have been redeployed. However, I am aware that the service has experienced 12 months of continual disruption because of the pandemic. The Minister is informed by the HSE that during 2020, more than 9,200 orthodontic patients were seen for assessment and 1,466 patients commenced active treatment.

Elective orthodontic services have gradually resumed. Social distancing and other organisational measures, as well as infection prevention and control guidance, mean that the usual throughput of patients is currently reduced but this is expected to improve over time. Difficulties in recruiting consultant and specialist orthodontists in some parts of the country have added to this problem. The HSE is putting in place a number of measures to address waiting times. The filling of permanent vacancies is being prioritised, with recruitment to fill two consultant posts ongoing. A treatment waiting list initiative between 2016 and 2020 resulted in 1,996 patients being placed in treatment with service providers at a total cost of €5.8 million. A new initiative to outsource treatment for patients with less complex orthodontic needs who have been waiting for more than four years is now at invitation to tender stage. This will provide treatment for approximately 300 patients annually at a cost of €1 million. It is anticipated that the first group of patients will be allocated to service providers in the second half of 2021.

The HSE is also developing a standardised approach to assessment with consultant and specialist orthodontists and annual training for referring dentists. The purpose of this is to ensure that all referrals will receive an orthodontic assessment within six months and that the number of inappropriate referrals will be reduced. Access to orthodontic treatment in another EU jurisdiction is available under the EU cross-border healthcare directive for patients who are already on an orthodontic treatment waiting list. Many patients in Border areas accessed care in Northern Ireland through this route pre-Brexit. A total of 342 patients accessed cross-Border care in 2020. This is being continued through the Northern Ireland planned healthcare scheme.

I reiterate that the Minister, Deputy Stephen Donnelly, and I fully acknowledge that the waiting lists for essential orthodontic treatment are unacceptable and we want to see real improvement this year with the significant funding that the Government has made available for enhanced community care.

I am very disappointed that somebody at the Minister of State's level would come into this House and restate what we can read on a website. These parents want to know when their children will receive treatment. As the Minister of State knows perfectly well, waiting lists have not fallen in years, so I do not know where the expectation comes from that they will definitely come down. I have information that was revealed in 2019 in a parliamentary question tabled by the current Minister for Health, Deputy Donnelly, to the then Minister for Health. At that stage, the number on the waiting list in County Wexford stood at 10,586. I cannot imagine the size of the waiting list at this stage because ,like the Minister of State, Deputy Feighan, I am unable to get the current figures. With due respect to the people of Wexford, waiting lists in every area of health in the county are growing.

I am sick of telling people there is a cross-Border initiative. We are talking about children. Orthodontics is a very specialised area and nobody wants to have to travel for four or five hours to get treatment. The process is not the same in that one must pay for the treatment and then apply for a rebate. The system is not simple and it does not work. It certainly does not serve to reduce the waiting lists. I am very disappointed that in spite of the notification of the question, the Minister of State has literally read out in the Dáil the first three paragraphs of a 21-page reply provided by the HSE in 2019. People require an answer and he has not provided one. They need the waiting lists to come down. The necessary orthodontic services should be in place. The pain and anguish orthodontic problems are causing children have increased their anxiety levels and this is causing gross mental health issues. I urge the Minister of State to address the issue in a fair-minded manner. It is not just that we do not have an orthodontist. We do not have our fair share and we have the highest waiting list in the country.

I am aware of the difficulties experienced by young people, especially in Wexford, as Deputy Murphy articulated, who have been waiting a long time for orthodontic treatment. As I outlined to the House, the Department and the HSE will undertake a number of initiatives to address waiting lists for orthodontic care.

Work is ongoing with Sláintecare, in conjunction with the HSE and the National Treatment Purchase Fund, and community waiting lists will be included in the plan. The Government is committed in the coming years to the transformation of oral healthcare services in accordance with the guiding principles set out in Smile agus Sláinte, the national oral health policy, which was published in 2019. With regard to orthodontic services, this policy supports the delivery of some orthodontic procedures in primary care dental practices, supported by clinical care pathways.

I acknowledge that there are issues and I thank the Deputy for raising them. I will convey the points she has made to the Minister and ask if he can provide her with further figures. The groundwork is being laid for the transformation of oral health services. The Deputy knows that from her involvement with Sláintecare. We will try to work within the Sláintecare agenda to deliver for the needs of people and make the provision of local services paramount.

I accept that issues arise in terms of people having to pay upfront for services provided through the cross-Border initiative. I will speak to the Minister and see if there is any way we can resolve the issue.

Banking Sector

I thank Deputy Verona Murphy for raising the issue of orthodontics because it comes across my desk all the time. Access to training for orthodontists is an issue we must address as well.

I will talk about a banking forum. A few weeks ago, the Dáil debated the current banking situation in Ireland. I think we would all agree that we are at a moment of great difficulty. We had the announcement by Ulster Bank that it is withdrawing from the Irish market. Hot on the heels of that came Bank of Ireland's announcement of the closure of almost 100 of its branches. During the debate, Deputies from every party and Independent group spoke of the high level of distress in communities and their worries about losing local bank branches and access to banking services. This is a matter of financial inclusion. Financial inclusion and access to bank services are closely linked to the ability to access money and use it well.

We heard that there is a real concern about competitiveness in the banking sector and that having two pillar banks operating here is not competitive. We have a banking duopoly. We heard that financial products may become more profit driven. We already have one of the most expensive mortgage products in Europe. Most important, the Minister for Finance, in response to questions from me and other Deputies on whether there is any expectation of another pillar bank entering the Irish market, stated the answer was "No". It is not that the banks leaving the market were not making a profit. They were just not making enough profit. In those circumstances, it is very hard to see how another bank would enter the Irish market.

The issues facing people in the context of banking speak very much to some of the discussions we have had today on regional access and development. There was a very good announcement from the Government this week about rural funding and the ability to work remotely, and concentrating on and trying to support local and regional communities and areas in Ireland. If SMEs do not have access to credit, much of our good work will be undone. We know from the research that having a local bank branch and a relationship with the manager of it has an impact greater than 50% on whether an SME is comfortable accessing credit. We know in Ireland that SMEs do not access enough credit.

We are now facing into the ramifications of Brexit and Covid and the post-Covid recovery. The Financial Services Union, FSU, has called for a banking forum so that we can get all of this stuff on the table and look at it in detail, and have all of the players in the banking sector in a room together to discuss it. As we face into the post-Covid recovery, people's ability to access credit will be of paramount importance. If a local bank branch is closing and one is not able to walk down the road to another branch and talk to a manager, that will impact on people's immediate experience of financial inclusion and also on our national recovery from the pandemic.

I ask the Minister of State to indicate whether the Department will set up a banking forum. By a banking forum, I do not just mean the Minister for Finance or the officials from the Department of Public Expenditure and Reform sitting in a room with pillar banks and, perhaps, the Central Bank. We want credit unions, post offices and labour unions at the table and a truly inclusive discussion on what should be the future of banking.

I thank the Deputy for raising this issue. As she is aware, the FSU has suggested the establishment of a banking forum involving all relevant stakeholders coming together to discuss the future of banking in Ireland.

When the Minister for Finance met the FSU last December, he highlighted that he did not think that our Department should participate in such a forum. His concern in this regard was that the participation of a competent authority in the formulation of proposals and recommendations which would then be submitted to Government for objective consideration by the same authorities did not present a model of good governance. However, he assured the FSU that he and officials in his Department would examine any proposals or outputs from the FSU or a banking forum organised by it, should it be established. His position has not changed since that meeting.

Earlier this month, the FSU published a discussion paper on the future of banking in Ireland. It set out a number of principles for the forum, including that it would be organised under the auspices of the Government and would meet approximately four times a year, which implies a permanent or semi-permanent structure. The FSU believes that this forum should include all stakeholders, including the banks, customers, staff, management, trade unions, business and employers' groups and community interests. The paper also sets out a wide range of topics the forum could discuss, including, among others, the lack of public trust in banks, the issue of artificial intelligence in banking, the closure or downgrading of branches and ATMs, financial exclusion, illiteracy and digital exclusion and banking culture, ethics and whistleblower protection. Trying to address such a broad range of difficult topics in the suggested structure may prove challenging and, in an ever-changing environment, will need a rapid response.

The programme for Government highlights the importance of social dialogue and open engagement with all sectors of society. Accordingly, the Minister and our Department are happy to engage with all stakeholders in an appropriate manner. In that context, the Minister engaged with the FSU last year on the strategic review of Ulster Bank. In addition, he met the FSU on the day NatWest announced the outcome of that review. He also gave a commitment to further engagement with the FSU regarding Ulster Bank.

Last Tuesday, I met the FSU to discuss a number of matters relating to the banking forum. Officials from the Department will meet the FSU to discuss its discussion paper in the coming weeks.

The Central Bank and the Department regularly hold public consultation on policy matters. The Department has conducted several public consultations on financial services in the past 18 months, including on corporate bonds and the risk reduction measures package. These consultations are open to all sectors and allow all interested parties to make a submission.

I recognise that the FSU is trying to represent most of the 23,000 staff in the main banks in the Republic of Ireland. We are all very concerned and want to assist in every way to make sure there is a viable banking service available to the public in the future.

The Central Bank is also finalising plans for a public consultation on a substantial update of the consumer protection code. The update will address the emerging trends and risks in financial services to ensure the code continue to deliver strong protections for consumers in the future. Proposals on how to strengthen the consumer protection code and access to banking can be dealt with in that context. The Central Bank expects that the public consultation will commence during the course of this year.

I thank the Minister of State for his reply. Not to be coy about this but I see a banking forum as a first step to talking about public banking, something for which Green Party has pushed for a long time. It would speak to issues around regional access to banking. It is something to which 21 countries in Europe have access, but we do not. We do not have that level of competition or choice in the banking sector for people in Ireland.

The idea that a banking forum is somehow unacceptable and that the Minister would not want to be involved in a forum that speaks to his Department is somewhat problematic considering that we are talking about a fully regulated industry. Not to criticise the public consultation framework, because the Green Party is very pro-public consultation, but public consultation often involves the Department having made a series of decisions, publishing a report or creating a development programme or a plan, and then putting it out to the public to ask what it thinks about the decisions it is making. That is not what a forum would be. It would involve bringing everybody into a room, identifying the issues and working together to find a solution. That is more formative in the decision-making process than a public consultation. In terms of the crisis the banking sector is facing, the Department's usual approach will not do the job. This is more primary than that. We are in a more difficult situation. This is not about public consultation; it is about community decision-making. We need to look at it on that level.

I accept that the Minister of State is bringing the decision here from the Minister. In 2019, the Indecon report on public banking was published. It stated we did not need public banking or a more considered discussion in respect of it because there was no failure in the industry. In 2021, there is a failure in the industry and we need to talk about it.

Again, I thank the Deputy for raising those points, particularly in the context of her party's position on this matter. I understand from the Department of the Environment, Climate and Communications that An Post is transforming its retail network by delivering new products in all formats, including loans, credit cards, more foreign exchange products, insurance products, local banking, in association with the major banks, and a full range of State service products. If the Deputy requires any further information on this, that can easily be obtained.

Post offices have a good arrangement with AIB and are now moving onto a strong arrangement with Bank of Ireland. I am convinced that the credit union movement has a strong presence in all of the towns where branch closures have recently been announced. In terms of a banking service available to the public, the post office network is stepping up to the plate in a big way. My Department is aware of that.

Credit unions have a key role to play in banking. I encourage them to provide greater banking service in communities. There is not a single location where a branch has been withdrawn by Bank of Ireland that there is not a post office, a credit union or both within a couple of hundred metres.

I understand the banks have agreed to the forum. The Irish Banking Culture Board has also agreed to it. I am sure the Banking Federation of Ireland will agree to the terms, as will the FSU. I am sure quite a number of public bodies will be interested in participating.

The forum can happen but it should not be driven, monitored and administered by the Department of Finance. I would love to see it happen and its conclusions but if the Department is involved in its administration, management and setting up the process, it would represent a conflict. The Department should be able to consider the forum's findings rather than being a key participant.

Poultry Industry

The fourth and final important matter selected has been raised by Deputy Niamh Smyth, who wishes to discuss the need for co-financed funding for a scheme to support the poultry sector in counties Cavan and Monaghan. The Minister might give us a few bob around the rest of the country as well, if he can.

I thank the Minister for coming to the House at such a late hour to discuss this very important issue, which I appreciate. The Minister will be more than familiar with the Hennessy report. My question relates to its findings and recommendations on which the Government might act. The poultry industry is of particular importance in my constituency of Cavan-Monaghan, as it is in many places nationwide. It faces a threat at present from disease outbreaks and the associated economic implications. The outbreak in 2020, although it did not pose a threat to human health, did highlight the sector's vulnerability and the considerable costs of disease control. More than half a million laying hens were culled following the 2020 outbreak, leading to a 15% reduction in the supply of Irish eggs on the domestic market. Internationally governments, including those of the Netherlands and France, have established co-financed funds with the industry to improve disease control and mitigate its financial impact. The amount sought is approximately €2.5 million spread over two years. This is something close to the Minister’s heart and he met stakeholders in the poultry industry last December. However, behind the report, there are individual farmers and individual farm holdings, and families. I know, from past and more recent outbreaks, the devastation that causes for farmers themselves. Farmers are often not just in it for the money but it is a vocation and a love of the land and animals. I received some pretty tough phone calls from farmers who were affected by this, not tough as in aggressive but in the sense that they felt their future was very bleak because of the financial implications that this posed for them.

Are the Government and the Department in a position to undertake this co-finance scheme? Will it will be there to support these farmers when such outbreaks happen? I also wish to mention Manor Farm and Carton Brothers in Shercock, County Cavan, which is a massive employer in the local area and a massive supplier for the chicken industry in Ireland and far beyond. It is completely dependent on the farms and the supply coming from the poultry farming sector. They are very much involved in and interested in being part of the finance solution to this issue. I hope the Minister will have some good news for the poultry farmers who are listening. There are many in Cavan-Monaghan and elsewhere who desperately need that support and who need to know that if there is another outbreak of bird flu, the finance will be there to back them, support them and ensure they have a future.

I thank Deputy Niamh Smyth for raising this issue, which is particularly important in her constituency of Cavan-Monaghan, which is the heartland of the poultry sector nationally. At the outset, I want to pay tribute to the sector. The poultry sector has an annual output of more than €610 million. It often does not get the recognition it deserves for the massive contribution it makes. Importantly, the sector, including eggs as well as meat, supports over 5,000 jobs, of which some 3,500 farmers come from the Deputy's Border region.

During 2020, Professor Thia Hennessy, of UCC's business school, completed a comprehensive report on the economic importance of the poultry industry in Ireland in which a number of recommendations were made regarding the poultry sector. As the Deputy noted, I was happy to meet representatives of the poultry industry last December, when we had a very constructive discussion on Professor Hennessy's report. After that, I asked officials in the Department to carry out an evaluation of the recommendations in the report, in particular that recommendation which raised the possibility of establishing a form of fund that would be jointly financed by industry and the State and that might be used in order to improve disease control and mitigate its financial impact.

My officials are progressing this important evaluation, and are exploring what mechanisms may be available and that might be employed to assist the industry in dealing with the difficult challenges it faces regarding the threat of poultry diseases. I fully understand the sector's aim to seek mitigation of the risks that are faced, and where possible, to provide some reassurance to them.

In this regard, it is vitally important that any support system in which the State might play a role, is fair and reasonable to all and is consistent with national and EU legislation. My officials will meet the poultry working group again shortly to discuss these and other important matters. This will be an opportunity to further update the industry on my Department's position on the recommendations and to further progress proposals.

I wish to remind the House of the financial support that has been provided by my Department to operators that were affected by disease outbreaks during 2020. In respect of the outbreak of low pathogenic H6N1 avian influenza in early 2020, my Department provided a once-off ex gratia support, which was made available to all affected operators and all those that applied have now received payments. The nature of this disease is not one for which compensation is automatically provided by law, but my Department successfully achieved Government agreement for the payment so as to provide some support to affected poultry producers. It is outbreaks such as this which the Hennessy report and the sector are very keen to have considered in ensuring supports are there for affected farmers in future.

Regarding the December 2020 outbreak of highly pathogenic avian influenza H5N8, there was an obligation on my Department to provide compensation to support affected farmers. The applications for compensation are being progressed and payments are expected to issue shortly.

My Department already supports existing rural development programme-funded targeted advisory service for animal health, TASAH, which provides assessment of on-farm level biosecurity risks at no cost to poultry farmers. My Department recognises the opportunity to develop poultry health and welfare initiatives and my officials are working to progress this. These types of approaches are consistent with the national farmed animal health strategy, which sets out the overarching principles by which we can work collectively to progress solutions, while acknowledging the various roles and responsibilities, cognisant of the financial imperatives for the industry and the State, on the principle of prevention being better than cure.

I thank the Deputy for raising this and I look forward to working with her and with the industry and Government representatives in the constituency to try to bring about progress on this important issue.

I appreciate the Minister's comprehensive reply. I will get down to the nuts and bolts of the funding being sought, which is €2.5 million spread over two years. In terms of the overall 2021 agriculture budget, that might seem quite small. Therefore, I hope that when the Minister sits down with his officials, that kind of finance can be put into it.

I am not overstating the matter when I say that my region, the Border region, which the Minister also represents, is very much dependent on it. There is a genuine opportunity. Manor Farm and such companies are very much interested and there is buy-in from them. Ultimately, what I propose will protect the small farmer and others farmers who may have to face the very unsavoury and unpalatable task of culling when there is an outbreak. I really appreciate the Minister's answer. I wonder whether he could respond on the funding available and give a timeframe for its provision so farmers will know the future is bright in their sector, that the work they are doing is worth carrying on with, that they will be protected and that the Government will have their backs.

I assure the Deputy that there is a very bright and secure future for the sector. It is a really important part of the overall agrifood sector. It is one I want to support and work with. There are challenges. Poultry farmers affected by diseases that do not automatically qualify for compensation and who must cull their flocks naturally incur massive financial costs.

I had a very thorough discussion with the poultry sector when we met in December. It has taken a very constructive approach to assessment by engaging Professor Hennessy in the first instance and also by putting together a comprehensive report. We had a very constructive discussion on that. Coming out of it, I asked my officials to assess further and engage on the recommendations to determine how we could work together to address this issue. The work and evaluation are ongoing. There will be a follow-up meeting with the poultry sector very shortly to discuss the evaluations and to consider how we might be able to go forward. I recognise the issue that arises and the financial impact on farmers. I very much recognise the need for a mechanism such as the one being proposed to try to provide a safety net for affected farmers. I look forward to engaging further with the sector on the possibilities that exist and on how we can work together in this regard.

Leis sin, táimid tagtha go dtí deireadh gnó na seachtaine. Tá an Dáil ar athló go dtí 10 a.m., Dé Céadaoin, 21 Aibreán 2021. Idir an dá linn, guím Cásca beannaithe ar gach duine.

The Dáil adjourned at 6.53 p.m. until 10 a.m. on Wednesday, 21 April 2021.