Saincheisteanna Tráthúla - Topical Issue Debate

Agriculture Schemes

I thank the Ceann Comhairle for his explanation of what happened earlier.

The Minister is aware of the Shass Mountain landslide at Drumkeeran. Approximately 55 ha of land was affected, with approximately 170,000 tonnes of peat on the land. It was an extensive landslide. Subsequent to the landslide, which was ten and a half months ago, the Minister of State, Deputy Noonan, organised a meeting and the then Minister for Agriculture, Food and the Marine, Deputy Cowen, came to Drumkeeran and made a commitment that all farm payments on the land, including under the basic payment and areas of natural constraints schemes, would be paid last year and, indeed, they were. Subsequently, the Minister of State, Deputy Noonan, has held a number of meetings of the stakeholder group.

A lot of positive work has happened through the auspices of Leitrim County Council and the Department of Transport. However, the one Department that has not engaged with the people on the ground and with the farmers is the Department of Agriculture, Food and the Marine. The Minister of State is well aware that right now farmers are putting in their applications for the basic payment scheme. When they do this they tick various boxes. One of the commitments they make is that their land is in good agricultural and environmental condition. How are they supposed to do this when there are several feet of peat on the land? They cannot walk on it let alone put out an animal. They have not been given any advice. What will happen? Will these payments be made under force majeure? If they claim these payments and received them will there be penalties because they ticked boxes that the land was in a certain condition and it was not?

I have spoken to many farmers. They have to apply for their basic payment. What do they do? We raised this question a week and a half ago at the stakeholder meeting and we were not given any kind of response. In other words, the farmers were supposed to get on with it. Get on with what? Will the Minister of State give these farmers the same guarantee the former Minister for Agriculture, Food and the Marine gave them and state these payments will be paid under force majeure and that there will be no penalties for claiming these payments? Approximately 20 landowners are affected. We have not had the type of proactive engagement from the Department that we have had from other Departments.

To some extent, farmers have been treated badly. I have spoken to many of them and they say that they have heard nothing from the Department. They want to hear from Deputy McConalogue, as Minister, this evening what they are supposed to do, what plans or proposals the Minister has in place for compensation for the damage that has occurred on this land and what is the long-term outlook for agriculture on this land. As I said, this happened ten and a half months ago. As the Minister will be aware, when landslides occurred in other parts of the country, they were dealt with much more quickly and efficiently than this one. Leitrim farmers have as much a right to be dealt with in a proper way as farmers elsewhere.

I thank Deputy Harkin for tabling this Topical Issue matter. As the Deputy will be aware, the landslide occurred on Shass Mountain on 28 June 2020 following heavy rain in the preceding days. A large area of upland bog, including some forestry, moved off the mountain and large quantities of liquified peat, vegetation and trees flowed down the mountain. This resulted in damage to road infrastructure and areas of land and forestry which were covered in peat. There has been ecological damage to the river with quantities of suspended sods carried down in floodwater. The damage to land, both farmed and forested, included an overlay of peat and associated loss of grazing meadows and forestry, blocked drains, damaged fencing and the removal of trees from afforested lands.

I am conscious of the massive challenges faced by farmers in the immediate aftermath of the landslide. Following the event, my predecessor immediately reassured the farmers that the farm payments in 2020 would not be affected as a result of the landslide.

A multi-agency group was established under the chairmanship of the Minister of State with responsibility for heritage at the Department of Housing, Local Government and Heritage, Deputy Malcolm Noonan. This multi-agency group includes representatives of Leitrim County Council, local representatives, Oireachtas Members, farm bodies, the National Parks and Wildlife Service, NPWS, inland fisheries, the Department of Transport, my Department and academia.

The Department has assessed and mapped, using satellite and GPS, the ground of the land parcels apparently affected together with the land use. This exercise included an estimation of the area affected. This assessment and mapping exercise indicates that approximately 20 herd owners, the members of the basic payment scheme, BPS, and green low-carbon agri-environment scheme, GLAS, participants, and eight forestry owners were adversely impacted by the landslide. The estimated areas directly damaged by the landslide are approximately 24 ha of farmland and 12 ha of forestry.

With regard to BPS, GLAS and forestry participants in the 2020 scheme year, force majeure applied to all 2020 participants in accordance with the governing EU regulations and no scheduled scheme payments were adversely affected as a direct result of the landslide.

Leitrim County Council engaged with the services of consultant engineers to carry out an initial study on the background to this event and to make recommendations on more remedial actions. This report, in October 2020, considered and reported on the key factors influencing the triggering of the landslide and included recommendations on works that could be undertaken in the short term, including practical remediation measures and procurement options. It also included recommendations on further studies and investigations.

Any ex gratia payment will require the sanction of the Minister for Public Expenditure and Reform as the Department of Agriculture, Food and the Marine does not have a contingency fund to pay for land damage or land remediation in circumstances such as this.

The multi-agency group agreed at its meeting in November 2020 that they would work together and follow up with my Department and the matter is under consideration at present.

With regard to farm payments, as the Deputy will be aware, my Department administers the various schemes on behalf of the European Union and both the Department and scheme participants are bound by the governing rules in the relevant EU regulations. Force majeure is a recognised feature in the EU regulations and this matter will be dealt with in line with the regulations.

Deputy Harkin has raised this matter with me previously, as has Deputy Martin Kenny and, in particular, the Minister of State, Deputy Feighan. My party colleague, Deputy MacSharry, has been in close contact with me on this issue too.

I am glad to be able to say that officials of my Department are contacting affected landowners or their agents to advise that force majeure will apply in respect of the 2021 scheme year and to assist them in making their applications. Affected applicants should ensure that their applications for participation in the various farm schemes in 2021 are submitted as required before any applicable closing dates, most notably and most urgently the basic scheme application, which must be submitted by 17 May.

I thank Deputy Harkin for raising this matter in the Dáil this evening so that it can be discussed. I am glad to bring that clarity to the matter. The working group, which the Deputy is participating in, will continue to address the matter in the time ahead as well. It is good to bring clarity to the payments matter this evening.

It is always positive to get a good response from a Minister. I am pleased that officials are contacting affected landowners to advise that force majeure will apply in respect of the 2021 scheme. That is a positive outcome and many people will be happy to hear that this evening.

However, I have spoken to a number of affected landowners in recent times and they had heard nothing but the Minister's word is good enough for me. That deals with the immediate issue of the application for the basic payment scheme, BPS, and everything that is contingent on that. It was a real worry for many landowners, not only the payments themselves but the fear that there might be some kind of penalties attached if these forms were filled out incorrectly.

There are the medium and longer term issues. I spoke to landowners whose drains are blocked, for example. Huge drains that would normally perhaps be 6 ft deep and 8 ft or 9 ft wide are blocked. What are they supposed to do? Can they clear out those drains because that is having a negative impact on the rest of their land? We need much more positive proactive engagement from the Department. People want to stay within the regulations and the law but they do not know what to do. I would appreciate that engagement.

Finally, on the issue of compensation, the Minister said it is up to the Department of Finance, and that is fine. The Minister will note that in his own area of Inishowen, when there was a landslide, compensation was paid to farmers for losses incurred. I am only asking that the Department, in conjunction with the Department of Finance, put a similar scheme in place for the farmers in Drumkeeran.

I thank Deputy Harkin again for raising this matter to the Dáil this evening. As I indicated, the multi-agency group is an important forum and structure for trying to make progress on this. I will continue to have further engagements with my officials as well on the issues raised tonight to assess how matters can be brought forward.

It was a significant event and there was significant damage to and impact on the land. It was significantly different in scale from the Inishowen flooding, which involved primarily repairs to flood damage, whereas this was a land movement issue and a really challenging one to deal with.

My own officials will continue to engage through the working group. It is a challenging issue to deal with but I would encourage everyone to continue to work together. We will ensure that there is strong co-operation to try to tease out those remaining issues.

Care of the Elderly

I wish to raise the issue of boarding out regulations which comes under SI 225 of 1993. As the date suggests, these regulations first came into operation in 1993. They allow for individuals or families to take care of elderly people in their own home. This is suitable for an older person who is not able to live independently or with family members of their own, or does not want to live alone.

Boarding out is not suitable for the care of people who need high levels of medical support but it can reduce social isolation. It makes use of family homes rather than expensive residential facilities. It saves the State money while also fostering independence and well-being. The regulations have not been updated since 1993. A review was conducted ten to 12 years ago but very little change was made to the scheme.

Providers are contracted by the HSE to provide care for up to six elderly people in their own home. The CHO decides on the amount to be paid to the provider each week. Each resident also pays an amount of money to the provider which is decided by the HSE. Providers are asking that the regulations, which have been in place for 28 years and which have not been updated in over 12 years, be reviewed; that the weekly contribution from the HSE be increased and standardised across CHO areas; that the amount paid by the older person be standardised; that the number of residents allowed per house be increased; and that income tax concessions be updated. This care model is much more economical than the nursing home model. Older residents can stay in the community and live much more independent lives. This supported housing option for the elderly is strongly supported by Alone, the charitable organisation for older people.

Currently, the amount paid by the HSE towards the care of residents varies from €110 in one CHO area to €165 in another. Residents are asked to pay a fee which can vary from €140 in one CHO area to €180 in another. Problems arise when residents from different CHO areas are living in the same house and are paying different amounts from their pension. Providers are also receiving different amounts for each person in their care, again depending on which CHO area they come from. The amount the HSE pays for each resident and the amount residents pay towards their care should be standardised across all CHO areas in the interests of fairness. The amount contributed by the HSE must also be increased. It has not increased in more than 12 years and the cost of living has risen immensely in that time and in the last year in particular, the cost of food has risen considerably. I ask that the maximum number of residents permitted under the scheme be increased from six to nine. The taxation system needs to be amended to enable host families to avail of tax exemptions similar to those available under the rent a room scheme or the foster care legislation. Similar schemes exist in the UK. A submission could be made to the Revenue Commissioners to enable host families to avail of the tax exemptions currently available under the rent a room scheme.

I first contacted the Minister for Health, Deputy Donnelly, on this issue last September and he advised me to speak to the Minister of State with responsibility for older people, Deputy Butler, which I did. I emailed details to her and have pursued this issue regularly. I put the proposals I have just outlined to officials in the Department of Health for assessment but I have not heard back from them. If the officials need more information or want to talk to people involved in this, that can be arranged. I sincerely hope this statutory instrument can be examined and updated.

I thank Deputy Tully for raising the boarding out scheme, in which she is very interested. The Government is committed to supporting people to live in dignity and independence in their own homes and communities for as long as possible. Where this is not feasible, the health service supports access to quality, long-term residential care where this is appropriate. We will continue to develop and improve health services in all regions of the country to meet this objective and to ensure quality and patient safety.

The 1993 regulations provide a framework for the operation of a boarding out scheme. These regulations include specific conditions relating to maintenance, care and welfare of an older person in a private house. The intention of the scheme was to provide social and personal care to older people who did not want, or were unable, to live on their own but wanted to remain in their local community. Under the regulations, the HSE must be satisfied that the house is suitable and the householder is fit to look after the person accessing the scheme. The householder must provide suitable and sufficient care, nutritious and various food and adequately attend to the needs of the person. The householder must also respect the privacy of the individual. Not more than six people can be boarded out in one house.

The regulations also set out standards regarding the suitability of accommodation, cleanliness, safety and other related matters. The regulations provide that the HSE may pay to the householder an amount not exceeding half the weekly rate of the non-contributory State pension in respect of each person accessing the scheme. In addition, the person being boarded out must pay to the householder an amount which is agreed between the HSE, the householder and the individual boarder. It was not intended that the scheme would provide medical or nursing care beyond the levels normally provided in a person's own home. Those availing of the scheme require a level of social care which is delivered by people who are funded to provide this service through the scheme, together with contributions from the older person.

The boarding out scheme has diminished over time and is now only available in a limited number of areas across the country. According to the HSE, there are 17 boarding out facilities across three of the CHOs. In 2017, the HSE completed a review of the scheme which concluded that an expansion was warranted. The last year has been very challenging for the health service in terms of responding to the current pandemic. This has highlighted the continuing importance of supporting people, including our older population, to access the right care in the right place at the right time. The boarding out scheme facilitates older people to remain in their communities where they might otherwise be accommodated in residential care. It can also help to reduce social isolation. While the use of the boarding out scheme by the HSE has traditionally been small, there is value in exploring it further. I am pleased to advise the House that the Minister of State, Deputy Butler, has asked officials in the Department to consider this model of care and the relevant regulations in the context of our overall commitment to enhancing opportunities for older people to stay in their homes and communities for longer.

I welcome the fact that the Minister of State, Deputy Butler, has asked officials to give this model of care more consideration to determine if an expansion of the scheme is warranted. That is good news. However, the issues I have outlined need to be addressed for those who are currently providing care under the scheme. Providers of boarding out facilities are currently working for less than the minimum wage. They are doing an immensely important job in helping our older generation to continue living in the community and ensuring they have the independence to do the things they wish to do. Providers, as well as providing a bed and meals, often bring people for appointments, collect their prescriptions and some are even cutting hair at the moment.

The HSE does not promote this form of care. I looked at the HSE website under "Services for Older People" but it is not mentioned or if it is, it is well hidden. Nursing homes are on the website but I could not find any reference to boarding out facilities. Alone supports this model of care, as referenced in its report, Housing Choices for Older People in Ireland - Time for Action, published in 2018. Alone believes a demand for up to 750 places could be met if the provision of this service was replicated across all CHO areas. Obviously, regulation and monitoring would be required and tax exemptions would be needed for providers to make this scheme more attractive. At the time of the report's publication, there were only 51 people boarded out but many people do not know this facility exists.

The average cost annually to the State for boarding out facilities ranges from €8,000 to €9,000 per person per year, while nursing home care costs approximately €50,000. These are approximate figures and there will be differences from region to region but the savings to the State could be in the region of €30,000 per person. I wonder why this option is not being promoted more. I appreciate that it will not suit everybody but there are many for whom it would be ideal. Many older people living at home without proper supports often end up in nursing homes because their health fails due to their inability to care for themselves. If this option was available, it would avoid that outcome. While boarding out will not suit everyone, it should be an option that more people can consider.

Again, I thank the Deputy for raising this issue. Our overriding objective is to support older people to live in dignity and independence in their own homes and communities for as long as possible. The Government is committed to the continued enhancement of health and social care services delivery at both individual and community level. Under the Sláintecare model, we are looking at a significant shift in our model of care towards one that is focused on prevention and early intervention, a model in which care will predominantly be provided at the lowest level of complexity in our local communities.

It is important that we look at the boarding out scheme in this context, ensuring that it aligns with broad reform, such as the development of a statutory scheme for the financing and regulation of home support services. In addition, a reformed model of service delivery will be introduced to ensure the provision of home support in a transparent, equitable manner based on standard assessment of care needs.

A review was carried out 28 years ago and this review, which was carried out three years ago, may need a further review. I thank Deputy Tully for her concern and consideration.

Anti-Social Behaviour

As Covid forced many people in society to withdraw from our public spaces, unfortunately, levels of antisocial behaviour crept in. As we head into a period when, hopefully, things will begin to open again and we will make greater use of our outdoor spaces, I and many other Members of this House want to make sure that they are safe places to be. Unfortunately, over recent weeks and months, we have seen an increase in incidents and high-profile incidents, in particular, of antisocial behaviour. I want to be very careful in saying that while some of these incidents involved young people, they are in no way emblematic of young people in Ireland, or of society as a whole.

What is the Government doing to tackle this issue? It is critically important to support traders, communities and people who have been restricted for so long, so that when they come back into circulation, they can do so in a safe place. We have seen the incidents reported online. A young lady was pushed off the platform of a train station. There have been incidents in Malahide with cars being attacked by groups of people. There was a looting incident in my area, in a place one would never see such an incident.

What can be done to tackle this issue? The youth justice strategy, which the Department of Justice has brought forward, is an important step. The antisocial behaviour forum, which Minister of State, Deputy Browne, chairs, is an important forum. In fact, it has been quite successful in dealing with its first issue, namely, scrambler bikes, which Members will be tired of hearing me talking about. It has dealt comprehensively with that issue. I urge the forum to move on and look at how we can ensure we have safe public spaces.

That needs to be done in two ways. We need a significant increase in gardaí and in the number of on-foot gardaí. I realise that is an operational matter, but it is something we need to communicate to the Commissioner. We need high-profile policing and greater visibility of policing in our communities. Our community gardaí do fantastic work, but there are blockages in the system. My station in Finglas had a fantastic community sergeant, John O'Reilly, to whom our community paid great credit. Unfortunately, for us, he has been promoted and we await a replacement for him. We must ensure those vacancies are not left for a significant period.

The Minister of State knows about the campaigning work we have done in Ballymun and the Ballymun – A Brighter Future report, which suggested increasing the number of gardaí by a factor of approximately 50 because it has one of the lowest representations of gardaí. We must also invest in youth services, ensure cutbacks made almost a decade ago are addressed as a priority, ensure street work and outreach work helps those young people who are most in need and ensure we reach those communities and households where people are engaging in antisocial behaviour. Will the Minister of State update the House on the work the Government is doing on this issue and do everything it can to tackle it?

I thank Deputy McAuliffe for raising this important issue. An inevitable impact of the Covid-19 pandemic and the public health restrictions, which we put in place in order to control the transmission of the virus, has been a significantly decreased public presence on city centre streets during the last year. I fully appreciate this has resulted in some of those who need to be in the city centre at times feeling less safe due to this reduced footfall. The absence of activities, which would usually be available to young people outside of school hours, has in some locations led to increases in antisocial behaviour among these age groups. The Minister, Deputy Humphreys, is acutely aware of the impact this and, indeed, any antisocial behaviour has on local communities. An Garda Síochána has continued to roll out information-led policing operations in response to specific incidents of antisocial behaviour throughout the pandemic. It has also continued Operation Spire and Operation Pier, which specifically target antisocial behaviour, public order offences and street-level drug dealing in Dublin city centre. These operations are supplemented by the continually high-visibility patrols in support of the public health regulations, which can and do respond to antisocial behaviours.

Deputy McAuliffe may be interested to note that the Garda authorities have reported that statistics in April show a decrease of 11% in public order offences in the year to date. While clearly a significant element of this drop can be attributed to the public health restrictions, the Minister, Deputy Humphreys, is encouraged by the ongoing efforts to prevent antisocial behaviour. It is important we continue to do all we can to tackle such behaviour.

Both the programme for Government and the Justice Plan 2021 include a number of actions to tackle antisocial behaviour and to enhance community safety. The Minister of State, Deputy Browne, and the Minister, Deputy McEntee, recently launched the new Youth Justice Strategy 2021-2027, which provides a framework to prevent offending behaviour and divert children and young adults away from crime. The immediate priority within the strategy is to enhance engagement with children and young people who are most at risk of involvement in criminal activity, principally by strengthening the service available through the existing network of 105 Garda youth diversion projects across the State.

In line with a commitment in the programme for Government, the Minister of State, Deputy Browne, has also established the antisocial behaviour forum, providing an additional mechanism to focus on the factors that give rise to antisocial behaviour and to identify potential solutions. As Deputy McAuliffe is aware, the Department of Justice has recently committed to providing funding to communities to deliver projects in response to the antisocial use of scramblers and quad bikes, following consideration of this topic by a subgroup of the forum. The Minister, Deputy Humphreys, is committed to building on the existing momentum to deliver the various justice plan actions with a view to dealing with the antisocial behaviour in an effective and informed way.

I thank Deputy McAuliffe for our recent engagement with his Ballymun task force. There are many issues which we can work collaboratively on across Government. I also saw those issues regarding antisocial behaviour on social media. They were horrific and lives could have been lost at the rail station. It sends out the wrong message and it is something I hope we can address across the Department of Justice, An Garda Síochána and the various forums, as quickly as possible.

I welcome the Minister of State’s comprehensive response to the issue I raised. It is fair to say that while the numbers are lower, the visibility of those incidents is much greater. We must ask ourselves why they are more visible during Covid time. With less international and national news, the stories of these individuals are coming to the fore, but in many ways those stories were there during busier news cycles. Those incidents are being told in Covid times.

It is really important that as life gets busier, we do not forget the victims of antisocial behaviour because when people experience it, in particular older people when they go outdoors, it shakes their confidence in their community, in their neighbours and in the people around them.

At a very low level it can be a gang of young people at a shop who intimidate them into going in. Often that is just about both groups understanding each other. That is not the antisocial behaviour I am talking about. I am talking about the kind of pernicious and destructive antisocial behaviour that can vary from open drug dealing to aggressive begging and all those other issues. We need to deal with the social problems behind these things but we also need to make sure the streets are safe. That is not a matter for this House. The matter for this House is the resourcing of the Garda. Ensuring our spaces are safe is an operational matter for the Garda. I know the Garda does everything it can but I urge it to pay particular attention to open spaces, our public realm and to ensuring people feel safe in what is a great city here in Dublin, as well as in other public spaces right across the country.

The Deputy is justifiably concerned about antisocial behaviour in Dublin and its effects on local communities. Antisocial behaviour can radically change the complexion of where each of us calls home and can make us feel distressed and unhappy. It can pose a serious threat to community safety and weaken collective resilience. Strong community engagement and services are critical in reducing and preventing antisocial behaviour. This is central to the comprehensive community safety policy currently being developed by the Department of Justice, based on the recommendations of the Commission on the Future of Policing in Ireland. This policy will underpin the new policing, security and community safety Bill, the general scheme of which was published last week.

Community safety is not just the responsibility of An Garda Síochána and the challenges communities face are not limited to policing issues. Bringing the right services together and working with each other to tackle the underlying issues that impact on a community and people's sense of safety within the community is key. The new legislation will place an obligation on Departments, State agencies and local authorities to co-operate with An Garda Síochána in delivering community safety. A key element of this framework will be the establishment of local community safety partnerships nationwide to develop local safety plans tailored to the priorities and needs of individual communities. Three pilot schemes are currently being developed in Dublin's north inner city, Waterford and Longford and will run for the next two years, ahead of a nationwide roll-out to all local authority areas. These partnerships will provide a strong forum to identify and tackle the issues causing antisocial behaviour in local areas, both in Dublin and throughout the country.

Driver Test

I thank the Ceann Comhairle and Jill Gray in his office for facilitating this Topical Issue debate. We have been raising this matter with the Tánaiste, the Taoiseach and everyone else. The dogs in the street are aghast about it. Why is there such inertia in the Road Safety Authority, RSA, and the Department of Transport in dealing with this issue? A lady in my constituency has had her driver theory test rescheduled seven times since last October. Just this morning she received an email from the RSA to say that her test scheduled for 14 May, when the country will be reopened at level 3, has been cancelled already. It spends more time cancelling tests now than focusing on getting people driving. Farmers, agricultural contractors and all businesses need these young drivers to be on the road to help them. Many people who want to go to work, such as trainee nurses going on work placement or work experience, cannot go anywhere without a car.

There are people all over west Cork trying to get theory tests and driving tests. The whole system seems to be blocked up and flawed. One lady told me she had her 12 lessons done but the system would not allow her to register them, which meant she could not book her test. This is mainly about young people's lives. Priority must be given to getting a more efficient system going. We blame Covid for all the wrongs but this has been a problem well before Covid. The test booking system is a shambles. In one example, two people from the same household tried booking a test at the same time. One was offered several available options in a particular time period and the other was not offered anything in the same timeframe. There are situations where logged lessons do not show up on the logbook portal, which means people will not get a test as the system states they have not completed their training. West Cork has a lot of young people looking to get their driving tests. We have a great driving test centre in Skibbereen but maybe somewhere like Bantry, Bandon, Clonakilty or Kinsale could be considered as a second centre to ease the pressure.

In my constituency of Limerick, theory tests could have continued the whole way through the pandemic because they are done on a portal system. It would have been very easy. Other businesses kept going. This was a very easy system that could have been kept going to get the theory test out of the way so people could get their licences. It is so important to get the theory test done so people can apply for a licence because that gets them on the system for the insurance companies down the line. That is the main thing. People who have no transport and who want to go to college and get part-time work have been held up for nine and ten months over theory tests being put off all the time. A theory test is done on a computer screen. People sit in front of it and answer questions. Other businesses were able to continue. Why were the theory tests not able to?

I thank the Ceann Comhairle for allowing this very important debate. Prior to the pandemic, we had an issue with the waiting times for driving tests and theory tests. It is an issue I have highlighted time and again, as have my colleagues. Now the waiting list and the backlog of people who are eligible to take the test and want to take it is out of control. The Department of Transport and the RSA have failed young people time and again. The previous Minister for Transport, Tourism and Sport, Shane Ross, and the hierarchy of the RSA were more interested in criminalising young people than educating them. In the past, proposals were put forward to the Department to overhaul the way we educate our young people on the rules of the road and assist them in obtaining a driving licence. Again, this was thrown to the side because commonsense suggestions get nowhere these days, unfortunately.

The current waiting list for driving tests is at a crisis point and needs to be tackled once and for all. Back in 2007 and 2008 SGS Ireland was brought in to reduce the waiting lists and this worked very well. Something like this will have to be done again in the immediate short term to ease the pressure on driving testers, of which we simply do not have enough. I could go on and on. In the past, very sensible and constructive proposals were put forward to deal with the driving tests, to both the Department of Transport and the RSA, and each time they fell on deaf ears. I am sorry to say this but I have no doubt that history will repeat itself and it will fall on deaf ears again.

I want to say to the people who contacted me as late as in the last ten minutes on my mobile phone, that the Rural Independent Group, led by Deputy Mattie McGrath, are here today asking the Minister of State please to do something for them. One young girl has had her theory test put back six times. Would the Minister of State like to be dealing with that person? Another person who spoke to Deputy Mattie McGrath had their test put back ten times. It is outrageous.

It is, and the Deputy has made the case very clearly.

I thank the Deputies for raising these important questions. All Deputies in this House will have been contacted by constituents asking when this vital service will be brought back online. I am answering questions on behalf of my colleague, the Minister of State, Deputy Hildegarde Naughton. She sends her apologies.

Driving tests for essential workers will continue to be the priority for the driving test service. In line with the gradual reopening of services, driving tests for all those who are eligible to take the test and those who have been waiting longest will recommence in a limited fashion from late May. The further opening of the driver testing service will be the subject of discussions between Department of Transport officials and the Road Safety Authority in the coming weeks.

Due to the suspension of driver testing services in the initial pandemic response, along with the health protocols required since the resumption of services, a significant backlog has developed. RSA driver testers are undertaking driving tests in extraordinarily difficult conditions, in an enclosed space where physical distancing is not possible. Testers are also moving between vehicles provided by test candidates, which are not controllable work environments. The Department of Transport is liaising with the RSA on an ongoing basis to meet the growing demand for tests.

An additional 40 driver testers have been authorised, along with 36 who were approved for retention or rehire in 2020. Deputy Michael Collins asked whether additional test centres can be put on line, and they will be. The RSA is making good progress in recruiting these additional testers and they are expected to be conducting tests by the end of June 2021. The Department and the RSA will monitor what impact the new testers are having as they come on stream and the Covid-19 restriction level reduces. Further recruitment, if necessary, is being discussed. The health of the public and the testers must take priority, and, as a result, it is important to recognise that it will take time to get driver testing waiting times back to normal pre-Covid-19 levels.

Regarding driver theory tests, this is not an essential service and remains closed. In the meantime, the RSA is engaging with its service provider to examine ways of increasing the number of tests for when services resume. The aim is to increase capacity at all test centres to cater for additional appointments. Pre-pandemic capacity was approximately 15,000 tests per month. When the service is allowed to reopen, the aim is to provide approximately 50,000 tests per month. This would make substantial inroads into the backlog. A pilot online driver theory test is under way for trucks and buses. The roll-out of this option to theory tests for cars is planned to begin during May 2021, with up to 3,000 online car theory tests being conducted per month. There will be a limit on the number of customers who can avail of the service during the initial roll-out phase, but work is ongoing to make online services more widely available towards the end of 2021.

As part of the broader easing of restrictions across Irish society, I am happy to confirm that the gradual reopening of the driver instruction industry will commence from 10 May. Initial basic training, IBT, the course of mandatory lessons that learner motorcyclists must complete with an approved driver instructor, ADI, will resume for all learners from that date, regardless of employment status. Essential driver training, EDI, for cars may also resume from 10 May, but this will only be in circumstances where the learner in question is a confirmed essential worker. This cohort will be required to download and complete a self-declaration from the RSA website, which they must then present to the instructor before starting lessons. The RSA will also reopen the online EDT portal on 10 May to allow instructors to upload completed modules for the learners in question. The RSA has issued a formal communication regarding these changes to ADIs across the country via the ADI stakeholder forum.

The gradual reopening of services will not immediately solve the backlogs in the driver theory test, driver test and driving lessons. Every possible measure is being put in place to ensure that the maximum number of customers can be served, while public health guidance is strictly adhered to.

That is a pathetic reply. It is no wonder the Minister, Deputy Eamon Ryan, or the Minister of State, Deputy Naughton, would not come into the House and read it out. Have the Government Ministers and the RSA board a brain among them? That board is arrogant and out of control. It cares nothing about young people, old people or anybody. It is outrageous that this is the answer we get. Why was it not possible to have some kind of imagination and make some effort to facilitate people? It is only wait, wait, wait and discrimination against workers, regarding whether they are essential or not. It is despicable that it is not possible to do a theory test online in this day and age. We are going backwards.

We have a board that is a quango. It is a cabal, and does not care. New members were appointed by the former Minister and Deputy, Shane Ross. They are all sitting there on a board. Would any of them have a bit of interest in young people or any driver? Appointments are being cancelled as often as 12 times. An appointment for 14 May was cancelled last Friday at 7 p.m., and an appointment for Monday morning was cancelled. It is totally disrespectful to the electorate. That is the way the Government is going on, and then the Minister of State comes in here with that toilet paper and reads it out.

I have spoken to driving instructors in west Cork. They feel they were disowned in this crisis. The responses given by the RSA to instructors were either non-existent or were childish during this pandemic. The RSA takes a fee of €250 per instructor every two years for registration. It never answers regarding what that money is spent on. It is definitely not spent on correspondence fees. The RSA has what it describes as an ADI stakeholder forum. The representative is not even known to my local instructors.

The Minister of State said this is not an essential service. That is very unfair to so many people out there who need to go to work and to avail of essential services. I appreciate that the Minister of State said that additional test centres are being examined. In an area as huge as west Cork, however, Skibbereen test centre cannot be expected to take all the workload. Areas such as Bandon, Clonakilty and Kinsale need test centres open, and this certainly must be deemed an essential service. I plead with the Minister of State, and with the Minister who should be here, to come before the people and put this right for once and for all. This situation should not be allowed to drag on for several more years.

I am very disappointed with the Minister of State. He said a theory test is not essential. What about the harvest this year? What about the farmers whose sons and daughters want to help to bring in the harvest? That is essential. Those sons and daughters can get their theory tests when they are 16 years old and can then drive tractors on their own farms. The Minister of State thinks that is not essential, but that just proves the point I have been making since I was elected.

The Government is too city-based and does not understand rural Ireland or anything about farming. The Minister of State has just proven that by saying that he thinks a driver theory test is not essential. Why? It is because he does not understand about the harvest and he does not understand the people in our areas who do not have transport. They need to get to college, to the grocery shops and to their part-time jobs, but the Minister of State is saying the people of Ireland are not essential. That is exactly what he has just said, because he does not understand the situation.

I will sum this up in a couple of words. The Minister of State knows sweet damn all about cutting silage. If he did, he would not have made the statement he did here on the record to disgrace himself and the Government he is supposed to represent. It is easy for the RSA to criminalise, penalise, demonise and paint the young people of Ireland as a target for increased revenue for the State, when the reality is that only 6.6% of traffic accidents involved young drivers and they may not even have been the cause of the accidents. It is a real pity the RSA does not focus more on the way it educates young people before they sit behind the wheel. For me, that is the real issue.

Will the Minister of State please take back the nonsensical and silly statement he made about theory tests being non-essential and only being essential for certain categories? It is essential for every young person of an age when he or she wants to get behind the wheel, like every one of us did. They are young people; we adore them and we want them to get on the road. They are as safe and entitled to do that as anybody else. If the Minister of State did know about cutting silage, he would know that a tractor cannot drive itself. A young boy or girl must be at the wheel. That is how the silage is cut and how the animals are fed in the wintertime, but a lot the Minister of State cares about the animals or the people or the young people. He has shown that here tonight.

I thank the Deputy. I think he may have been a little harsh on the Minister of State. I doubt he realised that he was going to have to explore the challenges of cutting silage when he came in to take this Topical Issue matter. I am sure the Minister of State will convey the messages he has received to his colleagues. He also has a further response.

The Ceann Comhairle was very kind to defend me, but I really am fine. I thank all the Deputies for their contributions, and particularly the constructive suggestion from Deputy O'Donoghue that we bring our driver theory tests online, as they should be. I am very happy that it is starting this month, and that there will be approximately 3,000 tests per month for cars and that it is also happening for other vehicle classes.

While the driver test service is limited at present, the RSA is making plans for when testing will be permitted to resume for all. This includes increasing the numbers of testing staff. The RSA is also examining whether the number of tests a driver tester can perform each day can be increased. Due to the additional hygiene and sanitation procedures now required, each testing slot takes much longer to complete, and consequently the number of tests a driver tester could conduct each day was reduced from eight to five when the service reopened. Following experience of managing tests under Covid-19 conditions, this increased to six in mid-September.

The RSA has set up a dedicated web forum so essential workers can request a driver test. Anyone seeking an urgent driver test appointment who falls into this category can apply to book a driver test this way. The Department of Transport welcomes the roll-out of the online theory testing service, albeit in a limited capacity initially, and the RSA is fully committed to extending the service to all categories of vehicles. However, the expansion of services will take time. Operational, technical and contractual issues must be addressed prior to further expansion. There will be a limit on the number of customers able to avail of the service during the initial roll-out phase, but work is ongoing to make online services more widely available towards the end of 2021. From the start, it has been clear that the first priority is public safety. We want to provide services, and we know people are seeking services, but we will provide them only to the limit possible while preserving public health.