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Dáil Éireann debate -
Thursday, 20 May 2021

Vol. 1007 No. 4

Saincheisteanna Tráthúla - Topical Issue Debate

The Minister is present for the first Topical Issue matter raised by Deputy Whitmore.

The Minister is not here.

I am here to take a later Topical Issue matter. I do not have a response for Deputy Whitmore. Does the Acting Chairman want to take my Topical Issue matter, after which I hope the other Minister will be here?

We have to wait until the appropriate Minister is here to answer. The Minister, Deputy Ryan, will not take this matter.

I do not have the information.

I am happy if the Acting Chairman wants to take the Topical Issue matter raised with the Minister, Deputy Ryan, before mine so we are not holding people up. We can swap.

We will adjourn for a minute to give everybody a chance to get their information ready.

Sitting suspended at 6.33 p.m. and resumed at 6.34 p.m.

Water Quality

I want to raise the issue of the drinking water supply for the people of Barndarrig in County Wicklow. On 9 February this year, a "do not consume" notice was issued as a result of high nitrate levels in the water supply. It has since been reissued, just this week. A "Do not consume" notice is particularly difficult to deal with during a pandemic, but the residents of Barndarrig have been patient. They have been waiting for Irish Water and Wicklow County Council to deal with this issue, but there is still not clarity on when the "Do not consume" notice will be lifted and what solutions Irish Water is looking at to ensure it can be lifted and that it will not happen again and on why the nitrate levels were so high in the first place.

There are a couple of immediate issues for the community in Barndarrig. The water which is being left for them is in 5 l bottles. It is being left outside in plastic bottles in the sunshine. There are huge littering issues as a result and the bottles are not handy to use, particularly for elderly residents, because they are quite heavy and cumbersome.

There is also an issue with that water in that it has quite a high mineral content. Numerous people have been saying their kettles are being destroyed by the content of the water. I have asked Irish Water to put in a tanker in combination with the water bottles and I am hoping the Minister of State will be able to let me know tonight it will happen.

There are also issues in terms of the communication. The "Do not consume" notice was issued three times over the past number of months, but the residents in Barndarrig have said they have not received much communication from Irish Water on this issue. They would like clarity on what is happening. I ask the Minister of State for an update on what Irish Water is doing, whether it has a timeline and endpoint for this "Do not consume" notice, whether there is any indication of what has happened to cause those high nitrate levels and what Irish Water's solutions are.

I thank Deputy Whitmore for raising this important issue. My priority in these situations is always to ensure that people's health is protected. The Deputy will appreciate the operation of the Barndarrig public water supply is a matter for Irish Water which, since 1 January 2014, has statutory responsibility for all aspects of water services planning, delivery and operation at national, regional and local level. The Environmental Protection Agency, EPA, as environmental regulator, is responsible for setting quality standards and enforcing compliance with EU directives and national regulations for the provision of drinking water.

However, from inquiries which my Department has made with Irish Water, I understand the "Do not consume" notice currently in place for the area supplied by the Barndarrig water treatment plant was issued on 9 February 2021. This followed consultation between Irish Water, Wicklow County Council and the Health Service Executive, HSE, to protect approximately 213 customers in this area, due to elevated levels of nitrates in the water supply.

It is important to note this is not a boil water notice as boiling the water would not reduce nitrite levels and is, therefore, not a suitable measure to make the water safe to consume. However, the water can still be used for sanitation and hygiene purposes, including hand washing which is critical during the ongoing Covid-19 pandemic.

Irish Water, together with Wicklow County Council, continues to arrange an alternative water supply by providing bottled water at a location in Barndarrig to support impacted customers, in accordance with current Covid-19 restrictions. Delivery of water supplies are also being arranged for vulnerable customers who are registered on this supply. However, as the Deputy requested in her opening remarks, I will raise this issue with Irish Water in terms of the tanker to which she referred.

Irish Water is installing additional equipment at the water treatment plant, which will treat the water to reduce nitrate compounds and this will help safeguard the water supply at Barndarrig. The Irish Water team is working to install and calibrate this equipment, which will take a few weeks to complete. Once this work is completed, Irish Water will consult with the HSE with a view to lifting the "Do not consume" notice.

My Department's priority is to ensure people's health is protected and that adequate water is available for personal hygiene and the washing of hands during the Covid-19 pandemic. We all want to see this notice lifted without undue delay, but only when the HSE and the EPA have confirmed the water supply is safe. Additional information and advice is available on Irish Water's website or by calling Irish Water's 24-hour customer care line.

Both our water and waste water systems require substantial and sustained investment to bring the systems up to the quality and resilience standards required of a modern service, provide for population growth and build resilience in the face of climate change.

As part of budget 2021, I secured funding of more than €1.4 billion to support water services. This includes €1.3 billion in respect of domestic water services provision by Irish Water. The overall investment will deliver significant improvements in our public water and waste water services, support improved water supplies throughout Ireland, including rural Ireland, and support a range of programmes delivering improved water quality in our rivers, lakes and marine area.

I thank the Minister of State for his response and for saying he will look into the issue of the tanker. It is a small thing but it would make quite a bit of difference for the people in Barndarrig. I am also pleased to see it looks as though it could be just a matter of weeks before the notice can be lifted. That is a positive statement.

A continuous biochemistry monitor was to be put on the system. Does the Minister of State know when that will happen, or is that equipment part of what is going on at present?

The issue of communication is a simple one but it is important to the people of Barndarrig. Irish Water has notified local media about matters and puts information up on its website but in a small rural community like Barndarrig putting information in the local shop is also a good way to reach people. We are only talking about 213 houses so it might be possible for Irish Water to write directly to those residents if there is significant news. That would be appreciated.

The other issue I wish to raise is that while Irish Water has put in place drinking water supply plans, Barndarrig has not been prioritised. Due to the vulnerability of this system, I ask that Irish Water reprioritise it and ensure that a plan is put in place for Barndarrig because there have been many periods of vulnerability and water supply issues in the area. From a more long-term perspective, we need to look at why there are such high levels of nitrite in that water supply, and see where it is coming from and what remediation measures can be put in place to ensure this does not occur again in the future. We need to make that community's water supply more robust and sustainable.

I again thank the Deputy for raising this very important issue. I acknowledge the patience and co-operation of the residents of Barndarrig, particularly the very vulnerable people and businesses that have been affected by this notice. As already stated, my concern is that people's health is protected. I want these notices lifted without delay but only when the water is again safe to drink. Irish Water is working closely with the authorities and monitoring the situation to ensure that happens as quickly as possible. Irish Water's primary function is to provide safe, clean drinking water to customers, treat waste water and return water safely to the environment. In providing these critical services, Irish Water plays a role in enabling social and economic growth and protecting the environment as well as the health and safety of the public.

As a single national utility, Irish Water is taking a strategic and nationwide approach to asset planning, investment and meeting customer requirements. However, our entire water system will need substantial and sustained investment over a number of investment cycles to fully improve performance and resilience. Investment will also be needed to deliver new water capacity for our growing population and to deal with the increasing impacts of climate change. Prioritising the order of the work and the associated investment will require ongoing engagement between Irish Water and its regulators, the EPA and the Commission for Regulation of Utilities, to ensure the effective and efficient delivery of necessary water outcomes and to improve overall water system resilience. As Deputy Whitmore requested, I will ask Irish Water about the nitrates monitor and I will also raise the issue of communication. She made a very good suggestion about utilising the local shop, considering the number of residents impacted. We hope the issue will be resolved within a few weeks. I will also raise the matter of the water deliveries with Irish Water and will revert to the Deputy as soon as possible.

As Deputy Hourigan and the Minister for Further and Higher Education, Research, Innovation and Science are not here, with the permission of the House we will move on to the next matter and someone might make contact with the Minister's Department while we do so. Is that agreed? Agreed. We will revert to the two matters we have passed over and I ask that someone make contact with the Deputy and the Minister in the interim.

Aviation Industry

The aviation sector has been decimated by the pandemic. Workers across the State are on reduced hours, reduced pay, the pandemic unemployment payment, PUP, and the employment wage subsidy scheme, EWSS. Some have lost their jobs. This week, we heard the devastating news that Aer Lingus has announced further job losses and base closures. More than 140,000 jobs depends on us getting this right and ensuring the sector comes through but the Minister's hands-off attitude to date has made the situation much worse. Our connectivity has to be protected. It has to be front and centre, as do the jobs. Dealing with social welfare for Aer Lingus workers has been a battle a day and we now learn that their short-term work supports will be cut off. Will the Minister please intervene to ensure that, at the very least, they are kept on the minimum payments until the Government publishes the plan for the survival and recovery of the aviation sector, which is desperately needed?

From the outset of the pandemic, workers and unions in the aviation sector have called for two things: supports and a plan. The Government has a responsibility to protect strategic connectivity. The levels of support for workers, airlines and airports are a fraction of what is needed, based on international comparisons. The fact that there have been no conditions for the protection of jobs and strategic connectivity is simply a disgrace. Where is the plan and what is it? The Joint Committee on Transport and Communications Networks, the aviation recovery task force, the National Civil Aviation Development Forum, NCADF and Professor Mark Ferguson have all made submissions on this matter. We all appreciate that the reopening of travel will have to be done safely but there are major concerns that we will not be able to avail of the opportunity that the digital green certificate and other developments present. We need to be prepared for that.

I am here to speak specifically about the Aer Lingus cabin crew base closure at Shannon Airport. It has been devastating for the workers and their families. As well as that, having a base at Shannon is critical for connectivity because of the early morning and early afternoon Heathrow slots and because it provides transatlantic connectivity to Aer Lingus. I have two questions. I know the Minister has had discussions with Aer Lingus so I ask that follow-up discussions be held now. We had a meeting with the Taoiseach earlier in that regard.

The plan that will allow aviation to reopen in a safe way is to be launched next week and the digital green certificate has been announced for the end of June. I ask that this be front-loaded. My main concern is that Aer Lingus must reverse its decision and re-establish its cabin crew base at Shannon Airport. The State is paying the PUP to staff who have been temporarily laid off. That payment is in place to bring the staff and the airline through so they can resume the Heathrow and transatlantic routes. I understand the airline has committed to connectivity but we must have that base to ensure absolute security in that area.

I rise to support Aer Lingus workers. The Minister will tell us that the Government has an €80 million aviation plan and that €120 million was given to Aer Lingus by Ireland Strategic Investment Fund, ISIF.

What are needed now are direct supports for workers to stave off and stop those job losses in Cork and Shannon airports. The Government must start subventing those jobs, keep the employees on the payroll and ensure they can get through this period of turmoil. It must enable us to retain those jobs in future and save our Aer Lingus airline. That is the important point to be made. I ask the Minister to please not come with the response that he has already given €80 million to the aviation industry, because nothing specifically has been given to the airline sector. People will tell us that schemes, such as the employee wage support scheme, EWSS, and the Covid-19 restrictions support scheme, CRSS, were devised for other sectors. What we want now, though, is to preserve these jobs, keep these people in their uniforms and ensure they can support and sustain their families in the short term until we have the recovery plan.

The other aspect which must be addressed is the report on Covid-19 rapid testing. We must have an honest debate on what the digital green certificate is going to look like. A distinction must be made between what is a PCR test and what is an antigen test. We need to have an honest debate in that context about what antigen testing means. We cannot hide behind the National Public Health Emergency Team, NPHET, in this respect. We must ensure that the best epidemiological advice, as determined globally, is used in respect of travel.

As has been articulated by the Deputies, Aer Lingus unfortunately announced several cost-cutting measures on Tuesday, 18 May. These included the temporary closure of its base in Cork Airport from September to November this year and the permanent closure of the cabin crew base in Shannon Airport. The Minister of State, Deputy Naughton, and I met the CEO of Aer Lingus yesterday. Among other things, we discussed yesterday's announcement, which is deeply regrettable. I acknowledge the difficult and unprecedented challenges being faced by Aer Lingus and its staff and the cost pressures leading to the ultimate decision to restructure the company.

The continued international crisis in aviation is increasing the pressure on all firms in the industry. All airlines have variously issued capital, raised further borrowing, drawn on Government supports or taken measures to reduce their cost bases or both. Major European airlines, such as Lufthansa, Air France, KLM, and IAG, have announced many thousands of job cuts. I assure Aer Lingus and the wider aviation sector that the Government is fully committed to supporting the industry and we acknowledge the importance of providing clarity on the extent and duration of the employment supports before the end of June. We recognise as well that the critical issue for the industry is a roadmap for the restoration of international travel. The Government intends to set out a pathway for the gradual reopening of international travel at its meeting next week. I hope there will be an extensive Dáil debate and statements on the issue next Tuesday, which will enable Deputies to set out their thinking in that regard.

We also met yesterday with the CEO of Shannon Group and the managing director of Cork Airport to brief them on the situation and to reiterate Government support for the airports and their important role in regional development. Similar engagements occurred between the Minister of State, Deputy Naughton, and the unions and employer representative groups in her capacity as chair of the Labour Employer Economic Forum, LEEF, and its aviation subgroup, at its meeting this week. The Government is acutely aware of the devastating impact Covid-19 restrictions are having on the aviation sector nationally and across the world. We are committed to ensuring that the aviation sector will be in a position to rebound quickly when the public health situation allows.

Government supports continue to be used to aid companies and their staff throughout this crisis. Throughout the pandemic, the Government has made significant funding available to Aer Lingus and other aviation enterprises through a range of business supports. It is estimated that by the end of June 2021, the sector will have received approximately €300 million in such supports. The bulk of those supports was in the form of the temporary wage subsidy scheme, TWSS, and the employment wage subsidy scheme, EWSS, programmes, which were specifically designed to maintain the link between employers and employees. An additional €32.1 million is also being provided in respect of support for Cork and Shannon airports this year. My Department is also assessing applications for funding to the State airports under the auspices of the €20 million Covid-19 supplementary support scheme, and the Minister of State expects to be in a position to provide funding to Cork and Shannon airports under this scheme shortly.

All our thoughts today are with those impacted by the announcement by Aer Lingus yesterday and with all those in the aviation industry who continue to be impacted by the biggest crisis this sector has ever faced. I assure workers and all those involved in the aviation industry that the Government will continue to support the industry and to review the supports which may be required in the months to come. While we are not yet able to permit the restoration of international travel, work is under way to ensure that we are prepared for exactly that situation. Until then, the Government will continue to provide supports to the aviation sector, as we do to all sectors of the economy. Aviation has been particularly badly hit. It, along with tourism and hospitality, are the areas which deserve our greatest help, support and attention and those elements will be provided in every way we can.

Sinn Féin vigorously opposed the privatisation of Aer Lingus in 2015 by Fine Gael and the Labour Party. We said at that time that it would cost jobs. Unfortunately, that decision has left the Government severely weakened in its position and that is obvious. I ask the Minister to engage proactively with Aer Lingus, and to not come in here and list the supports every sector is getting. The aviation sector has been hit harder than most. Surely, the Minister must acknowledge that. Can the Minister please advise us regarding when we are going to see a recovery plan for aviation, because Sinn Féin has been requesting that for months?

That recovery plan must include antigen testing and the digital green certificate. We need a roadmap out of this situation, because, at the very least, that will give Aer Lingus confidence that it will be able to retain those bases because business will be coming back. The Minister is not giving the airline that confidence now. From talking to people in the sector, I know they are deeply disappointed at his hands-off attitude. They do not believe the Minister is committed to aviation and the retention of these jobs. He must step up to the plate and demonstrate such commitment.

Regarding the scale of the supports, the Minister mentioned €300 million by the end of June. Other countries are providing many times that level of support. In addition, with that €300 million, we have no commitment regarding strategic connectivity or the protection of jobs. That is completely inexcusable. The aviation sector will have to recover, and we will need it to be strong and robust in future. The supports must be continued and significantly increased immediately. A clear plan is also required, and, as Deputy O'Reilly outlined, it must involve the digital green certificate, be detailed clearly and involve the prospect of antigen testing to deal with the quarantine restrictions, which we all hope to relax when it is safe to do so.

I am a Deputy from the constituency of Limerick City in the mid-west. Connectivity through Shannon Airport is vital. It is a key component of our economic and tourism model. Crucial in that respect is the need to have an Aer Lingus cabin crew base located at Shannon Airport to ensure it is possible to provide flights at times which suit business people in the region and tourists. In that regard, I have two requests. First, I understand from the Taoiseach that the Government will continue to engage with Aer Lingus to seek to reverse the closure of the cabin crew base. Second, whatever supports are needed should be provided to ensure we can retain that base in Shannon.

Finally, regarding the reopening, and we look forward to that announcement of the plan next week, I ask that it be done in a way that will enable us to be ready when the full resumption of air travel occurs and the digital green certificate comes in at the end of June. That would enable us to have the Common Travel Area operational and the Heathrow route up and running as quickly as possible, as well as transatlantic flights. Aer Lingus is a key part of making that happen, and, in turn, an essential component in that regard is the retention of the cabin crew base. That is an important aspect, in addition to the jobs themselves.

Mention was made of the common travel area, transatlantic flights, the digital green certificate, antigen testing, maintaining people in uniforms and protecting jobs. In that context, the base in Cork Airport is closing for three months. When the reopening plan is unveiled, will it enable people who work for Aer Lingus in Cork Airport to be confident that their jobs will be protected and restored and the temporary lay-off will be reversed? That is what those people are looking to the Government to do. I ask the Minister please to think of the people of Cork.

We absolutely think of the people of Cork, Limerick and Shannon. I have spoken to representatives of Aer Lingus and Cork and Shannon airports. The answer to the Deputy's question is "Yes". The decision to shut Cork Airport to upgrade the runway to ensure the long-term success of the airport was a strategic decision made by the airport authority. When I spoke to representatives of Aer Lingus yesterday, I asked them specifically whether the possibility of the airport remaining closed had any influence on the decision or if there is any sense that the airport will not open again after the runway is rebuilt. The answer was "No". I was told that it was an appropriate decision to take to use this period of very limited air travel to upgrade the runway.

In answer to Deputy O'Donnell's question, connectivity will absolutely return to Shannon Airport. It is vital. In fact, I expect that as Cork Airport shuts down in September for the runway to be upgraded, we will see an immediate return of flights from Shannon to make sure that the south-western region has connectivity. However, it cannot be just that. There must be connectivity with the US and other new areas. It will take time, but those airports will return and the jobs will return with them. Our attention is firmly fixed on this issue.

When I am in discussions with representatives of the airports and the airlines, they are more concerned about, and desire more than anything, an understanding of the timeline in respect of the reopening of international travel. As a Government, we committed to providing that timeline by the end of this month, which we will. Statements on aviation due to be made in the Dáil next week will be a most useful opportunity for the members of the Opposition to set out their views as to what that plan and timeline should be. I look forward to hearing what every Member has to say. There will be plenty of time during statements to go into the detail of the matter.

In reflecting upon what we have heard here, we need to be ambitious and get our aviation sector back. We must heed public health advice, but with the roll-out of the vaccination programme, there is the possibility of a return to travel. I have not heard many experts in the area or people in the international sector, or indeed domestically, cite the fact that antigen testing will be key or critical in that regard. I have heard that in respect of the digital green certificate. Antigen testing will have a role to play in widespread screening to enable the return to offices and colleges. I am happy, by all means, for a Deputy to show me an example of international efforts where antigen testing is being used to provide widespread screening to enable air travel. However, and from what I hear and see, it is not the key issue. The key issue is the application of the digital green certificate and the extension, in effect, of the traffic light system that we have introduced. This will enable a return to travel and ensure that we can get connectivity back with our colleagues in the UK, US and Europe, in particular. In truth, in the start-back phase, it is most likely that we will see a return of air travel with those countries that are vaccinating their populations at the same rate and following the same timelines as us. Indeed, some of them may even be ahead of us. It will take time, but we will recover as a country. Our sole focus is to get the aviation sector, and the tourism, hospitality and business sectors that depend on it, back.

Apprenticeship Programmes

I thank the Ceann Comhairle for the opportunity to discuss the important issue of apprenticeships.

I was very welcoming of the launch of the new five-year apprenticeship action plan. The action plan aims to deliver 10,000 apprentice programme registrations per year by 2025. Everyone learns in different ways. The plan to provide a roadmap to a single apprenticeship system and new supports for both employees and apprentices are great, but we are currently facing serious difficulties in respect of apprenticeships because of the pandemic and the delays in the programmes.

I have been contacted by several constituents in Carlow who have highlighted the delays that apprentices are currently facing. Basically, what should have been a four-year apprenticeship is looking like it will be six or seven years. These are hard-working young people who will be here to pay taxes for many years to come, hopefully. However, these delays are going to hinder their opportunities to travel and see the world. They have been held back significantly as a result of the Covid pandemic.

This age group have suffered so much. Many of them worked right the way through the pandemic in essential services. Apprenticeship courses did not provide the same remote learning options as many other courses. One constituent of mine started their apprenticeship in October 2019 and should be qualified and finished in 2023. Their first college phase should have started in September 2020, but it has been postponed until October 2022, two years later than expected.

Taking an apprentice electrician as an example, it normally takes four years to complete the programme. Phase 1 lasts three months; phase 2, 22 weeks; phase 3, a minimum of six months; phase 4, ten to 11 weeks; phase 5, six months; phase 6, ten to 11 weeks; and phase 7, a minimum of three months. Phases 2, 4 and 6 are college-based, and for those apprentices who were due to complete these phases in the past 14 months, there has been a major issue. It must be addressed. I am most concerned that this delay will have a knock-on effect on additional college places. One of my greatest concerns is whether there will be sufficient college places available.

What is the plan to address this issue and what is the solution? We will be crying out for fully-qualified tradespeople as older qualified people retire, and they will not be finished their apprenticeships. That is without mentioning the domino effect it will have. We know that we will badly need tradespeople in the years ahead due to the housing supply issue. This is the sector that is most reliant on apprentices in the workforce.

Having equal access to an apprenticeship irrespective of background, gender or age should be an option for all. However, if a person signs up for an apprenticeship, he or she should be able to complete the required phases of learning properly.

I wish to stress how hard everyone has worked during this pandemic. People have made sacrifices. I know that the Minister understands that, given that he has responsibility for third level education. We have seen students trying to work from home and having to tackle problems with broadband and other issues. The pandemic has had a major effect on them. In respect of apprenticeships, some apprentices will face a two-year delay in completing their courses. That is unacceptable.

Apprenticeship programmes should be an option within the national education and training system, transforming them from a well established route to a career in niche areas such as the crafts sector, to a well established route to a broad range of careers that are attractive to both employers and learners. If we do not address this backlog, we will have difficulty meeting that goal. I look forward to hearing about the work the Minister has done in this area to address the issue, particularly in respect of my own area of Carlow.

I have received several phone calls about this issue. It is a concern and a worry. Some of the apprentices who have approached me about the issue are paying bills and are finding it very hard. They had a plan that they would qualify by a certain date and now that has been extended. I want to know what work has been done on this issue. I look forward to hearing the Minister's response.

I thank the Deputy for tabling this important topical issue. Indeed, it is most timely because I spent the afternoon in a training centre in Glasnevin with our electrical and plumbing apprentices. I engaged very directly with the apprentices, talked to them about their experiences and heard their insights in respect of the Covid pandemic.

As the Deputy mentioned in her contribution, apprenticeships sit at the very heart of plans by the Government and myself to build a genuine third-level education and training system, one that recognises that we all learn in different ways. Sometimes the earning and learning model can be a very useful one. We want to ensure that we have an apprenticeship system that crosses the further and higher education sector, and one that brings together employers, education and training providers and our national skills infrastructure.

It has a crucial role to play in taking us out of the Covid-19 crisis, as apprenticeship programmes also provide a rapid route to economic recovery. There are currently 61 apprenticeship programmes in our country, 25 of which are what are referred to as craft or traditional apprenticeships. They have a largely standardised seven-phase programme of on-the-job and off-the-job training. Off-the-job training is delivered in phases 2, 4 and 6 of a craft apprenticeship in ETB training centres, institutes of technology and technological universities.

Unfortunately, as the Deputy has alluded to and as we all know, the Covid-19 related suspension of face-to-face training in the education and training sector has had a significant impact on the ability of craft apprentices to access off-the-job training. The public health advice was that some of these measures could not proceed in the interests of safety for a period. When permissible, face-to-face training is operating at approximately 50% of normal capacity to ensure adherence to public health guidance. That training is now back, but operators must adhere to social distancing rules and follow the public health guidance. This has also exacerbated the increasing pressure on training facilities, which had been growing as a result of the 90% increase in the apprentice population over the past six years. Indeed, we had great success as a country in growing the apprentice population. The combined impact of all of these factors has resulted in what the Deputy correctly referred to as a backlog in electrical, plumbing, carpentry and joinery and motor mechanics apprenticeship programmes, in particular.

The combined impact of all this has led to what the Deputy correctly refers to as a backlog, particularly in electrical, plumbing, carpentry and joinery and motor mechanic apprenticeship programmes. Remote training was introduced for craft apprenticeships assigned to off-the-job training phases from January 2021 and great credit is owed to all the staff, trainers and apprentices for this. They managed to put in place online learning for craft apprenticeship programmes, something that had never been done previously. That at least allowed them to progress with the theoretical parts of their courses. However, the core of a craft apprenticeship is not theory. It is a practical programme, and the practical nature requires apprentices to attend on site to be able to access equipment and to demonstrate their competency at practical tasks. As such, the Government has prioritised craft apprentices for a return to face-to-face learning. A phased return has been allowed since April, so that is the good news. They are now back as part of a phased return.

Simply returning to current Covid levels of delivery or, indeed, to pre-Covid levels will not be enough, for all the reasons the Deputy outlined. I have taken some immediate actions to support the expansion of the craft apprenticeship training infrastructure. I am delighted to inform the House that I have secured €20 million in additional capital expenditure, which I have allocated to SOLAS and the HEA to facilitate an additional 4,000 craft apprenticeship places across the system to deal with the backlog and the concern voiced by the Deputy. This is in addition to the €12 million which has already been allocated to support additional classes and to put in place additional teaching capacity to ameliorate the Covid-19 measures. SOLAS and the HEA are working intensively with the education and training providers to identify additional solutions to address the backlog for the off-the-job element. The Government will not be found wanting in providing any resources that are required to help in this. I am satisfied that with the extra €20 million and the fact that apprentices are now back in the practical classes, we will eat into this backlog in the coming months and get on with the delivery of the action plan on apprenticeships.

That is very good to know. Communication is the key here so perhaps the Minister could give us more information. I very much welcome the €20 million. It is very important. Apprenticeships have been part of our culture over the years, but we need them now more than ever. It is great to have that apprenticeship programme. It can offer so much to students. I strongly welcome this. In addition, it is important to welcome the technological university for the south east. I have been working very hard with the Minister on this for Carlow. It is great news for Carlow, which has two excellent third level colleges.

I am glad to hear there is only a backlog for a few months. At least I will be able to tell people the Minister is working on the backlog, there is €20 million extra available and, it is hoped, within the next few months there will no longer be a backlog. That is important. For me, communication is key with regard to all the different apprenticeships and courses. The Minister referred to the 61 programmes. That is excellent. It is very good for our country and it is important for us. I know the Minister has been working very hard on apprenticeships. For years it has been an issue I believed we should address, and we are addressing it now. I understand Covid-19 has been a big factor in the delays, but with people getting vaccinated, we are getting back on track. It is important for these students. They want to be qualified and to work full-time, so it is important we get this resolved as soon as possible. I thank the Minister for his reply.

I could not agree more with the Deputy. The Government is going to do two specific things. We are allocating the €20 million to provide extra supports, and if we need to do more we will do it. We have given it to the HEA and to SOLAS and they are examining what practical measures they can put in place to reduce the backlog. Second, and importantly, we have prioritised getting the apprentices back to their practical face-to-face provision. That is in place since last month.

As regards the technological university for the south east, I thank the Deputy for her support for this project. I am delighted to tell her that, before I came to the Chamber this evening, I wrote to the HEA about the appointment of the international independent panel, the advisory panel. That is the next solid step. I am not pre-empting that but, subject to things going well, we will deliver on the date and get the doors of the technological university for the south east open on 1 January 2022. It will be a major day for Carlow and the south east. We will keep talking about Carlow College as well, and I know we have work to do on that.

Apprenticeships are very much at the core of the Government's education policy and the economic recovery policy. We want to do five things. We want to get more apprentices - 10,000 each year by 2025. We want to ensure there are more diverse people involved in apprenticeships, especially more women. We want to make sure there is a broader range of apprenticeships. I am delighted with the roll-out of a new apprenticeship programme in hairdressing, for example, in recent weeks. There are 17 more apprenticeship programmes in the pipeline. We want the public sector not to just lecture people but to step up and play its part. We want it to hire 750 apprentices every year by 2025. Every county council, State agency and Department has a role to play. We also realise we cannot deliver on this agenda without businesses, so we want to provide more supports for businesses, including financial supports.

The Government is prioritising apprenticeships and will continue to do so. We must end the narrow, elitist and sometimes, sadly, snobby attitude we have to third level education in this country. We must recognise everybody learns in different ways. There is no right way or wrong way, just many different ways. Apprenticeships will be at the core of that.

Planning Issues

I wish to discuss build-to-rent construction. I will begin by being honest in saying I do not like it. I do not like it as a model and it did not exist when I was working in architecture. I do not like the fact there is a two-tier standard of housing that differentiates between what you might need when you are renting and what you might need when you own a building. I do not like the lower standards it engenders and that apply to build-to-rent versus owner-occupier units, and I do not like that Irish residents will be paying rent in perpetuity, mainly to foreign funds, for the pleasure of living in what I consider to be substandard housing, especially since the rents are often unsustainable at present.

However, even if I did like build-to-rent, I would still be concerned. The increasing prevalence of any typology in a particular area is a problem, especially in Dublin. It is an emerging issue in my constituency of Dublin Central. The Dublin Inquirer recently published an article which stated that between 2018 and 2020 as much as 70% of housing units granted permission in Dublin City Council were build-to-rent. My own review of strategic housing developments and their applications to An Bord Pleanála in the past year in the Dublin City Council area indicates a similar number, with approximately 65% of units being build-to-rent. In my constituency there is a single forthcoming development in Clonliffe College of more than 1,600 units, and 1,300 of those will be build-to-rent. That is the size of a small town.

There will always be a need for rental accommodation. People will need it for the short term, the medium term, the long term or for a particular life stage. They might need it for a certain type of employment or for financial reasons. They might need it just because some people like to rent and do not want to buy. We must have rental housing stock, but we do not need low-quality housing stock. Build-to-rent units have no requirement for cross-ventilation, minimal requirements for storage and minimal requirements for community amenity. They have a 5% variation, which means that there can be units that are smaller than the minimum requirement. They have relaxed fire safety regulations so there are no lobbies to kitchens and there are lower ceiling heights. There is a variation for sprinklers. That does not engender confidence in build-to-rent as a typology.

I am not sure that, when the then Minister with responsibility for housing introduced build-to-rent guidelines, he envisaged the level of uptake we see at present. I hear a great deal about social mix from other parties when we are developing sites. I believe we need a balance with build-to-rent developments. We limit the amount of social and affordable housing in developments. We should now, at a minimum, have a percentage cap on the build-to-rent element of any site, if not an outright ban. That balance is needed for sustainable communities so they do not become dominated by transient housing models. Those housing models are not transient because of the people in them, but because people do not want to live in them for long as they are not up to standard.

In November last year, the Department of Housing, Local Government and Heritage produced a welcome report on co-living developments. On foot of that report, the Minister took the view that the number of applications and permissions was too high and decided, effectively, to ban co-living. That was the correct decision in my view. I ask that the Department commence a similar review of what is happening with build-to-rent and the impact it is having on the market in inner city areas. We must make a conscious decision about the appropriate levels and locations for this type of development because every community deserves to have quality housing.

I thank the Deputy for raising this important matter. Members will be aware that what happened in Maynooth is not acceptable, as the Government moves quickly to address this issue. The Taoiseach was clear from the outset that the Government does "not want institutional investors competing with first-time buyers". He went on to say that, "Our priority is first-time buyers."

The actions taken yesterday by the Government are evidence of the priority we have given this matter and our commitment to levelling the playing field for ordinary people who rightfully aspire to owning their own home. I will return to this in a moment but in the first instance, I want to clear up any confusion that may exist between buy-to-rent and the recent bulk-buying of houses in Maynooth by institutional investors. For absolute clarity, let me state that the development in Maynooth did not go through the planning system as a build-to-rent development and, therefore, was not designed or planned as such. Concern around planning permission being allocated to build-to-rent is, therefore, not entirely accurate in this case.

The Maynooth issue has arisen as a result not of the build-to-rent application or planning permission but, rather, the standard-type planning permission with which we are all familiar. It was only after the planning process had concluded that the developer chose to sell all remaining units to an institutional investor whose intention to rent those units was not part of the original planning process. Prior to 20 May, if applicants or developers did not seek permission specifically for a build-to-rent development, they were still free to sell or rent any or all of the units, which included selling the units to anyone who wished to rent either one or all of the units. This is what gave rise to the issue of concern in the context of the Maynooth development.

I will summarise the issue and the way we addressed it. Yesterday, 19 May, saw the issuance of new ministerial guidelines under section 28 of the Planning and Development Act 2000, as amended, to address the regularisation of commercial institutional investment and regulations in certain housing developments. These guidelines will ensure new own-door houses and duplex units in housing developments are not bulk purchased by commercial institutional investors in a way that would cause the displacement of individual purchasers and-or social, affordable and cost rental units. The Minister, Deputy Darragh O'Brien, intends to bring further changes through in the Affordable Housing Bull 2021, which is currently before the Oireachtas, to enable local authorities specify a minimum percentage of these houses and duplexes solely for the purchase of owner-occupiers. Specific proposals will emerge in the coming weeks.

It is important for me to clarify the actions taken and that the reasons they were taken were different than those suggested by the Deputy in the question she posed. In that regard, I want to directly address the question posed and explain that the planning is not allocated. It is up to applicants or developers to seek planning permission specifically for build-to-rents, which permission has particular conditions and requirements attached. I will briefly summarise them. Chapter 5 of the Design Standards for New Apartments Guidelines for Planning Authorities addressed the relatively new and emerging build-to-rent sector and set out a number of key and distinct characteristics of this type of accommodation and relevant planning requirements. Build-to-rent projects are usually a single entity investment for a long-term rental undertaking comprising individual residential units within the development that are not sold off separately for private ownership and-or subsequent subletting individually, which is a key difference from the traditional housing development model. The guidelines provide for planning permission for specific build-to-rent developments to be sought from the planning authority. Where such permission is applied for, the proposed development must also include the provision for dedicated amenities and facilities, specifically for residents, in terms of communal recreational space and works spaces, as well as a range of other support services. My point is that there may be room for build-to-rent as envisaged and provided for in the planning guidelines while, at the same time, ensuring that safeguards are put in place to protect first-time buyers and owner-occupiers.

Perspective and balance are also important. Let us look at the data. Build-to-rent developments form a relatively small proportion of the planning applications lodged. As of February 2021, 48,397 residential units in total have been approved under the strategic housing development process, comprising 12,991 houses, 27,624 apartments and 7,782 build-to-rent units. Build-to-rent makes up 16% of the total residential units approved under the strategic housing development process. The amount of build-to-rent developments approved is currently, therefore, relatively small.

I thank the Minister of State. As he said, build-to-rent makes up 16% overall but that figure is 65% in my constituency. That is a predominance of build-to-rent. I take the Minister of State's point about Maynooth but we might just stick with the issue around the quality of build-to-rent accommodation. It is a lower standard and there are lower requirements for storage and public amenities. Even those people who rent should have a place to park their prams.

I want to bring to the Minister of State's attention something that has been raised in the Joint Committee on Disability Matters and not only by me. Some 13% to 15% of the population has a disability. Such people are more likely to be living in poverty and less likely to be purchasing their own homes. A considerable proportion of those people live in private rental situations. The minimum requirements for spatial set-outs in build-to-rent are fundamentally in conflict with the rights of people with disabilities. A 5% variance on spatial standards means that a studio or one-bedroom apartment of 37 sq. m can be brought down to 35 sq. m. That is a tiny amount of space without any room for storage. There is no generosity in that space. We already know there is an issue in accessing the home adaptation grant for private rental properties. There is no likelihood that the significant proportion of the Irish population who have a disability can seriously use the 65% of build-to-rent permission in my constituency. That is the outsized impact that build-to-rent has on areas such as Dublin Central. I would very much like if it was 16%.

For the record, I have no objection to professional landlords and landlords who are running properties in bulk. My query and concern is about the standard of the buildings we are now putting in place.

I thank the Deputy for her interest in the matter, which I know is genuine. As Minister of State with responsibility for housing for people with disabilities, I can tell the Deputy we are doing a huge amount of work on design in that space. That will be emerging in the coming weeks. We are also updating a new strategy, on which consultation is ongoing.

The question posed illustrated some confusion or misconception that may exist. I want to clarify the point about the curbing of planning or allocations for build-to-rent developments. I must say categorically that planning is not allocated. It is up to the applicant or developers to seek the planning permission specifically for build-to-rent, which has particular conditions and requirements attached, as I outlined earlier. Housing and planning, and how they interact, are complex, as the Deputy will know. As Minister of State with responsibility for these matters, I am grateful to have the opportunity to put the facts before the House and to dispel any confusion that may exist. I genuinely hope I have tried my very best to do this today. There are some real and tangible issues and I do not underestimate the impact that all of these have on our everyday lives. The Government has demonstrated by its actions that it does not want, in the first instance, institutional investors competing with first-time buyers and, for the Deputy's information, the new guidelines are now available on the Department's website, as I said.

I have already stated that affordable housing for buyers is a key priority for this Government. Legislation, namely, the Affordable Housing Bill, is currently passing through the Oireachtas. Giving first-time buyers a realistic chance is important, allowing them an aspiration of realising home ownership. It is important to recognise that a one-size-fits-all approach is not appropriate and Government policy must be broad and diverse enough to meet the varied housing needs of a modern, cosmopolitan society. A mix of typology is required for a varied market and in meeting the needs of one cohort, we cannot ignore another. That is why it is important to recognise the complexities involved and to ensure that in addressing one particular issue, we do not inadvertently create problems in another area. We have given careful consideration to all these measures and I will outline and raise the Deputy's concerns in terms of design with the Minister, Deputy Darragh O'Brien, and the Department.

I thank the Minister of State and the Deputy. I thank all Deputies who submitted matters for Topical Issue debate and the Ministers and Minsters of State who have attended to respond. To be helpful to Deputies, I will say that if they have specific concerns about the topic being raised, it would be helpful if those specific concerns were mentioned in the question itself so that a Minister, in responding, would have a chance to do the necessary research.