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Dáil Éireann debate -
Wednesday, 26 May 2021

Vol. 1007 No. 6

Saincheisteanna Tráthúla - Topical Issue Debate

Heritage Sites

I thank the Leas-Cheann Comhairle. In 2010 a tentative list of sites for designation to UNESCO world heritage status was put forward by this State. Unfortunately, nothing very much happened after that with regard to that tentative list. During my time as a Deputy in the Thirty-first Dáil, the Dáil before last, I took the opportunity to visit UNESCO to hear what was happening with the list and the body was surprised to hear from somebody from Ireland, such was the lack of communication or follow-up from here. I am glad that Ireland is now putting forward a new tentative list and I very much hope there will be a degree of energy involved in that that was sorely absent over the past decade or so.

The 2010 list contained a grouping of early monastic sites, namely, Clonmacnoise, Glendalough, Inis Cealtra, Durrow, Kells and Monasterboice. Fortunately, any UNESCO proposal or designation for a world heritage list has to be accompanied by local buy-in and support and that is something to which UNESCO very much looks. Unfortunately, in the case of the early monastic site grouping, Offaly County Council for one reason or another was not very interested in having Clonmacnoise designated. Of the six sites that I mentioned, most people would agree that Clonmacnoise from an archaeological perspective, or even perhaps an architectural one, is the most interesting. Due to that site not being progressed and the lack of appetite from Offaly to do so, the entire group did not progress.

Similarly, there was a western stone forts designation which included Dún Aonghusa, which would probably be the most well-known of them, Cahercommaun, in Killinaboy, north Clare, and three other forts, including two in County Kerry. As Kerry County Council, for one reason or another, was not very interested in advancing its designation, that grouping fell. There were other single designations such as the Burren and Georgian Dublin. It is hardly surprising that Georgian Dublin did not proceed given Dublin City Council’s propensity to destroy its Georgian culture at most available opportunities and Senator McDowell has recently commented on that. While everybody likes to see contemporary architecture, when there is existing architecture of world merit it should be preserved. I am not suggesting that one builds a faux replica of it in any way, as once it is gone it is gone. There was for a very long time, and perhaps even now, a lack of awareness on the part of Dublin City Council of the importance of preserving what is there.

Returning to the main topic, a new list is being developed. One of the UNESCO criteria is: “to be directly or tangibly associated with events or living traditions, with ideas, or with beliefs, with artistic and literary works of outstanding universal significance". In that context, Kerry County Council is moving forward with the Valentia Transatlantic Cable Station as a proposal because it was a tangible moment in time when global telecommunications was born and I wish it luck with that.

There are sites in County Clare in particular, Inis Cealtra and Inis Cathaigh, and these sites are linked with the birth or nascence of a European civilisation, namely, that period in time, the early Middle Ages and the Carolingian court, when the idea of Europe was born. Whether Europe had a Christian tradition or not was an issue of controversy when the constitution for Europe was being framed.

Whether one agrees with that or not, it is indisputable that the idea of Europe was born in the early Middle Ages through the work of a network of monks and they had their origins in monasteries, including Inis Cealtra and Inis Cathaigh.

I thank Deputy McNamara for raising this important matter. In keeping with UNESCO advice to review the Tentative List every ten years, my Department launched a call for applications to Ireland's Tentative List of world heritage properties in January 2019. The closing date for receipt of applications is 30 June 2021. My Department has invited all local authorities to submit applications to it with respect to properties of natural and-or cultural heritage within their areas of responsibility which may meet the requirements for inclusion on the Tentative List within the Department.

My Department's national monuments service has been liaising closely with local authorities that have expressed an interest in having a property within their county boundaries included on the revised Tentative List, providing advice and guidance on an ongoing basis. The Department has also organised outreach events in conjunction with the International Council on Monuments and Sites Ireland and has provided feedback on various projects to all of the 31 local authorities. My Department's policy for the application has been sponsored by relevant local authorities or other statutory bodies in order to ensure continuity throughout the process. Individuals and organisations are encouraged to apply in collaboration with the local authorities. The role of the local authority in the process is crucial in order to facilitate public consultation and wider stakeholder engagement, particularly in light of the requirement under the UNESCO operational guidelines for a participatory planning and stakeholder consultation throughout the process.

For a property to proceed to nomination for world heritage status, it first must be placed on the Tentative List for at least one year. Immediately after the June 2021 closing date, my Department will conduct an initial screening of all applications received before transmitting them to an expert advisory group for independent assessment and accreditation. The expert advisory group will make recommendations to my Department on the properties that should be included in the revised Tentative List. As a focal point for Ireland as a state party of The World Heritage Convention, my Department will make a final decision in regard to the Tentative List. In assessing the applications received, the expert advisory group will evaluate a property's likelihood to progress to nomination and inscription on the world heritage list based on the ability to demonstrate outstanding universal value, as alluded to by the Deputy, meaning that its significance is so exceptional as to transcend national boundaries and to be of common importance for present and future generations to all humanity.

To demonstrate universal value a property must meet at least one of the world heritage criteria, the relevant conditions of integrity and-or authenticity and there must be mechanisms in place to provide for its long-term protection and management. The presence of robust local stakeholder support for the project is also considered a crucial element of the viability for a property's nomination to world heritage status. We anticipate receipt of the following five applications: The Burren, Glendalough Monastic City; the Passage Tomb Landscapes of Sligo, the Royal Sites and Valentia Transatlantic Cable Station. My Department does not anticipate receipt of an application with respect to the early medieval monastic sites, which had been part of the previous Tentative List, although, as stated, a standalone application for Glendalough Monastic City is expected to be received. The expert advisory group will then provide guidance as to the feasibility of future world heritage projects in respect of sites on the previous Tentative List for which updated applications are not submitted under the current round. This would, of course, continue to be subject to the requirement of strong local stakeholder support for the projects in question.

I look forward to receipt of applications for inclusion on the Tentative List over the months ahead.

What the Minister of State said in regard to the process of application differs somewhat from the published criteria. The Minister of State said that applications must be made in conjunction with a local authority, but under the published criteria, any group can put forward a proposal. If one was a lip-smacking lawyer looking to judicially review a process, the Minister of State has given fertile grounds just now. One cannot publish one set of criteria and then apply a different set of criteria, which seems to be case.

The Minister of State clearly said that he anticipates certain applications, but does not anticipate others. Is this a done deal? As I said of the early monastic sites, I readily acknowledge Clonmacnoise would be universally accepted to be the most important. Glendalough is a beautiful place, as is Holy Island, but neither of them is quite Clonmacnoise. The big difference is that Glendalough is situated in the constituency of two Cabinet Ministers and Inis Cealtra is not situate in the constituency of a Cabinet Minister. That, of course, should not be anywhere near the criteria. It should be based on universal criteria and universal values. This is about protecting sites of universal importance.

The French political scientist Olivier Roy spoke about a European civilisation. Former President Clinton, who addressed this House, not in this particular building but in another that we might some day go back to, spoke about Ireland's role in saving civilisation. A book was written about it that may or may not be historically accurate. It is generally accepted that Irish monks and the network of monasteries came out of Ireland - I refer to O'Clery's work in the 16th and 17th centuries, The Twelve Apostles of Ireland which, again may not be historically accurate - and the idea of the re-evangelisation of Europe from Ireland at the time of Charlemagne is of universal significance. There are monasteries, including two in Clare, Inis Cathaigh and Inis Cealtra.

I would like to make a final point.

I ask the Deputy to listen to me. The Private Members' motion is to commence at 10 a.m. There are three other topical issue matters to be dealt with.

If Inis Cealtra was significant enough to be on the list previously, it still is. I look forward to an explanation.

I will have to reduce the time of other speakers in order that this business is completed by 10 a.m.


I reject the Deputy's connotation that essentially there is Cabinet interference. There is absolutely no interference. This is a robust, independent process. I made clear in my speech that individuals and organisations are encouraged to make applications in collaboration with the local authority. The local authority places structure on any process. Local authorities are a key focal point throughout the 31 regions in our State. They are needed to give direction. I make no apologies in that regard.

To summarise, my Department is currently engaged in a review of a Tentative List. It is necessary for a property to be on the Tentative List before it can proceed to nomination for world heritage status. My Department has been liaising closely with interested parties and has been providing advice and support on preparation of their applications. An expert advisory group has been formed to assess the potential of each property to demonstrate outstanding universal value and to determine if there is robust stakeholder support for the project. The expert advisory group will formalise its recommendations to me on the composition of Ireland's Tentative List. My Department will make final decisions in regard to inclusion on the Tentative List and the suitability of a property to proceed to world heritage property nomination. The World Heritage Convention, on the advice of the advisory body, makes the decision to inscribe the world heritage property on the list. The Deputy will note the process outlined is independent and robust. Currently, no final applications have been received. However, as alluded to earlier, five applications are anticipated. The viability for future inclusion of the seven properties on the 2010 Tentative List, including the early monastic sites, will be reviewed by the expert advisory group.

Rental Sector

Deputy Sherlock might assist the House in regaining some of the time lost.

That would be my intention. I wish to speak for people who are living in private rented accommodation throughout this State, much of which is substandard. Many of these people are on local authority housing lists. I do not want to be overtly political about this or seek to score points. I am not raising this issue for the purposes of putting a clip up on Facebook. I merely wish to raise the matter on the basis of the increasing number of people contacting me who are living in what can be only described as hovels which have passed muster for the purposes of the housing assistance payment, HAP, but in respect of which there does not appear to be a proper inspection regime. I am not seeking to apportion blame. I merely wish to speak for these people.

In one instance, a family came to tell me about mould and damp on the walls. There are all sorts of public health issues arising from that, with children presenting with severe respiratory illnesses as a result of living in substandard accommodation. If the inspection regime was buttressed and kick-started, that would help the situation.

In a parliamentary reply to my colleague, Deputy Ó Ríordáin, in respect of Cork, it was stated that up to September 2020 there were 611 inspections carried out. A total of 601 improvement letters were issued on foot of those inspections. Similarly, up to September 2020, in Cork city 434 inspections were carried out, 96 improvement letters were issued and one improvement notice was issued. The local authorities are at the pin of their collars in trying to manage this service. It is unfair to expect them to do more with less in terms of the number of employees who are tasked with this job, in respect of whole-time equivalence as to personnel.

In the absence of an adequate supply of social housing stock - a supply issue which will pertain for the foreseeable future – the inspection regime should be robust. If a landlord acts immorally or unethically in relation to his or her tenants, and does not meet the terms and conditions of the legislation as laid down by this House, the inspection regime should be robust and enforce the legislation so that landlords carry out their obligations.

I thank Deputy Sherlock for raising this matter. I appreciate the genuine way in which he put his concerns forward. I accept that those concerns are valid.

The Housing (Standards for Rented Houses) Regulations 2019 specify requirements on a range of matters such as structural repair, sanitary facilities, heating, ventilation, natural light and the safety of gas, oil and electrical supply. All landlords have a legal obligation to ensure their properties comply with these regulations. Responsibility for the enforcement of the regulations rests with the relevant local authority.

The strategy for the rental sector recognises the need for additional resources to be provided to local authorities to aid increased inspections of properties, as the Deputy alluded to in terms of the figures he quoted from the reply to the relevant parliamentary question. In fact, significant and increased Exchequer funding has been made available to local authorities since 2018. Since then, the amount of money allocated has increased by 300%. I accept demand had increased also. In 2021, my Department provided €10 million of funding, up from €2.5 million three years earlier. The aim is to enable local authorities to target 25% of all local rental properties for an annual inspection. Significant progress has been made across the sector and the number of inspections has more than doubled from 19,645 in 2017 to 40,728 in 2019. However, given the need for inspectors to enter tenants' homes, Covid-19 pandemic restrictions have greatly impacted on private rental inspections. The County and City Management Association's current guidance does not permit rental inspections during levels 4 and 5 restrictions. This is to protect tenants, landlords and inspectors.

On-site inspections fell, understandably, to just over 24,000 last year. However, the local authority sector has been innovative in its response to the pandemic in this area. Local authorities have been piloting virtual inspections over recent months and my Department has been happy to facilitate this initiative across the country, most especially with appropriate funding for these inspections. Dublin City Council has led the initiative, which entails landlords receiving a checklist for self-assessment and being required to submit photographic and video evidence by email. Tenants have been invited to raise any issues or instances of non-compliance that they are aware of and the council reserves the right to conduct a physical on-site inspection, when it is safe to do so. While virtual inspection systems, at present, have certain challenges and limitations, they have offered a way of providing a standard of rental accommodation despite the pandemic restrictions we are in. I am optimistic that they can and will continue to form part of a newly enhanced post-pandemic inspection regime.

Like the rest of the country, the sector awaits the full opening of our economy. My Department continues to work closely with local authorities to make sure that once it does, they will be ready to return quickly to their traditional inspection regimes augmented by virtual inspections, so that it can go towards reaching the ambitious national target we have set.

I thank the Minister of State for his reply. I welcome the fact that this is on the Department’s agenda in the context of providing increased funding. I would argue, however, that while an increase to €10 million from €2.5 million is dramatic, when one factors in a county like Cork, I am not sure how far €10 million would go if it was extrapolated out across all counties. I ask that this be looked at again.

We all know landlords; they live among us. Ninety-nine per cent of the landlords I have met are very good and decent people who want to ensure that their tenants are protected and that they live in accommodation of a proper standard. They are very proud of the fact they have long-term tenancies and agreements with letters, and so on. However, there are a small minority who I would describe as slum landlords. In one instance, someone approached me last week to say they had asked for a simple repair and were told that if they did not like it, that they could sling their hook. The landlord in that case is in receipt of a supplement or subvention from the State in respect of the property involved. That is the mere point.

There is a moral and ethical argument here in the context of tenants who cannot get local authority houses at present because of a lack of supply. These are tenants of long standing. Some are happy to maintain their arrangements if the repairs can be carried out. There needs to be a follow up for those people as to the inspection regime. I am very conscious that we are in this pandemic, however, I make the case and highlight the fact that the inspection regime needs to be kick-started as soon as we can.

I again thank the Deputy. His point is very well made and his concerns are very valid; I fully accept that. As I have said, there is a target for 25%, more needs to be done and we are trying to achieve that with increased funding, albeit in very constrained circumstances due to the pandemic. My Department has increased funding. As I said, the current €10 million budget should allow the sector to inspect almost one in four of all rental properties each year. The regulations also empower local authorities to enforce these standards through financial and other penalties, with the aim of trying to ensure that everyone in our country can live in a high-quality home. The Deputy referred to very vulnerable individuals and it is our absolute will and intention to protect them, and that is why we are increasing funding.

The Covid-19 pandemic has also greatly impacted on rental inspections but, hopefully, it will be safe for rent inspectors to conduct on-site inspections very soon. I commend the local authorities for participating in the new initiative, the virtual inspection pilot project, which saw some 14,000 conducted last year, especially in Dublin City Council, which led the initiative. The support of local authority enforcement of minimum standards in rental accommodation will continue to be an important element of our rental market strategy. It will be included in the upcoming whole of Government approach housing for all strategy, in which we will commit to continued investment as well as strategic development of the area for the benefit of tenants and landlords alike. It is very important that this is a key focus of Government.

The Deputy's input today is key in guiding us by articulating very vulnerable positions within his community and we will work as hard as we can to ensure this will be increased. As Minister of State with responsibility for local authorities, I will also keep in close contact with them on this matter.

Employment Rights

The women of the Dáil and the Seanad are shouting about this matter. They are shouting for a complete rethink regarding the narrative of miscarriage and how we care for those who experience them.

Some 14,000 women in Ireland experience miscarriage every year, one in five pregnancies end in miscarriage and one in ten women will experience it during their lifetime. This is a completely foreseeable event and yet we do not provide for it in our employment law. We ask women to go out and work but we do not provide for this completely foreseeable event to give them certainty that, when this very sad event happens, an event which is often very sudden and shocking, they will have certainty in their employment.

It is important to say that many different employers respond very compassionately and give women space and time to process the miscarriage, both physically and emotionally. Let us set out the physical realities on the floor of the House on behalf of women who have experienced this. It is important that we acknowledge them. It can take a number of days and can involve a medical process and admission to hospital. A surgical or medically induced procedure may be required. It involves a physical trauma and an emotional trauma. Those things take time. Women, who are often provided with compassionate leave by employers, deserve certainty and deserve to know that leave will be available.

There are multiple ways of doing this in legislation. There could be an amendment to Part II of the Parental Leave Act 1998. The Labour Party has taken a different approach involving the Organisation of Working Time Act 1997. There are many different ways of doing this. The zeitgeist around this is now changing. We need to see action and a response from the Government. We need to put the reality of women's lives on the Statute Book and to protect them and give them certainty. We also need to rethink medical care and the medical narrative in this area but I will now hand over to my colleague, Deputy Higgins, and I may follow up on that later.

All of us know women who have suffered miscarriages or couples who have gone through a miscarriage. If people do not believe they do, it is because those women and couples have not shared that experience with them, which is okay. That is why so many couples wait until the three-month mark to announce their news. The sad reality is that one in five pregnancies ends in miscarriage. As a State, we give women who miscarry towards the end of their pregnancy the time and the space they need to come to terms with that but we offer no such support to women who lose their pregnancies early on. They have to use their annual leave. They have to get a vague doctor's certificate or they have to go into work and pretend that nothing has happened, which is worse. That is not fair. My colleague, Senator Seery Kearney, shared her experience yesterday. In the Dáil Chamber, she told of her experience of five miscarriages. Her journey is, unfortunately, all too common but it is not talked about generally or in chambers such as this.

We hear young women raising this issue in the Seanad and, in New Zealand, a young female Prime Minister is leading on the issue. That is because it is up to women such as us, who have platforms such as this, to speak up for other women who suffer these losses of pregnancy and who cannot effect change in the way we can. Will the Minister hear us? Will he support these women and provide for miscarriage leave for women who suffer early miscarriages?

I thank the Deputies for raising this issue. I welcome the opportunity to come before the House to discuss this important subject. The emotional impact of pregnancy loss is absolutely tremendous. Unfortunately, it is experienced by many. There has been a very welcome move in society towards greater openness about miscarriage and pregnancy loss and the heartbreak it can bring to women and families. I am thankful that we are all moving on from a time when such trauma had to be shouldered in silence. It is, however, very clear that parents who have gone through this experience still do not benefit from the kinds of compassionate supports that should be in place at such an incredibly difficult time.

The Maternity Protection Acts 1994 and 2004 provide that an employee is entitled to full maternity leave in the case of stillbirth after 24 weeks and the Paternity Leave and Benefit Act 2016 also provides for paternity leave in this situation. However, there is currently no provision for the loss of a pregnancy prior to this point, despite the devastation it can bring to parents. The Government fully recognises the need to assist parents in this difficult situation and on Monday this week it agreed not to oppose the Labour Party's Private Members' Bill in the Seanad, the Organisation of Working Time (Reproductive Health Related Leave) Bill 2021, which provides for leave in these circumstances. I acknowledge and thank the Labour Party for bringing forward this important contribution to this debate. I also note and acknowledge the very genuine and personal contributions from Senators that we heard in the course of that debate.

While there are some difficulties with the Labour Party's Bill, which the Minister of State, Deputy English, outlined in his contribution, the Government recognises that this is an issue which must be addressed. In this regard, my Department and I have committed to undertake research to examine how best to support working parents who have suffered a miscarriage. We need to understand how we can meet the need for time off from work. This may be through paid leave, additional unpaid leave or other measures required by parents who have suffered a miscarriage. This research will inform Government policy and help us to develop a practical, workable response through leave or other supports. We have seen international examples of this type of leave being introduced, particularly in New Zealand, and I will examine those options in the context of the research being undertaken.

This is an issue that affects both parents and supports should be available to both. We want to facilitate parents having this conversation with their employers, recognising that they have suffered a bereavement and need time to deal with their loss. Reproductive health should be supported in the workplace and employees should not feel concerned that an honest conversation about their loss or their reproductive health challenges will disadvantage them in any way. I am sure most employers would deal with people in this situation in a sensitive manner, as Deputy Carroll MacNeill has alluded to, but a statutory entitlement may provide more encouragement towards openness.

I again thank the Deputies for raising this Topical Issue matter and I thank the Labour Party for introducing its Private Members' Bill. I look forward to continuing to engage with Members of the House as we undertake this research and subsequently make proposals.

I thank the Minister. There are a number of advantages to placing this on the Statute Book. It recognises that the issue is a practical one that affects people and that a legislative response is appropriate. Another great advantage is that it allows people to simply call their HR department and invoke their right, or ask their partners to do it on their behalf. It would be automatic and there would be certainty to the matter, which is really important. Many of us have had miscarriages. I have had a miscarriage. It can take a long time. One can see on a screen one week that things are not going well and then have this confirmed the following week. One may need to be admitted to hospital. These things can take time and they are very emotionally draining. The Lancet this month has a brilliant editorial on how we think about miscarriage and how that narrative could be reconceived. It says that, for too long, miscarriage has been minimised and often dismissed and that dealing with a combination of private grief, misconceptions and guilt can lead to women putting more pressure on themselves than is necessary. I thank the Minister for his response and invite him to invite me to help him with his research, as somebody in the Dáil who has been through this.

I acknowledge all of the work the Minister has done to support families. He recently extended the period of parental leave to five weeks for both parents, which is really welcome and a great way of supporting modern families. As Deputy Carroll MacNeill has said, we now have an opportunity to further show our support for parents by introducing paid leave for early pregnancy loss. It is important to acknowledge, as the Minister has done, that while it is a woman's body that experiences the physical loss, the emotional loss is experienced by both parents. I strongly believe that the State needs to do more to support both parents through this. Paid miscarriage leave for the woman is a great place to start.

We will certainly examine and consider the statutory element. As Deputy Higgins alluded to, we have acted to enhance rights and protections for families, particularly for women, through the parental leave extension about which she spoke and ongoing work to implement legislation on the gender pay gap, through the proposals we are examining with regard to extending breaks for breastfeeding and by introducing, for the first time, paid domestic violence leave.

The Government therefore has a strong track record in recognising the protections families need and particularly the protections needed for women in the workplace, in the home and wherever else those protections are needed and in acting. It is important we do the research. Deputy Carroll MacNeill alluded to the fact that there is a significant body of information out there. We use that to ensure that the proposals we bring forward are properly targeted and will be impactful for women who have experienced a miscarriage and for their partners and families. It is right that we take that bit of time to do the research, but I am very happy to engage with both Deputies or indeed any other Deputy or Senator who wants to engage on this issue because it is really important we have these open conversations on the floors of the Dáil and the Seanad. Even in doing this, we encourage the wider conversation about miscarriages in workplaces and in society.

Invasive Species Policy

I thank the Leas-Cheann Comhairle for the opportunity to raise this very important issue. Last week my attention was drawn to a very serious and concerning issue, namely the discovery of black grass on a Teagasc plot in Oak Park, Carlow. To help myself understand more about this I listened to a very informative podcast on the Irish Farmers' Journal website discussing the issue. For those who are not aware, black grass is an invasive weed which spreads very easily and very quickly. It can be found in a variety of settings but the setting of most concern is that of cereal crops. It is a major problem in the UK and can have a devastating impact on crop yields for tillage farmers. Teagasc made the discovery of black grass in a commercial wild flower mixture which was growing on one of its plots. The major issue here is the word "commercial", meaning essentially that anyone could have, and possibly may have, bought similar mixtures of commercial wild flower seeds containing black grass. We would be incredibly lucky if the only commercial mixture imported into Ireland contaminated with black grass just happened to be bought by Teagasc. Logic would suggest that this is unlikely and that many people have imported seed mixtures containing black grass from the UK.

Black grass is a major problem because it spreads so quickly and is herbicide-resistant. It is estimated that black grass costs the UK economy nearly £400 million and 800,000 tonnes of lost harvest every year. If we allow this weed to establish itself here, crop farming will be severely damaged. This is a very concerning development because under the pollinator plan, which is a Government-led initiative that aims to help bees, other pollinating insects and our wider biodiversity, local groups such as schools, community groups, Tidy Towns groups etc., may be importing wild flower seeds to use as part of their efforts. If black grass is contained in commercially available mixtures, there is an obvious and major risk of its being imported and sown unintentionally right across the country, having a potentially devastating impact on crops. This weed can spread very easily and rapidly and we must do all we can to stop it. In theory, the pollinator plan is a great idea but we must be alert to unintended consequences. If we are to encourage people to sow wild flower seeds and other related plants, it is imperative that we have our ducks in a row and that we have joined-up thinking when it comes to certification and regulation. It is to be hoped the discovery in Carlow was a one-off exception but we need to be vigilant.

There are at least two areas on which the Government can act. First, the Department needs to take this very seriously and put steps in place to raise awareness among those who have imported wild flower seeds and steps to prevent black grass from destroying crops. Second, I understand that the Department of Agriculture, Food and the Marine has no certification process for imported wild flower seeds. We are also importing straw which is not being tested for black grass. We cannot on the one hand encourage community groups and schools to sow wild flower seeds for biodiversity while, on the other hand, fail to ensure that such seeds being imported are not contaminated. I look forward to the Minister of State's response on the matter.

I thank Deputy Verona Murphy for raising what is a really important issue and one about which I share her concern, namely, the discovery and recent reporting of black grass in wild seed mixes.

The standards for quality and purity of seed and propagating material are implemented at EU level through a suite of EU directives and regulations. In total, this legislation is implemented through 12 directives and a number of associated regulations. The legislation is applicable to the main agricultural crops, covering fodder plants, cereals, beet, potatoes, oilseed crops, vegetables, fruit, ornamental plants and forestry. The legislation is not applicable to wild flower seeds. While the legislation covers certain weed and disease species, there are no specific controls relating to black grass. The number of weed species covered in the legislation is very limited. Seed from third countries is certified and labelled under OECD rules. Although there is no specific tolerance for black grass in the OECD rules, they do state, "Crops containing an excessive number of weeds shall be rejected" and "The seed crop should be reasonably free from weeds and other crop species, especially those whose seeds may be difficult to separate from the seed crop during seed processing".

Since 1 January 2021 the UK-GB has been certifying seed according to OECD certification rules and has stated it will certify seed according to EU standards for the next two years. Member states may implement voluntary controls for seed certified in their own territories but cannot impose those controls for seed certified in another member state. The Department of Agriculture, Food and the Marine has a voluntary agreement with the Irish Seed Trade Association to impose zero tolerance for black grass, wild oats and sterile brome in cereal crops intended for certification in Ireland. My officials are in contact with the Irish Seed Trade Association with a view to extending this voluntary agreement to include wild flower seeds propagated in Ireland and imported wild flower species formulated into mixtures in Ireland. My Department strongly advises that only locally sourced wildflower seeds be planted and my officials are engaging with the industry to ensure locally produced seed is free of black grass.

In simple terms, my Department is taking swift and strong action to control what we can control in the short term, which is what is within our system in Ireland and the voluntary code that has worked very well for us in the past. The code is actually at a higher level than the international code, a higher level than the OECD rules and a higher level than EU regulations because we have zero tolerance. Officials from my Department therefore have a very stringent approach to inspection of all seed for certification here. It is inspected three times per year. It is visually inspected when growing and also when being assembled. There is zero tolerance; any black grass found is removed. The point about our using wild seed mixes into the future for this area is really important because the concerns the Deputy raises are very real, for tillage farmers in particular but also for commercial cereal crop growing. People with the best of intentions sowing wild seed mix might inadvertently sow an invasive species that we do not want to become widespread here in Ireland. My Department continues to keep a very close eye on this and is engaging very closely with the Irish Seed Trade Association on the matter.

I thank the Minister of State for his response. What we need is a proactive approach. We normally see reaction, so I think we have time here. There certainly needs to be that type of engagement. If we have no certification process for imported wild flower seeds, that needs to be changed. We also need some form of social media campaign because there are so many community and voluntary groups involved in biodiversity, particularly at local county council level, that there should be a campaign that makes them aware of black grass and vigilant in identifying it at the very least. I understand that the Minister of State has had engagement with many of the farm organisations and local farmers, as have I. He will know that this is the last thing we can heap on tillage farmers and that we cannot put our crop produce at risk, particularly given what will happen with the CAP reform, convergence and our new eco schemes, or the proposal for the new eco schemes, and how much damage that will do to the farmers, with possible cuts of up to 40%. I therefore ask the Minister of State not to allow this to fester but to ensure that this is very much taken in hand by the Department.

The Deputy can take it from me that we are taking this matter very seriously. She mentioned extending inspection of imported seeds. That option is not open to us under EU regulations. We can control what is propagated here. The seed that was discovered in the Teagasc plant was imported from the UK. We envisage that the vast majority of wild seed used in Ireland in future will be propagated here and that where seed from abroad is used, it will be assembled here and we will have control over that. In all those circumstances, we have zero tolerance for any level of black grass, which is being removed. The Deputy's points are valid and we take them on board. We are working on this issue.

This measure is not reactive. The voluntary code has been in place for a long time and covers black grass. We are increasing vigilance. I will bring back the Deputy's point about a promotional campaign, as it is a point worth making. We take this issue very seriously.

That concludes the Topical Issue Debate. I thank Members for their co-operation and staying within the time provided.