The first important matter has been submitted by Deputy Joe McHugh, who wishes to discuss the devastating impact of the mica housing crisis on a particular family, details supplied, which I presume is in County Donegal. We welcome the Minister of State, Deputy Malcolm Noonan, and thank him for being here to deal with the matter.
Saincheisteanna Tráthúla - Topical Issue Debate
Defective Building Materials
Gabhaim buíochas leis an gCeann Comhairle fá choinne an tseans labhairt ar an ábhar iontach tábhachtach seo. Cuirim fáilte roimh an Aire Stáit.
As thousands of people from all over the country descend on our capital to highlight a humanitarian matter of untold proportion, I wish the march well tomorrow and everybody a safe journey to Dublin and back home. This evening I will speak about William and Trish, who started out in secondary school together, went to university together, got married and brought up four great children, who are now young adults. William and Trish's family was forced to leave their home in 2014, seven years ago, because of mica. They moved into rental accommodation, which, by the way, has mica. As they had to pay rent, they defaulted on their mortgage. Both husband and wife went through personal bankruptcy, recorded in the High Court, solely because of mica. The family has endured incredible levels of stress over these seven years but these people continued to keep their family on the right track through education, sport and the daily challenges in raising a family these days. Trish had to take early retirement from teaching because of post-traumatic stress disorder as a result of mica.
The rub for the family is that the bank that owned the mortgage sold it to another institution after the bankruptcy case. It sold, in effect, what was a worthless property. I want to send a public message to this institution tonight publicly, as I have tried to do it diplomatically and behind the scenes. I failed in that. I want somebody from within that institution to sit down with the family and try to figure out a way for the family to get peace and restart their lives. I want the institution to find a way for the family to recover from the trauma, fear, loss and distress felt over these past seven years, all caused by mica and through no fault of their own.
We should remember that the people who will march tomorrow will send a very loud message not just about what might happen in the days, weeks and years ahead if there is not a significant intervention by the Government but also it will concern what has happened with William, Trish and others like them. It is about the stress they have endured, the pressure they have been under and the cliff edge they have approached. Now is the time for us to hear the plight and voice of so many people who find themselves in an impossible position. Tonight my message is for this particular financial institution but it is also for the Government, insurance companies and all the stakeholders that can play a role in sorting out this impossible position in which people find themselves.
We must show them the way and indicate there is hope and light at the end of this terrible tunnel. I hope to hear from the Minister of State this evening that there will be an enormous effort and emphasis over the next few days and weeks to try to bring all this to a conclusion. I emphasise again my message to the banking institution involved with this case, along with other banking institutions. I ask them to show some humanity and let us see that they can work shoulder to shoulder with people who find themselves in this very dark place.
I thank the Deputy for raising this very important matter. The story he has told is replicating itself with thousands of families across the country. I hope I can provide, by way of background, where we are now and assure the Deputy that the Government is working tirelessly to try to resolve this matter on behalf of families.
The Department is not familiar with the specific details of the case but there are a number of broader points to be made. It may be useful for the Deputy to forward the exact details of the case involved to the Minister, Deputy Darragh O'Brien, who would be eager to assist in any way he can.
At the request of the homeowner representatives, it was agreed to extend the timeframe of the working group from the end of July to the end of September. Throughout August, the Department facilitated the homeowners' intensive engagement with the Housing Agency to flesh out the matter in greater detail. The last meeting of the working group took place on Wednesday, 29 September, with the Minister, Deputy O'Brien. He commended the effort of volunteer homeowners and the leadership role they have taken for their communities to help reach agreement on these matters.
The family representatives were disappointed with the output of the group but it fleshed out the matters involved and it will help ensure a fully informed Cabinet decision on any changes. Their views have been heard loud and clear. A final output report arising from the engagement of the working group has been commissioned and published on the Department's website, which includes Engineers Ireland correspondence, the homeowners' final position paper and the Department's observations.
The Minister will now, along with the Taoiseach, Tånaiste and the Ministers for the environment, Deputy Eamon Ryan, Finance, Deputy Paschal Donohoe, and Public Expenditure and Reform, Deputy Michael McGrath, with input from the Attorney General, consider proposals that can then be presented to Cabinet. The Minister, Deputy Darragh O'Brien, intends to bring a memorandum to Cabinet in the coming weeks.
I thank the Minister of State. I appreciate his statement. I know he will talk directly to his party leader and we all look forward to the meeting between the three party leaders. His colleague, Michael White, in Moville, has contacted the mica group in the past few days.
Once again, to focus on the issue of timeliness, this has gone on too long. There is nobody more disappointed than me that the original scheme did not work out. I worked closely with the mica group on it but when a thing is not working, we all have to put up our hands and figure out a better way. I totally accept that the Minister and his officials are working on a more enhanced scheme. There was very little detail in the report presented to us last week, so it is very important that the detail will be there. I am a little concerned by the word "weeks". It does not really say when and we should really nail that down.
A strong message will come from the city centre protest tomorrow. Many people will be there, including many who are not directly affected by mica. There has been such solidarity on this issue because Irish people are good at putting their feet into other people's shoes. For any homeowners not affected by mica, it is hard to even comprehend what it is like. While many people spent their time during lockdown talking about doing up their gardens and houses, building extensions and all that, that nightmare continued for so many people.
I again thank the Minister of State for his time. It is another opportunity to keep this issue alive and on the agenda. It will be very much on the agenda tomorrow, with people power and feet on the ground. The reason I raised the issue of William and Trish and their family is that it is an example of so many families who have spent seven to ten years living that nightmare. They are out of their homes. William sent a message to me today saying he does not want to be a victim. People with mica in their homes do not want to be victims in this scenario. They want it sorted, they want 100% redress and they want the Government to do the right thing by making that scheme accessible and affordable for them. We have to move on from this.
When William and Trish look their young adult children in the eyes, they have to do so in the full knowledge that their parents did everything they could. William is a former chair of the Mica Action Group. He has done everything but he does not feel that he has. We have to bring this to a quick conclusion.
It is expected that significant changes will be made to the scheme. Progress has been made to date through the group and issues such as removing upfront costs for assessing the scheme have been agreed with homeowners, as have other issues, including rent costs for those who have had to move out of their homes. Planning permission exemptions have been agreed for like-for-like developments, as have proposals for the replacement of damaged septic tanks. In addition, a guarantee on second grant access for homes that undergo remedial work to ensure they can access supports if any future problems emerge has been agreed. This will help ensure homes can be sold in future. It is expected any new scheme will involve a commitment of more than €1.4 billion, with significant changes. In comparison with the international models, it will be one of the most comprehensive packages in the world for homeowners in similar situations.
The Government is committed, along with the Attorney General, to seeking financial contributions from liable parties. The Deputy raised this issue. I have spoken to the Minister about this and he is determined we should pursue those parties and other stakeholders to help fund any future scheme. The Government, Minister and Department are all committed to working with homeowners in order to find resolutions to the issues under review. All options remain on the table, including that of a 100% grant, and no final decision has been taken. It is the Minister's intention that the matter will be brought to the Cabinet in the coming weeks and clarity and certainty will be given to homeowners to allow them to move on with their lives.
I again reassure the Deputy that while the Minister is unable to be in the House today, it is critically important that stories, like the one the Deputy told of William and his family, are told because they deeply affect communities. He is correct about the social solidarity this issue has brought about throughout the country. There will be a large public demonstration tomorrow but I again give assurance that the Government is working tirelessly to try to resolve this issue satisfactorily to the benefit of all the families concerned.
I thank the Minister of State for coming to the House to deal with this important issue, with which she is very familiar. I do not want anything I will say to in any way pre-empt or be seen to try to influence An Bord Pleanála. Its decision will be made in due course, but it is imminent. It is what happens after that decision is made, if it is positive, and what processes will follow that I want to address.
This project has been in existence for the past 30 years, but the reality is the most recent analysis of Galway's transport requirements was done in 2016 by Galway City Council, Galway County Council and the National Transport Authority, NTA. It was a very comprehensive strategy that looked at walking, cycling, public transport, etc. One of the things it highlighted was that Galway needed a road around the city as a piece of critical infrastructure to connect east to west. The Minister of State, no more than me, is familiar with the territory, but many people watching and listening to this debate will not be. Approximately 40,000 people live in the west of the city while another 40,000 people, approximately, live in Connemara, which is west of the city. That is a total population of 80,000. It is an area that attracts a large number of tourists every year.
There are two ways out of Connemara, effectively. One can come across the city. Alternatively, because Lough Corrib forms a barrier between east and west - between Connemara and the west of the city and the east of the city and the rest of the country - one has to go 50 km north, to where I live in Cornamona, to get out by the next available route. Within the city, there are four bridges across the River Corrib, three of which are old. One of them, the Salmon Weir Bridge, which is very famous in Galway and that many people know, is to be transformed for public transport, cycling and walking use only. The other two bridges in the city centre are very narrow, which leaves one newer bridge across the River Corrib to take the traffic of 80,000 people coming and going, many of whom do so every day. In Galway, many people live in the west of the city, while its industry is in the east of it.
They need to break the logjam to free up city space for cycling, walking and all the other purposes we want in our living cities, including for public transport, with which Galway is poorly served because the road infrastructure is not there. The need to progress with this bypass is evident.
I want the Minister of State to outline the processes that will have to be followed if this project is approved by An Bord Pleanála before it will go to construction, taking into account the announcement in the national development plan, NDP, this week and, more particularly, the announcement made by the Minister, Deputy Eamon Ryan, of a new step he has put into the evaluation of all these projects as regards their carbon footprint.
I thank the Deputy for raising this important issue. The Minister for Transport has responsibility for overall policy and securing Exchequer funding for the national roads programme. Once funding arrangements have been put in place with Transport Infrastructure Ireland, Tll, under the Roads Acts, 1993 to 2015, and in line with the NDP, the planning, design, improvement and upgrading of individual national roads is a matter for Tll, in conjunction with the local authorities concerned. Tll ultimately delivers the national roads programme in line with Project Ireland 2040, the national planning framework, and the NDP.
In the new NDP, launched on 4 October, approximately €5.1 billion is earmarked for new national road projects to 2030. This funding will enable improved connectivity across the country as well as compact growth, which are core components of the revised NDP. The funding will enable the development of numerous national road projects, including the completion of projects at construction stage and those close to it, as well as the development of many others.
The N6 Galway city ring road is one of the projects included in the new NDP, which is currently at the planning application stage. The proposed project around Galway city comprises 12.5 km of motorway and 6 km of single carriageway. The route would run between the existing N6 at Coolagh to the existing Ballymoneen Road and continues as a single carriageway road for a further 5 km of protected road, west of Barna. The new orbital route would travel around the city and include a new bridge crossing of the River Corrib.
An oral hearing commenced on 18 February 2020 and concluded on 4 November 2020, inclusive of a seven-month gap in proceedings due to Covid-19 restrictions. Galway County Council is awaiting a decision from An Bord Pleanála, which has recently been pushed back to a decision by a new target date of 19 November 2021. If planning approval is received from An Bord Pleanála and there are no legal challenges, the proposed project will require Government approval under the public spending code to proceed to the next stage, including procurement of a contractor, given that the project cost is expected to be more than €100 million. It would also be subject to final Government approval in advance of construction.
As the Deputy said, this project is a key component of the Galway transport strategy, which realises Galway city and county councils' vision of all elements of transport working together to achieve an integrated, sustainable transport system. The project would, as the Deputy said, free up road space in the city by removing through traffic for use by improved public transport services and active travel modes, while improving air quality and reducing noise levels in the city. As the principal economic centre of the west, Galway city is critical to employment in the region and this project would contribute towards ensuring the city is able to cater for future economic expansion and development. As a gateway to Connemara and the western region, which includes large Gaeltacht areas, the optimisation of transport connectivity within Galway city will be essential to help the region chart a steady course for economic growth. The additional bridge crossing of the Corrib will provide this accessibility to the west. By reducing traffic volumes on the existing road network, this proposed project will drastically improve journey times and allow for safer and more reliable journeys for road users. It will improve the existing collision rating, which currently stands at twice the average rate in the country.
The project will provide direct access to major employment centres at Parkmore and Ballybrit business parks, and offers an opportunity to execute the vision of the Galway transport strategy. Galway County Council has an advanced negotiating strategy in place for the proposed Galway city ring road. All affected householders were invited to participate and discussions and negotiations have been ongoing with those willing to participate since mid-2019. If the scheme is approved and confirmed, the council will prioritise the acquisition and agreements associated with the affected residential properties.
May I ask for a full transcript of the Minister of State's response because I received only a precis of it? The Minister, Deputy Eamon Ryan, announced during the week a new process that is to be followed. It seems to have been designed as a clever way of stopping projects such as this. Can the Minister of State outline what that process will entail? In the case of a road, will the process be based on cars, heavy goods vehicles and buses that are fuelled by fossil fuels or, as will happen in the future, vehicles that are fuelled by hydrogen? Hydrogen will be produced in abundance in the west of because we will have so much renewable electricity. We are already looking at hydrogen fuelled and electric public transport in the region. Can the Minister of State outline how this new process will work out, what it will entail and the basis on which it will be decided? Is this just a new method by the Green Party to stop this project going ahead and to stymy, once again, the proper development not only of Galway city, but of the entire region west of the city that requires so much development?
My basic question is: what is really going on? What is the subtext to all of these new announcements? I notice there was no reference in the Minister of State's reply to the new layer of bureaucracy that is being added to the scheme. I know this was not added without a deadly purpose. I am trying to elicit whether this is a scheme by the Minister to make sure this project does not go ahead and will be strangled if or when it gets through the An Bord Pleanála process.
I thank the Deputy. If planning approval is received from An Bord Pleanála and there are no legal challenges, the proposed project will then require Government approval under the public spending code to proceed to the next stage. That will include procurement of a contractor. Given that the project will cost more than €100 million, it will also be subject to final Government approval in advance of construction. I can ask the Minister to come back to the Deputy on the sequencing of approvals, if this project is approved by An Bord Pleanála.
I am amazed-----
The Minister of State, without interruption, please.
This project is a key component of Galway transport strategy, which realises Galway city and county councils' vision of all elements of the transport system working together to achieve an integrated, sustainable transport system. The Galway city ring road would free up free up road space in the city by removing through traffic. That road space could be used for improved public transport services and active travel modes, while improving air quality and reducing noise levels. Unfortunately, the Covid-19 pandemic impacted the timeline for this vital regional project. As I said, the oral hearing commenced on 18 February 2020 and concluded on 4 November 2020 due to a seven-month gap in proceedings as a result of Covid. I am confident that An Bord Pleanála will make its decision next month and I am hopeful for a positive outcome.
The programme for Government commits to a 2:1 ratio of spending on new public transports over new roads. This commitment has been confirmed in the NDP, published this week, which makes clear that substantial funding will be made available over the coming decade for new national road programmes and projects. As the principal economic centre in the west, Galway city is critical to employment in the region and this project would contribute towards ensuring the city is able to cater for future economic expansion and development.
Ceann Comhairle, I must protest.
What must the Deputy protest about?
The Minister made a major announcement about a new carbon test for all big projects. It is obvious that will have a big impact on the Galway road project.
I think the Minister of State has indicated she will ask the Minister to correspond with the Deputy.
It is totally disrespectful of the House for the Minister of State to come in here today and not have the answer to the most obvious and basic question to which everybody in Galway wants the answer.
To be fair, there is a Cabinet meeting taking place and the Minister of State has-----
I have stepped out of a Cabinet meeting but I am quite happy to be here because this is an important project for the region. If this project is approved by An Bord Pleanála and if there are no legal challenges, the next step is to seek Government approval, as required under the public spending code. We will then proceed to the next stage, procurement of a contractor. Given that the project will cost in excess of €100 million, it will require further Government approval. There is another process under the national investment framework for transport in Ireland, NIFTI, which involves four priorities, all of which are given equal weight and ranking. The first priority is to ensure that roads have regional connectivity, the second is decarbonisation and another is to ensure the mobility of goods and people in our urban centres. All of these are taken into consideration when looking at projects. I will give the Deputy more information and I will relay his questions to the Minister, Deputy Eamon Ryan.
I assure Members that I will correspond with the Minister of State based on what she has said. If Deputy Ó Cuív is not satisfied with the response, he should feel free to raise this matter here again.
As the Ceann Comhairle will know, ní hé sin an chéad uair a d'ardaigh mé an t-ábhar seo. Is minic a d'ardaigh mé é cheana.
Tá a fhios agam go maith. Táimid ag dul ar aghaidh.
Thalidomide Victims Compensation
The third matter comes from Deputy Andrews, who also wants to deal with a very important matter, a matter which unfortunately affects an ever-declining number of people. He wishes to discuss a statutory support package for survivors of thalidomide.
In 2018, a Bill was introduced to this House which would have removed the statute of limitations preventing thalidomide survivors from bringing cases for compensation to the courts. This Bill has now lapsed. It was introduced by the Minister of State, Deputy Chambers. A couple of weeks ago, it was noted in the legislative programme for the 2021 autumn session that work is under way to "provide a package of health and personal social services and other supports to survivors of thalidomide on a statutory basis". Will the Minister of State outline the timeframe for the roll-out of this particular legislation?
Will he also outline why the Minister, Deputy Donnelly, has not met with the Irish Thalidomide Association? It seems extraordinary that the last two Ministers for Health and the current Minister have all failed to meet the thalidomide survivors. How can Ministers for Health not meet a group for which it is introducing legislation? The Minister of State, Deputy Chambers, introduced the Bill I mentioned earlier in 2018 to support thalidomide survivors and the Minister, Deputy Donnelly, supported it. Despite this, the Government has now turned its back on these survivors, of whom there are only 32. The Minister is on record as saying that the thalidomide survivors deserve compensation, recognition and justice. They are his words and yet he will not even meet them.
I am pretty certain that thalidomide survivors are going to hear the same speech from the Minister of State that they have heard for the last ten years. There are, as I mentioned, only 32 acknowledged survivors in Ireland. The vast majority of them turn 60 this year or next year. The Minister will hide behind solicitors and barristers and claim there cannot be a meeting for legal reasons. On that point, not all survivors are taking a legal case so why not meet them? Survivors have been in the courts with Government for the last eight years. The Government faces a bill of €24 million for its court action against survivors yet it will not engage with them. Does the Minister of State have even one sentence that will give thalidomide survivors hope? Will he show that there is some genuine commitment from this Government, because there has been no evidence of it so far?
More than 60 years after the thalidomide scandal in which morning sickness medicine for pregnant women caused malformations in their babies, survivors are still fighting for fair compensation in several European countries. I have met many survivors of thalidomide and I have been inspired by their stories, their resilience and their courage. Like all of us, thalidomide survivors are getting older and now require extra medical assistance and social care. They fear that their independence might be stripped from them. Thalidomide survivors must be respected and compensated. The British Government's £100 million compensation scheme stands in stark contrast to the unsatisfactory approach taken by our Irish Government.
It is long past time for the Minister, Deputy Donnelly, to engage realistically with thalidomide survivors. The Government needs to bring forward a package that gives due acknowledgement to the victims of one of the greatest medical scandals. This package must guarantee the healthcare and personal needs of just 32 people who have to face later life with great uncertainty. Sinn Féin will continue to support the survivors of thalidomide to ensure that they get fair support and compensation. The Government must take steps now to ensure appropriate compensation is allocated to survivors.
I thank the Deputy for raising this important issue today. I am glad to have this opportunity, on behalf of the Minister, Deputy Donnelly, to set out the supports currently provided by the Irish Government to Irish thalidomide survivors.
As the Deputy will know, following an Irish Government decision in January 1975, each Irish survivor is provided with health supports, including a medical card issued on an administrative basis regardless of means, in addition to appliances, artificial limbs, equipment, housing adaptations and access to a full range of primary care, hospital and personal social services. Work is under way in the Department of Health to bring forward legislative proposals for the provision of these health and personal social services for Irish survivors of thalidomide on a statutory basis. Unfortunately, it is not possible to provide a specific time frame for these legislative proposals.
Since 1975, the Irish Government has also provided financial assistance to each Irish thalidomide survivor including an ex gratia lump sum equivalent to four times the German lump sum and an ex gratia monthly allowance for life which is equal to the German monthly allowance. There are currently 29 Irish people in receipt of these ex gratia monthly payments from the Department of Health. The annual figure for the Irish monthly payments ranges from €6,175 to €13,313 for each individual. The rate of payment is related to each survivor's level of thalidomide-related injury. The German monthly payments are made by the Contergan Foundation, which is established under German legislation. All thalidomide survivors entitled to benefits are entitled to a lifelong monthly pension ranging from €8,928 to €100,765 annually. Since 2009, they are also entitled to annual special payments of between €460 and €3,600 and, since 2017, annual specific needs payments of between €5,676 and €14,700. Both the German payments and the Irish ex gratia monthly payments made to survivors are exempt from tax, including deposit interest retention tax, DIRT, and are not assessable as means tor the purpose of Department of Social Protection payments.
In April 2010, the Government decided to provide additional financial assistance and other supports for Irish thalidomide survivors to meet their needs into the future. The measures included an offer of an additional once-off ex gratia individual payment of €62,500. This offer was subsequently accepted by a number of the survivors. A senior manager in the Health Service Executive has also been designated to liaise with survivors with a view to meeting their ongoing health and personal social service needs. This support continues.
It is important to note that the German Contergan Foundation has confirmed that, since 2013, it is accepting applications from individuals for compensation for thalidomide-related injury. It is open to any Irish person to apply to the foundation for assessment of his or her disability as being attributable to thalidomide. Any Irish person who establishes that his or her injury is attributable to thalidomide will be offered appropriate supports by the Irish Government commensurate with those currently provided to Irish thalidomide survivors. I also assure the House of the Government's commitment to the ongoing support of Irish thalidomide survivors. The Deputy asked that the Minister, Deputy Donnelly, meet with the thalidomide survivors. I will raise this within the Department. If the Deputy would like to send in an email, I will follow up with the Department.
As I predicted, I have not heard anything new. What has been said by the Minister of State is the same as what has been said for the past ten years. Survivors are fed up, angry and annoyed. There is no commitment to and no hope or empathy for a group of survivors who are ageing and concerned for their futures. How can the Minister not meet this group? This has been going on for years. As I said, in 2018 he was gung-ho in his support for them and said they needed justice. Now he is paying lip service to this group. They are a courageous group of survivors who had mountains to climb from the moment they were born. They were still able to make a valuable contribution to society.
The Government does not see fit to even meet them. It is willing to spend millions taking them to court and fighting with them instead of sitting down to meet with and acknowledge them. I do not believe that there is any barrier to meeting them. We have heard that the courts are an obstacle, but the reality is that can be overcome . The Minister of State, Deputy Chambers, wanted to introduce legislation and address certain issues. He has again turned his back on these people. I cannot understand that. It was mentioned that there are 32 people involved. That is a very small number. How can the Government not sit down and talk with a small group of people face to face, say that it got it wrong and is at fault and that it will work with the survivors to rectify matters in a just and fair manner? Meeting survivors has to be the first step.
Again, I will bring the comments of the Deputy back to the Minister. I would like to reiterate that the Government is committed to the continued support of the health and personal social services needs of Irish thalidomide survivors. There is empathy. It is very difficult. There are a number of cases concerning thalidomide before the High Court. It is not possible to comment on matters that are sub judice. Maybe that is a contributing factor in the context of why a meeting has not taken place. As the Deputy said, there are ways around that.
The current supports provided by the Government to survivors, including monthly payments for life and medical cards, are provided on an administrative basis, regardless of means. Access to the full range of health and personal services is ongoing. I assure the House that work is under way, as I said, in the Department to bring forward legislative proposals for health and personal social services for Irish survivors of thalidomide on a statutory basis.
I again thank the Deputy for raising this very difficult issue. The survivors have shown massive resilience and, as he said, courage. As a Government, we will try to do everything we can. There are probably issues that are outside my control, but I will bring the matter to the attention of the Minister.
I would like discuss the unsustainable mussel dredging on Irish coasts and the operation of SI 461/2021. I am raising this matter because it is something about which I have a particular concern. SI 461/2021 states that mussel dredging opened with effect from 14 September 2021. The statutory instrument provides that persons may fish for mussels between that date and 16 December next. The concern is that this statutory instrument is facilitating about a dozen large boats working around protected Natura 2000 site sandbanks in the Irish Sea and off Irish coasts. It is enabling them to remove so-called mussel seed from our commons and relay it into aquaculture sites.
The seed then grows on the estuary with or without further dredging. It is often dredged up again for sale. The unique Irish definition of mussel seed, which, according to SI 461/2021, is mussels of any size as long as they are not intended for direct human consumption, allows big vessels to dredge up entire biogenic reefs wherever they find them. I understand from reading the statutory instrument that while a small number of sites are excluded from dredging within the terms of it, they are far few in number.
There is serious concern about the impact this dredging is having on mussel beds and the broader issue of sustainable development. There is a wider issue about the need to halt unmanaged fisheries. Coastwatch and other organisations have tried for years to ensure that this practice be regulated and halted unless we can establish that it can be done without undue environmental impact. The real concern is that there is no mussel management plan and that exploitation of commercial shellfish without a species management plan or adequate impact assessment will contravene the marine strategy framework directive, MSFD, descriptor 3 requirements and have a serious impact on our biodiversity.
Some years ago when I was newly elected to the Seanad, I raised a similar issue about cockle dredging at Passage East in Waterford. The then Minister, Deputy Eamon Ryan, who had responsibility for it reversed the statutory instrument in response to the concerns I and environmentalists raised with him about the impact of big boats coming in and sweeping the seabed and destroying biodiversity and marine life. What is happening in this instance is quite similar.
I am asking that the practice provided for in the statutory instrument be halted. I am not convinced that it is being done sustainably. There is no data to show it is being done sustainably. There is a real concern that these large, high-carbon-footprint vessels are dredging in and out of protected marine sites and that this is impacting on the biogenic reefs formed by mussels, which are crucial for the marine food chain and which form biodiversity hotspots in the sea. There is a real concern that substantial volumes of mussels have already been dredged up and that serious damage is being done.
I do not have data on how many boats are active, but I have been told that there are 11 or 12. It should be possible to set the statutory instrument aside because of the assumptions that are being made or that it seems are being made on foot of it. These are unsubstantiated assumptions about mussel population dynamics. Specifically, the statutory instrument should be set aside because we do not have an environmental impact assessment and there is a real concern that we are damaging biodiversity at our marine sites.
I thank Deputy Bacik for raising this important issue. It is important to state from the outset that mussel seed is an essential raw material for the bottom growing mussel aquaculture industry. Mussel farmers fish for wild mussel seed for transplantation onto their licensed aquaculture sites for ongoing and later harvesting over a two-year growth cycle. The fished seed is grown to maturity on the sea floor, as distinct from what happens with rope grown mussels.
The dredge-and-relay aspect is a unique feature of the fishery, whereby the mussel seed biomass is not removed from the ecosystem but is, in fact, retained at more sheltered locations where it typically spawns three or four times during the cycle thereby creating an additional spawning biomass. The fish-and-relay process can, therefore, enhance spawning output by increasing the survival of mussel seed transferred to sheltered sites. The mussel seed fishery sector is managed on an all-island basis in conjunction with the Department of Agriculture, Environment and Rural Affairs in Northern Ireland and the cross-Border Loughs Agency.
The recommendations of the 2008 expert group report, the rising tide, on the bottom mussel industry on the island of Ireland forms the policy basis for managing the mussel seed fishery and bottom mussel culture. A fishery Natura plan for the Irish Sea mussel fisheries was adopted in 2018 following an appropriate assessment. The plan covers five years, from 2018 to 2022, inclusive, and follows on from the previous five-year plan. Fishing for mussel seed in the Irish Sea is restricted under Fisheries Natura Declaration No. 3 of 2018 (Mussel Fishing). This declaration prohibits fishing for mussels in the intertidal zone. It also prohibits fishing for mussels in a number of specific Natura 2000 sites around the Irish coast.
This declaration was amended by Fisheries Natura Declaration No. 2 of 2019 (Mussel Fishing), which modifies the boundary of an area off the Irish coast where fishing for mussels is prohibited. It is important to note that any recommendations to the Minister requesting that fishing be allowed on suggested dates is subject to the availability of adequate amounts of mussel seed being identified by surveys of mussel seed beds.
SI 461/2021 was made under section 15 of the Sea-Fisheries and Maritime Jurisdiction Act 2006. It allows fishing of mussel seed in the exclusive fishery limits of the State from 14 September to 16 December 2021, inclusive, as Deputy Bacik outlined, on suitable tides except for Natura areas closed under fisheries Natura declarations. The fisheries management measures in place for the fishery include restricted access to the fishery and seasonal controls on the periods during which fishing is permitted.
The decision to open the fishery was based on information from various sources, including Bord lascaigh Mhara, BIM, surveys, Marine Institute scientific advice and Sea-Fisheries Protection Authority advice on enforcement. Between May and August 2021, BIM carried out eight seed surveys, including some preliminary surveys, in a number of locations in the Irish Sea, including off Rosslare and Wexford, at Long Bank; off Cahore Point, Rusk Channel; off South Wicklow Head; in the Dublin Bay area; and at Glassgorman Banks.
On the basis of these surveys, BIM identified an estimated 9,293 tonnes of mussel seed in the Irish Sea. The Marine Institute provided the Department with scientific advice for the proposed 2021 mussel seed fishery. The advice notes that survey estimates for the period 2016 to 2021 varied from 3,500 tonnes to 9,293 tonnes. These estimates are substantially lower than previous highs of over 25,000 tonnes reported in catches. At 9,293 tonnes, however, the 2021 estimates are the highest in recent years.
I thank the Minister of State for his response. I am conscious that, as he said, mussel dredging is run on an all-island basis with Bord Iascaigh Mhara co-ordinating and providing a secretariat for the mussel boats, but I am told there is a difference in that in Northern Ireland mussel seed fishing grounds remain closed in 2021 as it was seen that there were not enough mussels. The mussel dredgers from Northern Ireland tend to come south to get mussel seed for NI aquaculture areas such as Belfast Lough. The Northern Ireland Government survey of summer 2021 states:
These surveys have indicated the continued reestablishment of this once large seed mussel bed .... [This was a bed at Skullmartin.] We would therefore not recommend opening this bed at this time.
Therefore, I think there remains a serious concern, despite the surveys the Minister of State has cited, that good weather has already facilitated intensive dredging over the recent neap tides and that substantial volumes of mussels have already been dredged up and damage done, both where they were dredged and where the dredged seed was dumped. Again, there is just a lack of information available on assurances about the environmental impact of dredging at this scale and this level will have. There is a concern also that the statutory instrument enables dredging based on assumptions that are not borne out by the reality, one difficulty being that mussel seed is so widely defined in the statutory instrument as to include mussels of any age or size under Irish law.
During the recent by-election campaign, one of the issues I campaigned on was climate matters, in particular protection of the uniquely brilliant environment that is Dublin Bay. I represent Dublin Bay South. When we see this sort of wide-scale dredging being allowed under statutory instruments such as this one, it is important we question them and the environmental impact they have and look for environmental impact assessments.
I agree. We should always look at our processes and make sure they are robust and are protecting our environment and the sustainability of our future stocks, as is the case. In some ways, I would argue that perhaps the survey the Deputy points to in the North that advised that there not be harvesting in those areas actually show that the system of surveying is working. This is done on an all-island basis and, therefore, certain areas under that survey were found, as the Deputy outlined, not to have been selected, it would appear.
Authorisations are provided only to those boats which are directly connected with a bottom-grown mussel aquaculture operator or which are contracted to fish on behalf of same. An authorisation to fish for mussel seed specifies various conditions, such as the quantity of seed that may be fished by the boat, or the "allocation", the aquaculture site where the seed is to be relaid and the permitted tides for fishing, together with other regulatory requirements.
The Marine Stewardship Council, MSC, issued on 27 July 2018 certification for the fishery, which is valid for five years, subject to the results of ongoing surveillance audits. The certification states that the fishery has been evaluated by SAI Global, has been found to comply with the MSC requirements and is a "Well Managed and Sustainable Fishery", in accordance with the MSC's principles and criteria for sustainable fishing.
I bring the Deputy back to the earlier point, that this harvesting leads to increased spawning levels of biomass in the process, but I thank her for raising these points.
I thank Deputy Bacik and the Minister of State for being here to deal with that matter.