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Dáil Éireann debate -
Tuesday, 30 Nov 2021

Vol. 1014 No. 7

Saincheisteanna Tráthúla - Topical Issue Debate

Electricity Transmission Network

I note my disappointment that the Minister for the Environment, Climate and Communications, Deputy Eamon Ryan, is unavailable. I raised a similar issue some weeks ago and the Minister did not show up then either.

I am in receipt of an independently commissioned report and analysis of recent details and figures pertaining to the wholesale electricity market in Ireland known as the integrated single electricity market, I-SEM. The I-SEM was created to integrate the Irish-only market with European power markets, including Britain. Within that is the day-ahead market, DAM, accounting for 84% of all electricity. This is the benchmark price for Irish electricity and utilities and ultimately sets the price for residential, commercial and industrial consumers.

The report clearly shows that there has been a €250 million increase in the price of electricity for consumers in three months until the end of September because the ESB has orchestrated and extracted super-normal profits. I have no doubt that the ESB has used the shortage of generation capacity and its dominant place in the marketplace to increase tenfold the wholesale price of power, which has resulted in higher prices for consumers over and above the escalating costs applying to the rest of Europe. The time has come for the Commission for Regulation of Utilities, CRU, to carry out an investigation into how consumers in Ireland have been so severely impacted by the global rise in energy costs.

A number of factors are at play. Global gas prices have risen significantly causing energy price inflation. Ireland also has a generation supply crisis caused by the failure to plan for adequate new generation capacity. By virtue of its dominant role as a generator, the ESB has been selling into the wholesale market where all power utilities purchase their energy at ten times the normal levels applicable in 2019 and 2020. These energy utilities include Bord Gáis Energy, Electric Ireland, Energia, Flogas, Panda Power, Prepay Power and SSE Airtricity. The ESB has been using the shortage in generation capacity to extract super-normal profits causing further electricity price inflation.

As a power generator the ESB has a right to set the price it pitches to the wholesale market. However, in the absence of large-scale alternative energy generators and when, for example, wind power is not playing a significant role, the ESB demand price becomes the wholesale price and energy supply companies have no choice but to pay. The ESB has been demanding prices of up to €490 per megawatt hour when the cost of production was under €150 per megawatt hour. This has never happened before in the Irish electricity market and is only possible because of the shortage of generation and the ESB's dominant market share.

In the report, which was submitted to the CRU some weeks ago, shows that this has led to a €250 million increase in wholesale power costs in the three months to September. The cost is being passed on to all homes and businesses. Based on these three months alone, households will pay an extra €150 in this year's bills. I call on the Minister, Deputy Eamon Ryan, to order the ESB to cease price gouging in the market and instruct the regulator to commission new generation from other suppliers to ensure adequate supply and competition in the marketplace.

I had previously questioned the Minister, through a Minister of State representing him in the Dáil, about whether the ESB was using its dominance to orchestrate the current energy capacity shortage and whether a €10 million payment was made by EirGrid to ESB generation in relation to emergency generation at the ESB North Wall facility, despite the process for such provision being withdrawn following High Court proceedings against the said process. Since I raised this issue, other Deputies have also questioned who authorised this payment and where the taxpayers' €10 million is now? What has the Minister done since to get to the bottom of this matter? He stated he did not sanction the payment. Will he indicate whether he knew about it before it was made? Will he instruct EirGrid and the ESB to respond to this charge that a €10 million payment was made, which, to say the least, was way out of order? Unfortunately, it brings the whole system into disrepute.

I apologise to Deputy Cowen and the Leas-Cheann Comhairle for being late. It was my fault as I understood I was due to respond to the second Topical Issue matter.

I thank Deputy Cowen for raising this important topic, which has informed a lot of discussion lately. I will take this matter on behalf of the Minister who is unable to attend tonight and sends his apologies. Some of the issues the Deputy raised go beyond the brief I received but I will bring back the Deputy's questions and try to get the answers he seeks.

The integrated single electricity market, I-SEM, is the wholesale electricity market on the island of Ireland and is jointly administered and regulated by a statutory single electricity market committee, comprising the two energy regulators and independent members. The original single electricity market was established in 2007 and is underpinned by legislation enacted in Ireland and the UK and Northern Ireland, with the original legislation enacted in 2006 with an underpinning memorandum of understanding between the Irish and UK Governments.

Operating within an overall EU framework, responsibility for the regulation of the electricity market is solely a matter for the Commission for Regulation of Utilities, the independent energy regulator. The CRU was assigned responsibility for this function following the enactment of the Electricity Regulation Act 1999, which states that the CRU shall account for the performance of its functions to a joint committee of the Oireachtas, and not to the line Minister. In 2018, the new I-SEM went live demonstrating Ireland's strong commitment to the integration of European electricity markets. The I-SEM promotes the interests of consumers by enabling greater competition through cost-reflective prices, while also securing a diverse, viable and environmentally sustainable long-term energy supply.

The most immediate factor affecting electricity prices in Ireland is the continuing upward trend in international gas prices where we are a price-taker. In Europe, wholesale natural gas prices have been on an upward curve since the second half of 2020. This feeds directly through to wholesale electricity prices as it strongly correlates with the price of gas. This increase was cited by many suppliers as one of the main reasons they increased their prices recently. The wholesale cost of generating electricity makes up approximately 40% of the final retail price.

The Government believes that competition is a critical means of exerting downward pressure on electricity prices and also towards ensuring diversity of energy supply to reduce our exposure to high and volatile external energy prices. Additionally, our heavy dependence on gas in the electricity mix underlines the need to maintain the focus on the limited controllable cost factors. Among the actions being taken are to increase the penetration of indigenous secure renewables in the Irish electricity system and to promote energy efficiency.

The Deputy will note that the CRU is accountable to a joint committee of the Oireachtas and not necessarily to the Government or the Minister for the performance of its functions.

The CRU met the Oireachtas committee most recently on 5 October and there are channels where these issues can be raised directly with it.

On security of supply, the CRU has statutory responsibility, under SI 60 of 2005, to monitor and take measures necessary to ensure the security of electricity supply in Ireland, which I believe is the concern of the Deputy. The CRU is assisted in its statutory role by EirGrid, the electricity transmission system operator. EirGrid monitors security of supply and reports to the CRU on future projections of electricity supply and demand. This is set out in EirGrid’s annual generation capacity statement, the most recent version of which was published in September. The capacity remuneration mechanism, CRM, is a measure designed to complement energy-only payments in wholesale electricity markets. The purpose of a CRM is to ensure long-term security of supply by ensuring that investors can recover their long-run marginal costs. This is particularly important in isolated island systems with high volumes of intermittent generation such as Ireland’s all-island single electricity market, SEM. The running of the CRM is solely a matter for EirGrid and the SEM committee as auctions were conducted by the transmission system operator, TSO, which is EirGrid in this case, according to the auction design and overall regulatory supervision of the SEM committee. There is no ministerial function regarding the auctions apart from securing state aid approval for the capacity mechanism which was obtained in 2017.

I thank the Minister of State. I do not, nor does anybody else, expect the Minister, Deputy Ryan, to be able to change international gas prices. We have a right to expect, however, a competitive, efficient and well-served wholesale market. I contend that successive failures by the Department, EirGrid and the CRU have resulted in the present situation where we have too little generation capacity to meet our needs. The ESB, because of that failure, is now the dominant entity and market power which has shown itself only too willing to use that power to extract super-normal profits from Irish consumers.

We heard ten, 12 or 14 years ago a Financial Regulator tell the Government and State that the banks were well-capitalised and that there was nothing to fear or worry about and that it was removed from the workings of Government in its duty to enact Government policy. Here we have a Minister within a Government which sees this crisis for what it is head-on, knows the impact and the effect it is having, knows the failures that there have been to date to allow a situation to evolve, and then says that it absolves itself from any remedies that may be necessary. I have highlighted issues which are serious, worrying and need to be addressed. I would expect that the Minister with responsibility in this Government on behalf of us all would ensure that the ESB, EirGrid and the CRU live up to the expectations and policy commitments that are contained in the programme for Government on one side, and the responsibilities of the Department on the other, to ensure that the best interests of the public are adhered to.

Deputy Cowen raises a fair point in what has happened previously in other markets, and he has named the financial one. The Minister, Deputy Ryan, is looking closely at and is following this and I will certainly bring back to the Minister the Deputy’s concerns. It is right that we interrogate the data and try to get behind what these high prices are about as well as focusing on the importance of the security of supply.

One of the issues in respect of the ESB is that a new T-4 capacity auction was held in April 2009 with successful new projects required to be delivered in the 2022-23 capacity year. New projects that are awarded capacity contracts are required under the rules of the capacity markets to report on and demonstrate the progress of their projects between contract award and project delivery with specific milestones that must be reached within specific timeframes. Five of the new projects that the ESB won contracts for in that 2009 T-4 auction, consisting of 461 MW of new capacity, failed to demonstrate progression in line with the required timeframes and, as a result, these contracts were terminated. This was announced on 11 January this year. It is understood that the ESB considered that it could not deliver projects that had secured capacity contracts within the requirements and timeframe of the market period 2022-23 and therefore had to withdraw. As this contract for ESB generation was for the period 2022-23, its absence is not the reason for the current tightness in the electricity security of supply which is due to the unavailability of existing conventional generating power plants due to a mix of planned outages, maintenance and forced outages, as well as a growing electricity demand.

On the penalty, the ESB was required to pay a charge following termination of its capacity contracts for 2022-23. The associated notices were published at notice 1 and notice 2. The total amount of the termination charges was €4.1 million and the amount of capacity that was terminated was 461 MW. The application of termination charges is required under the capacity market code and the schedule of termination charges to apply in any given auction is set by the single electricity market committee. However, the charges were invoiced and collected by EirGrid and the System Operator for Northern Ireland, SONI, in their role as administrators of the capacity market code.

On the issue of Moneypoint, the termination of the 461 MW of new capacity that was awarded to the ESB was not due to the 2021-23-----

I apologise to the Minister of State but we must conclude there.

I will send a note to the Deputy with further information on this issue.

Cúrsaí Gaeilge

Gabhaim buíochas leis an Leas-Cheann Comhairle. Táim fíor-bhuíoch an seans seo a bheith agam an t-ábhar tábhachtach seo a phlé anseo sa Dáil anocht. Mo bhuíochas don Aire Stáit as a bheith anseo chomh déanach anocht agus tá súil agam go dtabharfaidh sí na sonraí ón díospóireacht seo don Aire, an Teachta Darragh O'Brien, agus don Aire Stáit, an Teachta Peter Burke.

Faoi láthair, mar is ionann an scéal don tír go léir, tá fadhbanna móra ag daoine óga sna limistéir Ghaeltachta i gCiarraí le cúrsaí tithíochta. Tá sé i bhfad ró-dheacair cead pleanála a fháil, tithe a cheannach nó tithe a fháil ar cíos i ngach áit, ach go háirithe i gCiarraí thiar, de bharr, ar an gcéad dul síos, na radhairc agus ansin an méid tithe saoire a bhfuair cead pleanála thar na blianta freisin. Chomh maith leis sin, tá na praghsanna ar sheantithe ró-ard don chuid is mó de na daoine sa cheantar de bharr daoine atá ag teacht isteach chun tithe saoire a cheannach agus ón méid airgid atá ag dul le tithe gearrthéarmacha ar an margadh anois freisin.

Idir 2015 agus 2021, ceadaíodh 101 iarratas pleanála i gceantair Ghaeltachta Chontae Chiarraí agus san am céanna diúltaíodh 26 iarratas. Dá bhrí sin, i nGaeltacht Chorca Dhuibhne, diúltaíodh timpeall iarratas amháin i ngach ceithre iarratas. Ní raibh ach diúltú amháin i nGaeltacht Uíbh Ráthaigh. Níl a fhios againn cad iad na huimhreacha pre-planning agus na daoine a chuala ó na hoifigigh phleanála nach raibh aon seans acu cead pleanála a fháil agus dá bharr sin nach raibh aon iarratas curtha isteach ar chor ar bith. Bheadh na figiúirí an-tábhachtach i gcomhthéacs na díospóireachta seo agus chuir mé ceist ar Chomhairle Contae Chiarraí chun na huimhreacha sin a fháil.

Bhuail mé le déanaí le Breandán Ó Beaglaoich agus daoine eile ón ngrúpa Todhchaí na Tuaithe agus bhí mé ann leo i mBaile na nGall an tseachtain seo caite agus bhí mé ann leo taobh amuigh de na geataí seo i mí Mheán Fómhair nuair a bhí agóid acu faoin ábhar. Tá an grúpa seo an-bhuartha go bhfuil an teanga ag fáil bháis sa Ghaeltacht de bharr na ndeacrachtaí atá ag daoine óga tithíocht áitiúil a fháil. Tá siad ag rá go mba cheart seans a bheith ag daoine córas traidisiúnta a úsáid le níos mó tithe a bheith ar shuíomh amháin le córas séarachais don ghrúpa. Bheadh sé ciallmhar agus praiticiúil cnuasach tithe a thógáil le chéile ar an nós traidisiúnta sa Ghaeltacht. Is trua é nach bhfuil aitheantas tugtha i ndréachtphlean forbartha Contae Chiarraí don traidisiún seo i gCiarraí thiar go háirithe.

Tá stádas speisialta ag teastáil uainn do dhaoine ón tuath atá ag lorg ceadanna pleanála ina gceantair dhúchais ach, go háirithe, do dhaoine a bhfuil an Ghaeilge acu sa Ghaeltacht mar tá an córas tithíochta sa Ghaeltacht faoi láthair ag teip, ag teip do na daoine áitiúla agus chomh maith leis sin don teanga.

Táim ag lorg freagraí ar na ceisteanna seo. Tá fadhb an-mhór ann agus tá a lán daoine buartha. Tá an Stát ag cur a lán airgid isteach sa teanga ach ag an am céanna níl na daoine áitiúla in ann fanacht ina gceantar dúchais agus tá an teanga ag imeacht leo freisin.

I am taking this question on behalf of the Minster of State, Deputy Peter Burke. If I had known Deputy Griffin was going to speak entirely in Irish, I would have asked the departmental officials to have the courtesy to give the response in Irish.

However, the reply I have received is in English and I will deliver it as such. On behalf of the Minister of State, I thank Deputy Griffin for raising this issue. The Minister of State welcomes this opportunity to update Members on work currently under way within the Department of Housing, Local Government and Heritage on this important issue. First, I want to outline the context and policy framework that underpin this work. The ongoing implementation of the language planning process has a statutory footing under the Gaeltacht Act 2012, which is the primary driver in support of the commitment to the achievement of the objectives set out in the 20-Year Strategy for the Irish Language 2010 to 2030. The national planning framework, NPF, reflects this commitment. In particular, national policy objective No. 29 "supports the implementation of language plans in Gaeltacht Language Planning Areas, Gaeltacht Service Towns and Irish Language Networks".

Separately, the Planning and Development Act 2000, as amended, sets out mandatory objectives for local authorities, which must be addressed in the drafting of their development plans governing local development policies. Section 10(2) of the Act, as amended, includes a requirement that, where there is a Gaeltacht area within the planning authority's territory, the development plan must include provisions and objectives for the protection of the linguistic and cultural heritage of the Gaeltacht, including the promotion of Irish as the community language. To provide further guidance in preparing appropriate policies, the Department of Housing, Local Government and Heritage published a document, Development Plans Guidelines and Development Management Guidelines for Planning Authorities, in 2007, which addresses this mandatory objective under the Planning and Development Act. The guidelines refer to linguistic and cultural heritage and the needs of the community in land use terms for housing, community facilities, employment, tourism and design, including advertising and signage. Individual development plans may also oblige applicants for planning permission to submit certain particulars or information to accompany development proposals in Gaeltacht areas, such as assessments of the linguistic impact of the proposed development, in order for it to be assessed against relevant policies of the development plan.

In August this year, the Department published revised and updated draft development plan guidelines, which reconfirm the obligations of planning authorities to the development of the Gaeltacht. Since April 2019, the assessment of all local authority development plans and local area plans is undertaken by the Office of the Planning Regulator, OPR. The oversight role of the office includes ensuring consistency with relevant national or regional policies, including those set out in the NPF, and addressing all relevant mandatory objectives for county development plans. It is important to note that the decision to grant or refuse planning permission or assign conditions to the granting of permission, including conditions relating to language where appropriate, is ultimately a matter for the relevant planning authority or An Bord Pleanála, as appropriate.

Officials from the Department of Housing, Local Government and Heritage have been engaging with the Department of Tourism, Culture, Arts, Gaeltacht, Sport and Media in regard to planning in Gaeltacht areas. In addition, several Irish language groups, including Conradh na Gaeilge, raised a number of matters with a view to improving the practical implementation of the Irish language provisions in Gaeltacht areas. On foot of this engagement between the Departments and the proposals put forward by Conradh na Gaeilge, the Department of Housing, Local Government and Heritage convened a working group during the summer to examine various aspects of the planning process in the Gaeltacht.

The Minister of State is out of time but she will have an opportunity to come back in.

Ba mhaith liom cúpla rud eile a rá. Is é mo thuairim go bhfuil seans iontach againn faoi láthair cuid mhór de na fadhbanna sa chóras tithíochta sa Ghaeltacht i gContae Chiarraí a réiteach sa phlean nua forbartha contae. Ar leibhéal náisiúnta tá a lán le déanamh againn freisin. Tá coimhlint idir an polasaí tithíochta sóisialta agus an polasaí teanga. Tá a fhios againn cad a tharlódh dá mbeadh an iomarca daoine gan an teanga ag teacht isteach sa Ghaeltacht gan aon intinn acu an teanga a úsáid sa todhchaí. Níl sé sin ceart agus caithfimid níos mó a dhéanamh ar an ábhar sin. Chomh maith leis sin, teastaíonn leibhéal caighdeánach náisiúnta uainn freisin do gach comhairle contae sa chomhthéacs seo.

Bhíos ag labhairt faoi seo sa Teach coicís ó shin. Caithfimid deontais a thabhairt do dhaoine atá ag iarraidh teach a cheannach den chéad uair agus iad a dhéanamh suas. Ba cheart dúinn an scéim help to buy a thabhairt dóibh freisin. B’fhéidir go bhféadfaimis buntáiste cánach a thabhairt do na húinéirí a dhíolann na tithe seo do dhaoine atá ag iarraidh teach a cheannach den chéad uair, go háirithe daoine óga le Gaelainn sa Ghaeltacht. Gabhaim buíochas leis an Aire Stáit. Tugaim cuireadh don Aire agus don Aire Stáit atá freagrach as tithíocht teacht ar cuairt go Corca Dhuibhne chun bualadh le muintir na Gaeltachta faoi na fadhbanna seo..

It is important that I read out the last part of the reply, which relates to the various policies to which the Deputy referred. Membership of the working group established by the Department of Housing, Local Government and Heritage is made up of representatives from the Department of Tourism, Culture, Arts Gaeltacht, Sport and Media, Údarás na Gaeltachta and the relevant local authorities. The Minister, Deputy Darragh O'Brien, is committed to working with the relevant stakeholders in the coming months with a view to agreeing practical improvements and best practice processes that will support and enhance the important policy and legislative provisions that are in place.

Separately, and to support and accelerate the work in train, earlier this month, Department officials met with the relevant officials in the Department of Tourism, Culture, Arts Gaeltacht, Sport and Media, and both Departments will continue to engage closely in this regard. The Deputy may be assured that the Department is committed to ensuring that procedures and systems will be tailored as appropriate, in co-operation with the Department of Tourism, Culture, Arts Gaeltacht, Sport and Media and Údarás na Gaeltachta, to facilitate an effective and consistent approach by the relevant local authorities. Given the work that is currently under way, the ongoing engagement with the relevant stakeholders, the unique spatial and linguistic circumstances relating to each of our Gaeltacht areas, with local variations between communities, and the context in which the Irish language is spoken, the Minister is of the view that the relevant planning authorities are best placed to implement the planning framework of legislation, policy and guidance that has been outlined. He is satisfied there are appropriate planning oversight mechanisms and safeguards in place, which include the OPR and An Bord Pleanála.

International Agreements

This Friday is International Day of Persons with Disabilities, the day to promote the rights and well-being of people with disabilities and celebrate their contributions to communities and society. I thank the Ceann Comhairle for selecting this Topical Issue for debate. The optional protocol to the United Nations Convention on the Rights of Persons with Disabilities, CRPD, allows individuals and groups to hold states to account for failures to uphold their rights. Ms Sinéad Gibney, chief commissioner of the Irish Human Rights and Equality Commission, IHREC, has stated:

'Optional Protocol' is a technical term that unfortunately does a disservice to its meaning and significance, and which masks the urgent need for action for people with disabilities and our society. The Protocol is about empowering people with disabilities.

Far from being optional, it is a crucial tool for the convention's implementation, which provides more local remedies and removes discriminatory laws and practices.

While the language is technical and it can seem divorced from everyday life, this is incredibly important to help strengthen the rights of people with disabilities.

Disability services, or the inadequacy of them, is an issue I am contacted about practically daily from people across Cork South-West and beyond. I know that other Deputies and the Minister of State have a similar experience. We hear accounts of children who cannot access vital therapies or the children disability network teams waiting lists, of families unable to get suitable housing and of older people forced into nursing homes due to a lack of home supports.

At the Joint Committee on Disability Matters, our current module is dealing directly with the lived experiences of people with disabilities and their carers. What one hears each week is more disgraceful and enraging than what one heard the previous week, as individuals and families tell us about having to fight for access to and then maintain basic services. I regret to say that I have come to the conclusion that we do not have a rights-based approach to disability; rather, we have a budget-based model. Services, supports, and opportunities are decided on the basis of Government budgets, not human rights. It is worth noting that we can afford to address these matters. In a rights-based system, when people are entitled to a service, they receive it, from SNAs to carers respite to accessible transport. What is happening in Ireland is so very far from this.

In dealing with all of this week after week, I keep coming back to the importance of the protocol in holding the State accountable for the deficiencies in services and for the barriers individuals face. The programme for Government includes ratifying the protocol, and the Minister for Children, Equality, Disability, Integration and Youth reiterates his commitment every time I ask him about the process. However, there is no sense of priority.

Disgracefully, it took Ireland more than ten years to ratify the UN Convention on the Rights of Persons with Disabilities. Individuals, communities and advocacy organisations are all deeply concerned that ratification of the optional protocol is also years away. People with disabilities cannot wait that long in order to be able to guarantee their rights. In June, the Chief Commissioner of the Irish Human Rights and Equality Commission wrote to the Minister of State and the Minister, Deputy O'Gorman, to emphasise the need to adopt the optional protocol as a matter of urgency.

We have discussed this extensively at meetings of the Joint Committee on Disability Matters. It is clear that this is a political decision. We have heard from different experts, including the UN special rapporteur, who have clearly said that the optional protocol can be ratified immediately. I am sure the Minister of State will mention issues such the commencement of the Assisted Decision Making (Capacity) Act 2015 and the establishment of the decision support services, which are very welcome. However, these are the latest delays presented by Departments. Ratification can and should happen immediately. Will the Minister of State please push for this?

I thank Deputy Cairns for raising the issue of the optional protocol and recognise that Friday is international day for persons with disabilities. It is also great to have the opportunity to discuss the matter this week and keep a focus on the agenda. I appreciate the Deputy's commitment and that of the entire House for the progression and ratification of the optional protocol.

Ratifying the optional protocol to the UN Convention on the Right of Persons with Disabilities is a matter of significant importance to me and the Minister. Ratification is a commitment in the programme for Government and the Minister and I have stated that we wish to see the protocol ratified as soon as possible. Work has begun to identify the steps that need to be put in place to enable early ratification of the protocol. However, the Government and I have always been mindful of the need to be able to meet and honour our obligations arising from international commitments. Ireland has a reputation as a good faith actor on the international stage and as a leader on human rights issues. It is a hard-won reputation based on a long-standing policy whereby we do not enter into binding international obligations without first being sure that we can meet and honour the commitments we take on.

The Minister and I are working to ensure that Ireland will be a position to honour the obligations in the optional protocol upon ratification. To this end, ratification of the optional protocol requires progress being made in key areas of legislation so that Ireland can move closer to full compliance with the UN Convention on the Right of Persons with Disabilities. Fully commencing the Assisted Decision-Making (Capacity) Act 2015 is a priority for us in this regard. We are working intensively on an assisted decision-making capacity (amendment) Bill which will streamline processes and improve safeguards for everyone who will rely on the Act and the decision support services that it established. This is a fundamental change in how people with disability are supported in their decision making and is a key measure in progressing the realisation of Ireland's compliance with the UN Convention on the Right of Persons with Disabilities, especially Article 12.

It is important to put on the record of the Dáil that today I wrote to the Chair of the Joint Committee on Children, Equality, Disability, Integration and Youth , Deputy Funchion, regarding the heads of a decision-making capacity (amendment) Bill. I have progressed it, and I now ask the committee to give it priority so that I can ensure a full commitment. I have always said that decision support services should be in place by June of next year.

In addition, a comprehensive review process is needed to ensure that Ireland's other systems and processes for personal persons with disabilities, particularly complaint and redress mechanisms, will meet the obligations in the optional protocol. The Office of the Attorney General will play an essential role in the review and officials in the Department of Children, Equality, Disability, Integration and Youth will conduct work over the period ahead.

In terms of time, the programme for Government contains a firm commitment to ratify the optional protocol after the first UN Convention on the Rights of Persons with Disabilities reporting cycle has concluded. Although Ireland has already submitted its initial state report under the convention, it is possible that the report may not be reviewed as quickly as originally anticipated. As a consequence, the completion of the reporting cycle may take longer than planned. However, the Minister and I are keen to ensure that Ireland's ratification of the optional protocol is not delayed for this reason and we will prepare for ratification once the review of domestic procedures, complaints and the redress mechanism has been completed and any action that may arise from that process has been undertaken.

In the immediate term, we know we need the commencement of the Assisted Decision-Making (Capacity) Act 2015 and the full operation of decision support services. I would like to underline the commitment of the Government to implementing the UN Convention on the Rights of Persons with Disabilities.

I thank Minister of State. Of anyone in government, I do not doubt her commitment in this area. However, I am concerned at the conditionalities Departments keep putting up that supposedly block ratification. In 2015, it was the intention to ratify the convention and the optional protocol together. By 2018, however, it was just the convention. We then had to wait until after the first reporting cycle under the convention, which, at the current pace, is still years off. In response to pressure on that hurdle, the emphasis has now fallen on the commencement of the Assisted Decision Making (Capacity) Act 2015, which I welcome. It will come before the Committee on Children, Equality, Disability, Integration and Youth, and I will push for it to be prioritised. The review of the current legislation for decision support service gets an occasional mention.

The goal posts keep shifting, and all the time people with disabilities are denied access to housing, cannot get suitable transport for work or socialising and are disproportionately at risk of poverty and social exclusion. Exhausted parents have to fight for therapies from under-staffed children's disability network teams and carers are left without respite

In this week, with International Day of Persons with Disabilities imminent, what will the Government do? The Minister spoke about identifying the steps it needs to take. One one hand, we have independent experts, including the Irish Human Rights and Equality Commission and Professor Gerard Quinn, the UN special rapporteur on the rights of persons with disabilities, stating that the protocol can be ratified immediately, without the need for all of the steps and compliance with the Assisted Decision Making (Capacity) Act 2015. There is no need for legislative or structural changes. Other countries have done that and they have come before the committee and explained that to us. On the other hand, we have Departments continually shifting their position, with barrier after barrier being put up, as well as a process which is at odds with the approach taken by countries that have done this successfully and that ratified the optional protocol years ago. The Government has a very clear choice. Surely, it would choose to follow the advice and more quickly protects the rights of people with disabilities.

I thank the Deputy. The Government is committed to full ratification of the optional protocol. There is a process I have not veered away from since I became Minister of State which relates to two matters I referred to in my reply. The first is the general scheme of the Assisted Decision-Making (Capacity) (Amendment) Bill 2021 that has gone to the Joint Committee on Children, Equality, Disability, Integration and Youth. I ask the joint committee to prioritise its consideration of that. I allocated funding in last year's and this year's budget for decision support services so that staff will be in place when the proposed legislation is passed, and decision support services will be operational. I am working with the disability stakeholder group and I am working on the national disability inclusion strategy. Interdepartmental groups meet on a quarterly basis.

Out of that, they meet every month where disability is a focus within their Department. I am asking them, parallel with what I am doing legislatively with the Members of the House, to ensure their Departments are doing the same. Before the end of this year, I will lay before the House the National Disability Authority, NDA, revision in respect of the Irish Sign Language Act, to see where it looked at every Department. What the NDA has done with regard to the Irish Sign Language Act is a really good barometer because it shows where disabilities within all Departments are open and that the Departments understand what it means about disability inclusion and participation and how the Departments can work to ensure that the mechanism is there.

I am not changing any goalposts. I have been very clear that if we cannot be before the UN convention because of the timing cycle, we have sent forward our papers. We have our decision support services in place. Those mechanisms are then in place for myself and the Minister, Deputy O'Gorman, to ensure that the optional protocol is ratified.

Hospital Services

The reason there is a number of speakers is that this relates to the Saolta University Health Care Group and the latest data which have come from the Irish Nurses and Midwives Organisation and the Irish Patients Association regarding the number of patients in the north-west and west region who are on long waiting lists. In addition, the trolley count is particularly high. In fact, it is the highest of any part of the country. Last week alone, and despite the fact that there were widespread cancellations of elective surgeries in all the hospitals in the Saolta group, there were 614 patients on trolleys. There were 226 in Letterkenny, 169 in Galway and 104 in Sligo. I have very little time, but there are particular problems in this region and in this group. The question we are asking, and I have raised this directly with the Minister, Deputy Stephen Donnelly, is: what can be done to ensure that whatever resources need to be put into all those hospitals to reduce the waiting times and take people off trolleys is done?

Like my colleague, Deputy Cullinane, I wish to discuss the Saolta hospital group and, in particular, Mayo University Hospital. Mayo University Hospital is in a deep crisis at present, both in terms of the 15,000 people who are waiting for treatment there and in terms of access to the emergency department. People are waiting for hours without treatment. It is not good enough in this day and age. It is not good enough to say that we spend X amount of money. There must be accountability within the system. We also need the resources to be targeted. We have built enormous primary care centres, even in parts of Mayo, yet people cannot have access to a general practitioner, GP, or to proper healthcare. Something has gone badly wrong. There must be capital investment in Mayo University Hospital. There is no point in telling us it will happen in 2024 or 2025. There has not been capital investment in Belmullet hospital as well and that is obviously having a knock-on effect on step-down services for Mayo University Hospital.

Covid-19 has shown that we need capacity and bed numbers to keep patients safe and away from risk. Sadly, this is not the case at present. Galway University Hospital has long had an issue with capacity, which means that, as the Minister of State knows, most families in Galway have had a loved one stay on a trolley rather than in a hospital bed. Indeed, it was this capacity issue that left us on the back foot at the onset of the pandemic and it still impacts on our fight against Covid-19 now. It was horrifying to see that once again this month there were hundreds of people lying on hospital trolleys in Galway and across the west. These are not just numbers, but real people. We have to finally deal with the capacity issue and support the tremendous work that is being done by staff who are dealing with overcrowded conditions daily as they try to do their best for the patients who are admitted to Galway University Hospital.

The issue across the entire hospital group is capacity more than anything else. We hit it all the time and the number of people on trolleys and on waiting lists comes up in the Chamber regularly. The staffing issues in Sligo University Hospital, particularly in the emergency department, have been at crisis point for the past number of months. We met the management of the hospital who told us that new nurses were being recruited and that 14 were to be in place before the end of November. The hospital has got some of them, but not all of them. The staff had organised a lunchtime protest today because of the staffing levels in Sligo University Hospital. They postponed it because negotiations are taking place to try to do something about it. However, it is a crisis situation. There are issues with bed capacity, diagnostic capacity and theatre space. There is a range of problems, and not just in Sligo. It is in Letterkenny and in all the hospitals in the region. It is a very poor reflection of how the west is being looked after when one considers that the Saolta hospital group is in such a crisis.

I suppose I should be glad you are in the Chair tonight, a Leas-Cheann Comhairle, or you would be adding your voice on this matter. I acknowledge the Saolta group as I am a resident who accesses the Saolta group. It is important to put that on the record.

I accept that our waiting lists are far too big. Many patients are waiting an unacceptably long period of time. The waiting lists were too long before the pandemic but have worsened due to Covid-19 and the cyberattack. We are taking action to address this. For 2022, an additional allocation of €250 million will be used to fund additional activity in both the public and private sectors to reduce hospital and community waiting lists. The additional funding means there will be a budget of €350 million available to support vital initiatives to improve access to acute hospitals and community health services.

There is an acknowledgement in the response, and I echo it, that there is tremendous pressure in all the hospitals across the Saolta group.

The staff are working incredibly hard, but my reading out tonight what beds have arrived and what beds are coming on stream does not provide the care to the families who need it and does not give the hospitals the staff they need. Funding is not the issue at the moment. It is really hard to recruit staff into clinical posts. That is a major problem being faced in Sligo.

The statement the Minister of State was given referred to additional beds that have been brought into the system. In her speech, she mentioned 800 new acute beds and she went on to detail some of them. She did not say that many of these beds are actually replacement beds. A few days ago, I was in Portiuncula hospital and met the hospital manager. The Minister of State spoke about 62 beds, but 50 of those are replacement beds and only 12 are new. They are single isolation room beds which are replacing wards that are being repurposed for other uses. These are not new beds and do not bring additional capacity. It is unfair to suggest to people they are new beds when they are not new beds.

The people in Mayo deserve better and need better at this point. The Minister of State has spoken about staff and looking after them, and I acknowledge the Trojan work they do. Why do we not do exit interviews with all the nurses who are leaving? Why do we not offer contracts that are flexible to meet the family needs of nurses? Why are we going around the world recruiting nurses when only 4% of students who do pre-nursing PLC courses go on to be nurses? The pathways are not there for our own people.

I echo the words of my colleague, Deputy Martin Kenny. This really is a capacity issue. While budget after budget outlined the additional capacity that would be added to our hospitals, the reality is people in Galway having to leave their granny overnight on a trolley in Galway University Hospital as so many families have had to do in recent weeks. That is just not good enough. They need to see the impact on the ground.

The Minister of State referred to the recruitment of staff as being impossible. We need to drill down on the reasons for that. The reason is that the HSE is trying to recruit staff into a chaotic situation where they are required to work in an understaffed ward with one person having to take on all the responsibilities which should be shared among three or four people. As a result of that people do not want to stay in the HSE system and are therefore emigrating to other countries where they can at least make progress in trying to qualify. Those problems exist across all HSE areas and not just in the west because of the chaotic system that has arisen over years of underinvestment.

The 2018 health service capacity review was clear on the need for a major investment in additional capacity in both acute hospitals and in the community, combined with wide-scale reform of the manner and location of the provision of health services. Approximately 800 beds have been provided on a permanent basis over the number available at the end of 2019. We have hired more than 6,000 staff - doctors, nurses, midwives and therapists - since last summer.

On 7 October the Minister, Deputy Stephen Donnelly, published an acute waiting list action plan, aimed at mitigating the impact of the pandemic and the cyberattack on scheduled care activity this year. He is also establishing a ministerial task force to oversee a long-term multi-annual plan to address this enormous challenge. He has said that reducing waiting lists will be a priority for us throughout 2022. The Department, the HSE and the National Treatment Purchase Fund are focusing on improving access to elective care in order to reduce waiting times for patients. These plans include increased use of private hospitals; funding weekend and evening work in public hospitals; funding "see and treat" services for minor procedures while providing at the same time an outpatient consultation; providing virtual clinics; and increasing capacity in the public hospital system.

He has accepted that a key part of the solution for the Saolta group is additional beds and the expansion of facilities. I earlier outlined many of the recent and current developments under way at each of the hospitals across the group. All these are significant steps in addressing the needs and will provide additional capacity and staff to meet the needs of the population. The Department of Health and the HSE will continue to work with the local group management to further improve the patient experience in the Saolta University Hospital Care Group.

The 50 beds in Portiuncula hospital have been out of operation for some time and the additional 12 beds relate to where the hospital could not have the old Victorian-style units.

They are still open.

They have not been open for many years.

They are open now.

The Dáil adjourned at 11.25 p.m. until 9.12 a.m. on Wednesday, 1 December 2021.
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