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Dáil Éireann debate -
Tuesday, 29 Mar 2022

Vol. 1020 No. 2

Saincheisteanna Tráthúla - Topical Issue Debate

Common Travel Area

I am thankful for this Topical Issue matter being taken again today. It was on the agenda for last Thursday, but it was not dealt with because the Minister did not come to the House. That was unfortunate.

Well, the Minister did not come to that Topical Issue debate. It was submitted in the morning, the Minister's Department agreed to take it and then nobody turned up to take it. That is a sign that the Minister did not come, as far as I can make out. That is a problem in the context of the Dáil's procedures and how Topical Issue debates are treated. Overall, that is probably an issue for another day.

I am glad this Topical Issue matter is finally being taken today. It arises from legislation that went through the House of Commons last week and which introduces an electronic travel authorisation, ETA, system for non-Irish or non-UK citizens who wish to travel into the North at any time. This has serious implications for Ireland and the Minister recognised that when he talked to the newspapers about the legislation. He said the British Government had failed to recognise the "very unusual construct and series of relationships and treaties and agreements" that relate to Ireland, the Border and how it works with the UK. In reality, while the UK has said there will not be any checks, if there is a system at the Border where it is necessary for people to register, then there must be some provision or allowance for checks on that system at some stage in the future as well. Will I wrap up?

I lost track of the time because I was distracted.

I can keep on going. Start the clock going there.

No, I trust the Deputy.

Our party leader, Mary Lou McDonald, raised this issue with the Taoiseach last week. It is something I have been raising here since last year, because this has been an issue of real concern. Given that the House of Commons has overturned the amendment to the legislation made by the House of Lords, the situation now is that a Polish person living in Lifford and having to travel across the bridge to Strabane will need a visa, an ETA, which will cost money. It will state clearly on it how long it will last for and how many trips the holder will be allowed to undertake on that visa. This is a ridiculous situation because of the number of non-Irish and non-British people who live in our country and reside beside the Border. Many of them travel across the Border to work or to bring their kids to school. This development really damages the common travel area. Additionally, a further provision in the Bill imposes a penalty of £2,000 on people who travel to London on aircraft without appropriate identification.

It will be no surprise to the Minister that this issue is being raised by three Donegal Deputies. It is a particular issue for our county. How are we supposed to attract investment into what are called the gateways of Derry and Letterkenny? Thousands of people travel across what is, thankfully, a seamless Border every day for work and education. That is how our Border region functions. This is an attack by a Tory Government that has given no thought to and has no regard for our Border communities. It has repeatedly acted recklessly since the Brexit vote in 2016. We are asking the Minister to stand up firmly for the interests of more than 600,000 people who work, pay taxes and live in our communities and contribute to our country. They are a core part of our country and they are going to be treated as second-class citizens. It is untenable and I wish to know what the Minister is going to do about it.

I thank Deputies Pringle, Doherty and Mac Lochlainn for raising this important issue. I have been carefully monitoring the progress of the UK's draft Nationality and Borders Bill as it moved through the legislative process in Westminster. We have several concerns regarding the proposed electronic travel authorisation scheme set out in the Bill in the context of cross-Border travel on the island of Ireland in the context of the issues raised by all three Deputies.

I discussed those concerns in detail with the Secretary of State for Northern Ireland, Brandon Lewis, at a meeting of the British-Irish Intergovernmental Conference in Dublin last Thursday.

The Bill provides the UK's new immigration rules may require that non-Irish and non-British citizens obtain an ETA before travelling to the UK, including for journeys across the land border to Northern Ireland.

The British Government has confirmed that the proposed ETA system would not apply to Irish and British citizens. The British Government has also stated there will continue to be no immigration checks on the land border. Our concern with respect to the Bill's ETA provision centres on the fact that the movement of people on this island, particularly in Border areas, is unique. Many thousands of people cross the Border every day in the course of their daily lives, including to access essential services, for business, tourism, family reasons and to travel from one part of Ireland to another. This is something both the Irish and British Governments recognised and committed to in strand two of the Good Friday Agreement.

The introduction of the proposed ETA scheme for cross-Border journeys could cause considerable disruption to the daily lives and livelihoods of many people across the island of Ireland who are not Irish or British citizens, particularly those residing in Border areas, including the north west. The scheme could have a significant impact on tourism in Northern Ireland, with more than two thirds of visitors from mainland Europe and the US arriving in Northern Ireland via the South. There are also potential implications for cross-Border healthcare, education and integrated supply chains.

It is clear Border counties such as Donegal would be particularly affected by these matters. Most journeys to and from Donegal naturally cross the Border, and residents of Donegal and other Border counties would also be well aware that the closest amenity or essential service is often found across the Border, and they would, therefore, be especially conscious of the impact that the ETA scheme as currently conceived would have.

The House of Commons voted on 22 March against the amendment from the House of Lords that would have exempted cross-Border journeys into Northern Ireland from the proposed ETA requirements. Since the proposal emerged, the Government has engaged with the British Government at both official and political levels to express our serious concerns about the proposed ETA scheme.

As mentioned, I raised these directly with the Secretary of State last Thursday at the British-Irish Intergovernmental Conference. I highlighted the complexities that such a scheme would present for cross-Border travel, as well as the serious implications for daily lives and livelihoods. Senior officials continue to engage with their British counterparts on the details of these concerns. We will encourage the British Government to reconsider its approach and apply exceptions for residents in Ireland and visitors to the island of Ireland from the ETA scheme.

It is important to say the legislation is not yet through Westminster. It has come from the House of Lords with an amendment, which has been rejected in the House of Commons, but it may well go back to the House of Lords before coming to the House of Commons again. There is time to try to change this and I assure the Deputies we will be very active in our attempts to do that.

Is there a copy of the Minister's reply for circulation?

There is not but I will try to ensure it can be sent around.

It is usually circulated.

Yes. I am not sure there is somebody in the office to do it now. If there is not, I will ensure a copy can be emailed to everybody who wants it.

I thank the Minister for his belated summary on the matter. The legislation may not have completed its journey through the House of Commons but basically the British Parliament has voted to include this measure. What can the Minister do other than impress on the British Government the importance of not having the measure? That clearly has not worked too well up to now. There must be some sort of follow-up if this goes ahead.

To my mind it is a breach of an international treaty but perhaps it is not; maybe the Minister will explain that to us. That treaty provides for the movement of citizens, etc. Will he advise what would be the application of this procedure and how does he intend to deal with it should this not be resolved by the British Parliament?

I acknowledge that the Minister has spoken with the Secretary of State but we need this raised at the highest level. We need the Taoiseach to lift the phone to British Prime Minister Boris Johnson, as we requested last week. We need to use our diplomatic muscle internationally on this. I also have concerns that section 81 of the Bill breaches the common travel area provision because it would require us to have a form of identification when we fly to London or elsewhere in the UK. That is not required on Aer Lingus flights at this point, and there will be a penalty imposed on carriers if that is not done.

We are in a position now where this legislation will come into effect in 2024. If a road traffic collision occurs in Letterkenny then, an ambulance would not be able to take a Polish individual directly to Dublin to deal with a head injury, for example. That ambulance would have to go via Sligo. The legislation is not just about crossing the Border into the North and visiting the North but passing through as well.

We need to raise this at the highest levels, which is the level of the Taoiseach. That should be along with the Minister's efforts. We must also look at what international support we have on the matter.

I consider this to be repugnant to the Good Friday Agreement and an attack on that agreement. The peace process was underpinned by the seamless Border on the island and the free movement of goods, people and capital on the island of Ireland. I am thankful we continue to be a member of the European Union and the North of Ireland, for all intents and purposes, is still within the Union. It is absolutely repugnant to suggest European citizens, whatever about those from the US and other countries, would be treated any differently from the rest of us on this island.

Frankly, this is outrageous and yet again a reckless intervention by Tories with no regard for our island or our Border communities. In the strongest possible terms, our Government must reject this and insist as a co-signatory of the Good Friday agreement that it cannot proceed.

I do not disagree with the points being made and this is completely inconsistent with the spirit of the Good Friday Agreement. As part of a peace process, we have created a position where a seamless Border allows goods, services and people to move across that Border. It was clearly assisted by joint EU membership but also the aspirations around North-South co-operation. These were all about trying to ensure we had an all-island economy that could function and allow people to move around to work and study, as well as everything else. For the British Government to essentially make the case that the Border between Northern Ireland and the South is no different from any other borders that the UK may have when it comes to people entering the UK is patently nonsense. We have special arrangements because we have a special history on this island marked by violence and a very dark period.

We have been and will continue making our view very clear on this. The Minister for Justice, Deputy McEntee, has been very clear with her counterpart, Ms Priti Patel, and she will write to her again on this matter. I have made my view clearly known to the Secretary of State and I have certainly raised it with my counterpart, Ms Liz Truss, as well. I expect the Taoiseach has also raised it with the British Prime Minister. I would have to check that but if he has not, he will certainly do so.

We have focused on trying to make relatively low-key interventions and not turn this into a political football. It is about trying to get sensible changes made to this legislation. Unfortunately, that has not worked to date. The embassy has been very active on this matter. I have made it very clear to the Secretary of State, Mr. Brandon Lewis, that the Irish Government cannot and will not support or condone this and we will continue to lobby hard to change it. I hope we will be successful.

Citizens Information Services

I thank the Minister for Justice for coming to deal with this as I understand the Minister for Social Protection, Deputy Heather Humphreys, is busy with departmental issues.

I raise the closure of the Citizens Information office in Wicklow town. This is an incredibly successful information office and one of the busiest in the county. It provides a real service and has done for many years to local residents, particularly elderly people or migrant communities. It has formed very strong bonds with the Traveller community in the Wicklow district and there is a direct provision centre in Wicklow town as well, along with emergency accommodation nearby in Ashford. The office provides an absolutely essential service to the residents in those centres.

Unfortunately, during the Covid-19 pandemic it became apparent that the office that the service occupied in Wicklow town was no longer suitable from a health and safety perspective.

The office closed temporarily but staff realised quickly that they could not open the doors again and formally and officially closed the doors on 1 March this year. They have identified an alternative premises but they need funding in order to secure it.

I was hoping to raise the matter with the Minister, Deputy Humphreys, tonight. My understanding is that it is a matter for the Department whether the funding will be made available for this premises. As I said, this is a really essential service. I was just looking for an update on the funding application and whether there is a possibility to get it funded. Now more than ever people within our communities need access to a safe, trusted, free information service that assists them with things like writing applications, knowing what Government Department to contact and knowing what their entitlements are. Particularly with the rising cost of living and rising fuel costs, and since we will have a lot of new members of our community with Ukrainian citizens coming as well, it is really important that we continue to support Citizens Information offices. I hope the Minister, Deputy Humphreys, will provide the funding to keep them operating in such a successful manner.

The Minister, Deputy Humphreys, sends her apologies for not being able to be here. The Citizens Information Board, CIB, under the aegis of the Department of Social Protection, is the statutory body with responsibility for the Citizens Information service, CIS. The Citizens Information Board provides funding to 22 companies in order to deliver services on its behalf. This includes eight CIS companies that operate a national network of Citizens Information centres, including south Leinster CIS which encompasses County Wicklow.

Wicklow town Citizens Information centre initially opened an office in August 2005. In March 2020, as the Deputy outlined, the board of south Leinster CIS made the decision to close the Wicklow office as part of its Covid-19 response. The decision to close any office within the CIS network is a matter for the relevant CIS board as they are responsible for their region's service delivery. The Wicklow office has remained closed since March 2020. As the Deputy has outlined, the valuable work carried out by the Wicklow office has continued during this period and the one full-time information officer, previously based in Wicklow Citizens Information centre, has worked supporting citizens of Wicklow from the Bray Citizens Information office since March 2020. It is not ideal and obviously not in the same location but that support is continuing.

On 6 December 2021, the south Leinster CIS regional manager on behalf of the board informed CIB that they had made the decision to discontinue services in their Wicklow town office due to health and safety concerns. The board had undertaken an internal assessment of the premises and identified that they were unsuitable under a number of areas. A temporary office location was identified in Wicklow town; however, the board of south Leinster CIS made the decision not to use this office, while looking to procure a longer term arrangement.

An alternative office space in the centre of Wicklow town was considered in 2021 but these premises would require substantial financial investment before they could be utilised. Planning permission for the change of use of these premises was granted in late 2021 and consequently had not been factored into CIB's 2022 budget allocation estimates process. CIB receives an annual funding allocation from the Department of Social Protection. Therefore, CIB was not in a financial position at the time to commit to any projects that extended into the next financial year as they had not been included in their estimates to the Department.

However, both CIB and the board of south Leinster CIS are committed to the continued ongoing delivery of high-quality services to the people of County Wicklow. Services have continued to be offered throughout the pandemic and will continue to be available through a combination of offices in Arklow and Bray for drop-in appointments and phone-based services. The latter have been particularly successful in ensuring south Leinster CIS has continued to support the people of County Wicklow over what has been a very difficult delivery environment since March 2020.

On the discussion around funding, I note that the Department of Social Protection and CIB are currently holding discussions in respect of funding required to complete the new premises development for Wicklow town. These discussions are taking place in the context of CIB's 2022 budget allocation and other competing priorities, taking into account all of the reasons it could not be considered until now.

I thank the Minister. I know this is not her area but I will say that response is essentially what I said to her in the first instance. It outlines the importance of the information office and goes through the history of what happened. Unfortunately it does not give any timeline as to when funding could potentially be provided or if the Department will be looking favourably on that funding. I understand the Minister may not be in a position to answer that. There needs to be clarity and certainty given to people.

The Minister is correct that the officer who was in Wicklow town is now based in Bray. I am not sure if the Minister ever tried to get public transport from Bray or Arklow to Wicklow town. Despite them being relatively close, maybe 20 or 30 minutes away, it is near impossible to get a bus or train. The service is very limited. The communities that these centres are focused on and try to provide a service to are not communities that would have easy access to private transport.

I understand this is not the Minister's area but it is a really important function. It is crucial that Wicklow town retains its office. I would hate to see it delayed for six months or a year while the annual bureaucratic budgetary process is negotiated. The funds need to be provided to make sure this service can continue. In north Wicklow, and now I can see it across the entirety of Wicklow and the whole country, we are going to have a lot of individuals who will need supports, advice and a trusted source of information. I am thinking of the Ukrainian refugees arriving, in particular. We also have a direct provision centre in Wicklow town and the Citizens Information offices are key to them getting that advice and knowing what they need to do to access entitlements and supports. I really ask that the Government prioritises it and that the Minister pass that message on to the Minister, Deputy Humphreys. It would be really great to have a timeline as to when those negotiations will be up.

While it is not my area and I am not fully up to speed on this, I do appreciate that providing services in Arklow and Bray is not the same kind of support for people living in Wicklow town. At the same time, they really have tried to make sure there is as much support available as possible while the service is not immediately available in the town. Arklow Citizens Information centre is open for drop-in callers on Tuesdays from 10 a.m. to 1 p.m. and 1.30 p.m. to 4.30 p.m. Appointments are also available. Callers can also ring the service Monday to Friday with their queries from 9 a.m. to 5 p.m. Bray Citizens Information centre is open for drop-in callers on Mondays to Thursdays from 9.30 a.m. to 4.30 p.m. They can also ring with their queries from 9 a.m. to 5 p.m. There are also different types of clinics in Bray including free legal advice, chartered accountants, voluntary advice and a domiciliary care allowance specialist service. I appreciate it is not where people necessarily want it but there is still a lot of service being provided. I think people really have tried to make sure that is available to as many people as possible, particularly those whose service has been closed.

I cannot give the Deputy a timeframe but what I can say is that we all have to work within our budgets. We know that when a budget is set for a particular year, unless there is an underspend it is hard to rearrange that money. What is important in this response is that the Department of Social Protection is working with the CIB and having discussions in respect of future funding. It is looking at it in the context of the CIB's funding for 2022. I hope, as I am sure do the Deputy and those who rely on this service, that it will be successful for this year's funding. I will ask the Minister to come back to the Deputy if she can provide more clarity on the exact timeframe and sequencing of events.

An Garda Síochána

I appreciate the selection of this matter for debate and the presence of the Minister in the Chamber. This has been a pressing issue for a number of years. Since 2015, more than 6,000 members of An Garda Síochána have been assaulted in the line of duty. This works out at an average of two members of An Garda Síochána at least every day. The Commission on the Future of Policing in Ireland recommended the introduction of body-worn cameras over four years ago. Ireland is an outlier when it comes to this compared to other police forces across the European Union, in the UK and in Northern Ireland. Since 2009 security staff on the Luas in Dublin have been wearing body cameras. There is widespread support for their introduction not just in society at large but also through all the policing unions and the major officials within An Garda Síochána who have spoken out in support of their introduction.

I fully understand that the legislation covering this move has taken some time to prepare.

It has gone through pre-legislative scrutiny at the justice committee. I am asking for the legislation to be brought to the Dáil and that it would work its way through the Oireachtas in as speedy a manner as possible, with assistance, I hope, not just from all Members on the Government benches but across this House and, indeed, the Seanad. This is a vitally important issue that goes to the very basic need, not just of protecting members of An Garda Síochána as they go about their daily work to protect us, but also of protecting members of society.

The introduction of body-worn cameras would provide the evidence and material that will allow for a better level of prosecutions of those who assault members of An Garda Síochána. It also would provide much-needed evidence and extra vigilance for those who may, unfortunately, want to take cases against the odd member of the force. The introduction of this equipment is long overdue. Over the past number of months and, indeed, the past couple of years, we have seen a firework shot in the face of a member of An Garda Síochána on one of the capital city's main thoroughfares and we have seen repeated attempts to prosecute people who have assaulted gardaí held up due to the lack of evidence or inconsistency in evidence. The ability to refer consistently and constantly to footage obtained through body-worn cameras of the activities of all uniformed members of the force is vitally important.

I understand completely the concerns that have been raised by a certain element within civic society regarding data protection, vigilance and various other concerns to do with civil liberties. I fundamentally believe, however, that the systems in place in other jurisdictions give us not just the legislative but also the practical and operational examples to ensure the cameras are introduced here in a manner that is of benefit to everyone. If we truly believe in safer, stronger communities, it is vital that the people who protect those communities and are at their heart, namely, the members of An Garda Síochána, are themselves given the fullest protection. That is why I am asking the Minister not just for an update but for a commitment to the speedy introduction of these devices.

I thank the Deputy for raising this issue. As he said, the deployment of body-worn cameras by An Garda Síochána has been sought for some time. The recommendation in this regard was made by the Commission on the Future of Policing in Ireland in September 2018 and work commenced on the legislation in March 2019. The Deputy has raised the issue many times in the Dáil and I know he is keen to make sure the provisions are introduced as quickly as possible.

Justice Plan 2022, which I published this week, commits to the publication of the Garda Síochána (digital recording) Bill, which relates to Garda powers to use modern digital technology, including body-worn cameras, automatic number plate recognition, ANPR, and CCTV, with a view to enactment by the Oireachtas. There were three parliamentary questions earlier this evening on CCTV, which shows the legislation is extremely important for many reasons. I secured Government agreement for the general scheme of the Bill on 29 April 2021. It was then sent to the Office of the Parliamentary Counsel for formal drafting, which is continuing. It is my intention to publish the Bill in the second quarter of 2022 - in a matter of weeks, in fact - with a view to its passage through the Oireachtas later this year.

The introduction and deployment of body-worn cameras will require a strong legislative basis to make sure it is compatible with data protection and privacy rights, as the Deputy rightly mentioned. Any new system for recording incidents will affect a person's right to a private life and, therefore, it is reasonable that sufficient time is taken to prepare the legislation to ensure that any intrusion on people's privacy is both necessary and, of course, proportionate. To this end, the general scheme of the Bill builds in a number of safeguards for the public. First, the Garda Commissioner is obliged to consult a number of bodies regarding the roll-out of the legislation. Second, a human rights impact assessment, HRIA, and a data protection impact assessment, DPIA, will need to be carried out. Third, a code of practice shall be prepared, comprehending a range of public safeguards. The code will include standards for the confidentiality of recordings, security of data, storage arrangements, data access, data retention and data subject rights. When it is completed, it will be submitted to me, as Minister, for approval for inclusion in a statutory instrument. The code must be reviewed at least every five years. In line with Justice Plan 2022, my Department officials will work closely with An Garda Síochána during the year to ensure the timely development of the code. There are a number of elements that have to progress and it is important that they are done in parallel rather than separately.

My Department has engaged extensively with An Garda Síochána and the PSNI during the preparation of the general scheme, as well as with other strategic partners, including the Office of the Data Protection Commissioner, the Irish Human Rights and Equality Commission, IHREC, and the Irish Council for Civil Liberties, ICCL. I thank all the stakeholders for their contribution to the development of this important legislation. The immediate Government priority is for the Bill to be published and enacted by the Oireachtas. As the Deputy will be aware, the Government is committed to providing the required resources for the implementation of the recommendations of the Commission on the Future of Policing in Ireland. We already have dedicated almost €147 million in capital spending in budget 2022 for the further development of An Garda Síochána's estate, including its ICT infrastructure and the Garda fleet. My officials and I will continue to engage actively with the Office of the Attorney General to progress the legislation as swiftly as possible.

As the Deputy outlined, there are a number of positives to the Bill. It is about making sure gardaí, when they arrive on the scene of a crime and engage with perpetrators and victims, particularly in domestic violence cases, can take advantage of the first few seconds, which can be absolutely crucial in gathering evidence. The ability to have that evidence available through body-worn cameras will be invaluable. The Garda Commissioner is very keen that the legislation be progressed. As the Deputy rightly mentioned, it also is about ensuring gardaí are safe. They have a very tough job and deal with very difficult situations. We need to make sure they are protected at all times. By being able to use these cameras, they can deter people where incidents, potentially, are about to happen.

Thank you, Minister. We are over time.

In addition, it will ensure that when incidents occur, including where members of An Garda Síochána are attacked, there is evidence to ensure prosecutions are carried out.

I welcome the Minister's response and look forward to the legislation coming to the Dáil very soon. I intend to elaborate on the issues to a greater extent on Second Stage and I hope there is an opportunity for a robust debate in the Houses, with support for the proposals from as many Deputies and Senators as possible.

There is a very important and clear need for a sound legislative basis, which the Minister has laid out in an amount of detail. I appreciate not just her commitment but that of the entire Government in this regard. I want to refer now to the practicalities. I was a little disappointed the last time this issue was discussed on the national airwaves that while there was an acknowledgement that progress has been made on providing a sound legislative basis, there was a scepticism about the ability to introduce the cameras once the legislation is passed. The Minister touched on this in her reply but will she elaborate on what thought has gone into the costings, tender applications, the roll-out of the equipment and, crucially, the provision of adequate training for members of An Garda Síochána and civilian staff to ensure they can use this equipment, as well as the footage captured by it, in a way that is efficient, is in line with the legislation and can achieve the genuine aims of its introduction? The intention, first and foremost, is to keep the members of An Garda Síochána and our citizens safe and to ensure there is a sounder basis of evidence when assaults and other matters go to trial. The Minister has outlined some of the extremely delicate matters in respect of which the introduction of body-worn cameras would be an asset both to the Garda and the victim as well as, crucially, to the overall judicial system.

She also referred to a code of practice for the use of body-worn cameras. It is vital that their introduction is accompanied by a thorough and comprehensive public information campaign to ensure people in communities know this is a new facet to our policing and that it absolutely is in their interest.

Much of my response focused solely on the legislation because it is the part that applies to me and my Department. The code of conduct that has to be set out and the procurement process are matters on which the Garda will be, and already is, working. A lot of meetings have been taking place between my departmental officials and me, the Garda Commissioner and his team, the Attorney General and others to ensure we do not have a situation whereby the legislation is passed and it is only then that the other work that needs to be done starts. We are trying to ensure all of that work is processed in parallel.

I intend to seek funding in this year's budget to make sure that once the legislation is passed, the code of conduct is put in place and the procurement process is finalised, the funding is there and the equipment can be bought and put to use as quickly as possible. Technology is evolving all the time and, as the Deputy rightly mentioned in his first contribution, we have the benefit of being able to see how this works in other jurisdictions. We have a Commissioner who has experience of it. We know it works in other jurisdictions and we can learn from mistakes made elsewhere, whether in regard to civil liberties and rights, GDPR or anything else.

That is probably why it is taking so long. We are trying to make sure we take on board our own law and the question of how it can be applied in addition to examining other jurisdictions to make sure we get this absolutely right and so the investment, which will need to be huge, will be appropriate and adequate.

What will need to happen, reflecting what happens in other jurisdictions, will be an operational matter for An Garda. People will be aware and alerted to the fact that a camera is on or being turned on. There will be a period after the camera is turned on during which video footage can be gathered. That, in itself, will act as a deterrent. If somebody knows a camera is going to be turned on, it might change his or her behaviour. Cameras have been very helpful in other jurisdictions. I thank the Deputy for the support on this and hope we can have the legislation enacted by the end of the year.

Pigmeat Sector

I welcome the Minister and thank him for being here. I also thank Deputy Christopher O'Sullivan for raising this issue. His doing so probably increased the chance that it would be dealt with tonight. It is an important issue, as I am sure the Minister will agree. It is exactly eight weeks since we had a discussion on the pigmeat sector. At that time, there were very evident challenges over increased input costs and depressed prices. Those challenges have only been exacerbated since the criminal Russian invasion of Ukraine.

I welcome and acknowledge the fact that, since we last discussed this topic, the Government has provided a €7 million package to the sector. It will transpire to be worth approximately €20,000 per farm. That seems substantial until one talks to the farmers who are very fearful about their future, as I did today on Kildare Street. They relayed that they are losing almost €60,000 per month. No business could sustain those types of losses. Arising from the losses, pig farmers are now being refused grain on credit or access to bank loans. This is reaching the point of emergency. I am sure the Minister will have seen the IFA's submission on what has to be acknowledged is a very substantial funding stream of €100 million, although it has stated half of that can be provided through some long-term loan mechanism. My question is whether the Minister is in a position to deliver the type of package, through loans and grants, that will keep the sector alive.

I thank the Minister. I am aware that he met some of the protesters today. They were impressed by his knowledge of the sector and acknowledgment that they are in crisis and that steps need to be taken to stem it. I do not have to tell him that the pig industry in Ireland is worth €1.7 billion to the economy and employs approximately 8,000 people, but he may not know what it is worth in my local area, west Cork, particularly around my home town, Clonakilty, in addition to Timoleague, Leap, Rosscarbery and the area right into Bandon. That pocket is very heavily reliant on the pigmeat sector. The village of Timoleague is quite big but very much reliant on the sector for employment. Stauntons Foods, right next to the village, employs approximately 300 people. The village is very dependent on the company for its economy and lifeblood. I am acutely aware of what the pig sector means to west Cork.

The loss of any pig farm or industry will have a devastating effect and, therefore, I plead with the Minister to provide an intervention along the lines of what the IFA has sought in its submission. The industry is in big trouble and is making huge losses. It predicts it will have made a loss of €160 million in the short 18-month period between September 2021 and March 2023. We certainly need to intervene. What is occurring is not the fault of the Government but down to international pressures and the lack and cost of feed. Farmers are very welcoming of the €20,000 payment under the exceptional payment arrangement but we need to consider the stability fund. The IFA is seeking €100 million, which would mean €50 million through a levy. The Minister should at least consider this and provide an answer as soon as possible.

I thank the Deputies for raising this Topical Issue matter. I recently met representatives of the IFA, including members of its pig committee, in addition to farmers and I fully understand the scale of the challenge facing the sector. Indeed, we will meet the representatives again at 9 o'clock tonight. As Deputy O'Sullivan said, I met the farmers on Kildare Street today and spoke to them.

The continued development of the sector is a priority for the Government given the pivotal role it plays in the national economic context. It is the fourth largest agrifood sector and has shown remarkable growth in recent years. The sector supports approximately 8,000 jobs, spanning production, slaughter, processing, feed manufacture and services.

I have had ongoing discussions with the main banks over recent weeks on the current challenges in the pigmeat sector and the importance of their ongoing support. I have emphasised the importance of the sector, its overall resilience and the importance of their support of their customers through the current downturn in the business cycle. The key message I am issuing is that farmers experiencing cash flow difficulties should engage with banks as soon as possible. It is important to have a partnership at this difficult time.

Separately, I met representatives of the Strategic Banking Corporation of Ireland to discuss the Brexit impact loan scheme and the Covid-19 credit guarantee scheme, both of which are financed by my Department in partnership with the Department of Enterprise, Trade and Employment. These finance schemes can be used for working capital finance and include features that address the current financial needs of pig farmers.

We are very much aware of the cyclical nature of the commodity markets, which for the pig sector at this time is compounded very much by rising input costs. Maximum flexibility in financial matters is needed to ensure the ongoing viability of those in the sector.

I have had meetings recently with the IFA president and pig committee members to discuss concerns. At these meetings, I reiterated the Government's commitment to supporting the sector. As the Deputies will know, I recently announced the pig exceptional payment scheme, with its fund of up to €7 million, as an urgent, short-term response to assist producers that would be viable but for the extreme current circumstances and to allow space for a more medium-term adjustment to market signals. This scheme is once off, paying up to €20,000 per farmer. The first tranche of payments was made last week, with the remaining application due to be processed as soon as possible. The scheme reflects the Government's clear commitment to supporting the pigmeat sector. The scheme is part of a wider package of measures to support the sector, including intensified efforts by Bord Bia to promote quality-assured Irish pigmeat in the domestic and export markets, with dedicated media advertising campaigns under way nationally, as well as EU-funded pigmeat promotion programmes running in key export markets.

Teagasc has intensified its dedicated, ongoing advisory supports for pig farmers and is actively engaging with them. At EU level, I have been engaging in respect of the European Food Security Crisis Preparedness and Response Mechanism. My Department is currently examining the detailed requirements and conditionality attached to the exceptional aid allocation to Ireland of €15.8 million.

As both Deputies have raised, a proposal has been made by stakeholders through the IFA. I received it last Wednesday week and my departmental officials have been assessing it. I will meet IFA representatives later to discuss the proposal. I am aware of the acute challenge facing the sector and will continue to engage with it on the appropriate response. I thank both Deputies for raising this matter on the floor of the Dáil and for their advocacy on behalf of the sector.

I thank the Minister for his response.

As he indicated, this is part of a cycle. I have no doubt that if pig farmers are provided with the supports necessary to get through this crisis, they will see more profitable times ahead. The difficulty is that many of the people I spoke to today on Kildare Street feel they may not be able to survive this period.

To be specific in terms of the proposals that have brought to the Minister, there are two elements. The first is a €50 million loan scheme. Does the Minister see a mechanism by which such a scheme can be delivered? As I have mentioned on a number of occasions, many of the farmers in my constituency who I deal with on a regular basis have told me that the banks are showing them the door and are not willing to provide them with any level of funding. Second, through the mechanisms we have discussed previously, namely, the Brexit adjustment reserve, the EU crisis reserve and-or any other mechanism, does the Minister see a prospect of being able to deliver further cash payments to pig farmers?

Deputy Carthy is correct. This is cyclical, but pig farmers have never seen a dip quite as serious. The price of feed is skyrocketing and the price of the product is dipping like never before. Farmers expect the price of the product to stabilise and even come back, but the price of feed shows no sign of decreasing. It is a crisis. The proposed stability fund put to the Minister is what pig farmers see as the very least that is needed to stabilise the industry and enable it to survive. That is how important this is.

It must be remembered that the pig industry does not receive any direct payments from Europe. Many pig farms are family run. They are in this position through no fault of their own. We have seen these interventions in other member states, such as the Netherlands, Belgium, Poland and France, where pig farmers have been provided with a €600 million rescue package. All we are asking for is something that will stabilise the industry. I wish to emphasise that some type of clarity is needed for the industry as soon as possible.

I thank the Deputies. I accept that clarity as quickly as possible is important. Farmers are making decisions about the situation in which they find themselves. Every pig that leaves a farm at the moment is losing the farmer a significant amount of money, and that is increasing by the day. I am very much aware of the situation and have been liaising very closely with the sector for a significant period of time. The €7 billion scheme announced three or four weeks ago just before the war in Ukraine equates to €20,000 per farmer. The ongoing travesty in Ukraine has had significant implications for all sectors, in particular the agrifood sector, of which the pig sector is undoubtedly the part most affected.

I will meet the IFA and farmers later today Let us be clear. The ask from the IFA of the Government is massive, namely €100 million up front. In terms of the €7 million scheme I launched, the 350 commercial pig units concerned would seem to translate into 240 individual undertakings, and €100 million would equate to €420,000 per undertaking. If €50 million was covered by the State and €50 million by levies, that would amount to €210,000 in State contributions, with €210,000 to be paid back under the proposal in a levy over ten years or so. That is the nature of the ask, and it is massive.

I am very much aware of the pressures on the sector. The Deputies are correct. It is a sustainable and valuable industry, the third largest within our agrifood sector. We want to ensure it is there for the future. I am very much aware of how acute the bottom of the hole sector finds itself in is at the moment. I will work and engage with farmers on how I can work with them to support the sector through this. I again thank Deputies O' Sullivan and Carthy and the many other Deputies who raised this issue with me in recent days.

Cuireadh an Dáil ar athló ar 9.05 p.m. go dtí 9.12 p.m., Dé Céadaoin, an 30 Márta 2022.
The Dáil adjourned at 9.05 p.m. until 9.12 a.m. on Wednesday March 2022.