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Dáil Éireann debate -
Tuesday, 26 Apr 2022

Vol. 1021 No. 1

Saincheisteanna Tráthúla - Topical Issue Debate

Ambulance Service

I thank the Minister of State. The issues I wish to raise are intertwined. I have raised previously the need for a proper ambulance in Carlow with the Minister. While I appreciate having the opportunity to speak to the Minister of State again, the last time I was here I was told Carlow was second on a priority list for a new ambulance base. My understanding is that is true, but that refers to the south east. I have since found out that there is a national list and I am finding it very difficult to find out where Carlow is on that. The HSE estates unit is committed to land at Kelvin Grove for a new build, which is important. I want to find out about the capital plan and funding for drawings or design. Is there an update on that?.

As the Minister of State is aware, a few months ago I was fortunate to bring the Minister of State, Deputy Jack Chambers, who was visiting Carlow, to the ambulance base to see the need for a new building. I have also had a virtual meeting with the Taoiseach and meetings with national ambulance management with responsibility for the area. Nobody is in any doubt that we need a new ambulance base. However, in the meantime we need a major refurbishment of what is there. I have also extended my support to HSE to find a place to rent. Do we need to consider finding a place to rent at the moment? The premises the ambulance paramedics are currently in are not suitable. I am totally committed to resolving this problem because it is a very serious issue for Carlow.

I will provide a small explanation of why this is so important to me. The ambulance base is in a prefab which is part of a delivery unit that used to belong to St. Dympna's Hospital. There are no training facilities or canopy over the vehicles. The store is beside an adjacent methadone clinic which has created an additional risk for the staff. The staff are professionals and deserve to be treated as such. Would a service in the private sector be kept open under such circumstances? I do not know. There is an extra €10 million in the budget this year. What is the situation regarding capital projects? Kelvin Grove is a HSE site and, therefore, I believe the project should move forward more quickly. I ask for an update on that.

I also want to ask the Minister of State about discussions regarding understaffing in the south and the current recruitment process. What is the update on that? The Minister of State is aware, given her remit regarding the elderly, that recruitment seems to be an issue. Covid showed up the great work our health care staff and ambulance paramedics do in calling to people's houses. They work 24-7. It is important that enough staff members are in place. I want to know the updated position on that because it is important that every area is staffed.

I thank the Deputy for the question. She has raised this issue many times. I welcome the opportunity to address the House, on behalf of the Minister for Health, Deputy Stephen Donnelly, regarding ambulance resources and services in the south-east. Since 2016, the National Ambulance Service, NAS, including in the south-east region, has undergone significant reform and modernisation involving the prioritisation of investment in new service developments, including increased manpower and fleet and improved technology. Since the end of 2016, NAS staffing resources nationally have increased from 1,744 in December 2016 to 2,049 at the end of January this year, an increase of 305 whole-time equivalents, WTEs, representing over 17% growth in staff over that timeframe. I do not have a specific breakdown for the south-east area.

It is the case that ambulance services across the country are experiencing a very high demand for 999 services for patients and last year saw a record of over 366,000 emergency ambulance calls. Delays in patient transfers at hospitals, caused by extremely busy and pressurised emergency departments, are currently presenting a particular challenge for the NAS in meeting emergency response time targets. In response to these challenges, this year an unprecedented €200 million has been allocated, including €8 million for new service developments. This funding will be invested in capacity building, as well as increasing staffing within the hear and treat service in the National Emergency Operations Centre, NEOC, which advises lower acuity patients of appropriate alternatives to hospital transfer. Overall, the funding for new service developments will allow for the recruitment of 128 additional WTEs.

In addition, Government investment in the NAS has meant that 80 paramedics graduated at the end of 2021 from the NAS college BSc paramedic studies programme. A further 200 student paramedics are currently enrolled in the college on various stages of the programme. The Minister, Deputy Stephen Donnelly, is pleased to note that the NAS 2022 recruitment programme for paramedics, student paramedics and intermediate care operatives was launched at the end of last month.

Turning to infrastructure in the south-east and the particular questions the Deputy raised regarding her constituency, the NAS last year completed a detailed prioritisation assessment for all ambulance stations in the southern region. As a result of this assessment, a new ambulance base in Carlow has been confirmed as being the second highest priority for the NAS in the south east. That will answer one of the Deputy's questions. It is not for the whole of Ireland, but rather the south east. The NAS is working with HSE estates in planning a future replacement for the current facility. A greenfield site has been identified and is under consideration. Capital funding for the project will follow in accordance with overall prioritisation planning and I can confirm that the Carlow ambulance base is progressing through the various stages outlined in the public spending code.

Finally, I can advise that a new five-year NAS strategic plan is currently being finalised by the HSE. This plan, elements of which have been funded in budget 2022, will facilitate a strategic organisational redesign and continue to focus on key priorities. Regarding the Deputy's other question, the 2022 capital plan is under final review and has not yet been published. Therefore, it is not appropriate at this time to outline or comment on any of its specific details.

I thank the Minister of State for her comprehensive answer. I welcome the increase in the number of ambulance paramedics. I can speak on behalf of the crew in Carlow in terms of the excellent work that is being done across the country. All have done marvellous work. It is important that Carlow is not forgotten and that there are enough staff in the south-east region, including paramedics. The Minister of State might try to come back to me with an answer on that. It is of concern. Carlow needs a new ambulance base. We have a duty of care to our ambulance paramedics who do an excellent job.

The funding that goes into this type of work through the HSE, the capital plan and the Government is vital because the services are vital for people. I know how hard all those in these services work. I know the Minister of State will keep me updated and provide replies on some of my questions she has been unable to answer tonight.

I thank the Deputy. Everybody in Carlow can rest assured that the county will not be forgotten as long as she is in the House. As I stated, she has raised this issue on so many occasions and I know how important it is. I can assure the House that the Government remains committed to resourcing the National Ambulance Service across the country, including in the south east.

As I have outlined in the limited time available to me, the NAS is currently undergoing a multi-annual reform programme which is prioritising investment in new service developments, including increased manpower and fleet, and improved technology. This has involved significant investment on the part of the Government. For instance, the €200 million being allocated to the NAS this year represents an increase of no less than €30 million on the allocation for 2019. This funding is facilitating an increase in paramedic staff numbers to target capacity deficits and is also being invested in the progression of the development of alternative patient care pathways. These include "hear and treat" and "see and treat" services that are designed to manage low-acuity calls in an integrated manner and often mean that an emergency department attendance can be avoided for these patients.

It is important to acknowledge the work that has been done. We have had 80 new paramedics trained this year and there are more being trained up. We often hear about a lack of different definitions, especially in the context of the Department of Health, whether it is psychologists or psychiatrists or whatever else, but the way to address the issue is to start at third level. I know it takes a few years for the students to come through as trained paramedics but it will be really welcome when they do. I will pass on the Deputy's questions to the Minister.

Hospital Overcrowding

I thank the Ceann Comhairle for selecting this important issue for discussion. On 21 April, the Irish Nurses and Midwives Organisation, INMO, recorded a figure of 126 patients on trolleys awaiting admission at University Hospital Limerick, UHL. That was the highest number of patients on trolleys ever recorded at any hospital in Ireland. Of the patients, 65 were in the emergency department, with the remaining 61 in ward overflow areas. The number was triple the next-highest figure on the day, recorded at St. Luke's General Hospital, Kilkenny, where 40 people were awaiting admission. Today, the INMO recorded a figure of 113 people on trolleys. Last January, a figure of 111 people was recorded. That was a record at the time. There is a serious bed capacity shortfall in the mid-west region. We simply do not have enough beds and the pressures associated with Covid-19 have exacerbated the problem. Figures of 126, 113 or 111 patients awaiting admission were never previously recorded.

In the past two years, 98 additional new beds were provided at UHL. In the past decade, more than €100 million has been invested by successive Governments in delivering key infrastructural projects at the hospital. In 2015, a €40 million critical care block providing 12 intensive care beds, a 16-bed high dependency unit, a 16-bed acute cardiac care unit, a step-down cardiac facility and a day cardiology unit was delivered. In 2015, a €24 million state-of-the-art accident and emergency unit was opened. Early in 2020, a €21 million 60-bed modular unit came into use. Funding of €43 million was recently approved by the board of the HSE to deliver 96 new beds at UHL and it is anticipated construction will commence next year.

Despite the provision of this extra capacity and the recruiting and funding of additional consultants, doctors, nurses and medical staff, UHL still experiences the worst overcrowding of any hospital in the State. These overcrowded conditions are dangerous for patients, as well as the doctors, nurses and staff who work extremely hard in the most challenging of environments. There is a need for a collective and immediate response from the Government and the HSE to take control of this extremely serious situation. There is a need to immediately bring into place a short-term, medium-term and long-term solution to this serious issue. HIQA carried out an unannounced visit to UHL in recent weeks and its report is awaited.

To the credit of the Minister, Deputy Donnelly, he visited Limerick last February and spent two days engaging with patients, medical personnel and the executive management team. I understand he received a presentation from hospital management in respect of the need to provide an elective-only hospital in the region. I strongly support the proposal to build an elective-only hospital to cater for patients outside of UHL. It is my understanding that UHL has had discussions in the past year with the University of Pittsburgh Medical Center, UPMC, which has 40 hospitals globally, including five sites in Ireland. An elective-only hospital needs to be prioritised for the mid west ahead of any other region because of the shortage of beds in the system. I understand that 83% of patients in UHL are there for emergency care, while the remaining 17% require elective procedures.

I welcome the opportunity to address the House on the issue raised by the Deputy. I am replying on behalf of the Minister, Deputy Donnelly. I thank the Deputy for the constructive way in which he outlined the situation and acknowledged that €100 million has been invested in the past ten years. More capacity has been put in place but UHL still recently recorded the highest ever number of patients on trolleys, at 126. I have answered questions on this topic in the Dáil and the Seanad and I have discussed it with the Minister, Deputy Donnelly, who is acutely aware of the issue. As the Deputy stated, the Minister travelled to Limerick and spent two days there. He is aware of the situation.

I acknowledge the distress that overcrowded emergency departments cause to patients and their families, as well as front-line staff working in very challenging conditions in hospitals throughout the country. We are seeing a welcome reduction in the number of Covid-positive patients in hospital, with current numbers less than a third of the peak numbers seen in late March. However, the ongoing presence of Covid-positive patients, the continued requirement to provide separate Covid and non-Covid pathways and staff absences due to Covid are continuing to put pressure on the capacity and operation of hospitals, including emergency departments, across the health system.

University Hospital Limerick has reported that it is continuing to deal with record volumes of patients attending the emergency department. The hospital recorded a 10% increase in attendances in the first quarter of the year compared with the same timeframe in 2019. In the short term, UHL is working to ensure that care is prioritised for the sickest patients. As part of its escalation plan, additional ward rounds, accelerated discharges and identification of patients for transfer to UL Hospitals model 2 hospitals are all under way.

University Hospital Limerick was included in the independent review of unscheduled care conducted in 2019. The quality and patient safety team at UHL has developed a number of quality improvement pathways to ensure the recommendations of this review are enacted.

The Department of Health continues to work with the HSE and the National Treatment Purchase Fund to identify ways to quickly improve access to care, including through increased use of private hospitals, funding weekend and evening work in public hospitals, funding "see and treat" services, providing virtual clinics and increasing capacity in the public hospital system.

It is accepted that a key part of the solution for Limerick is additional beds. The new 60-bed modular ward block at UHL is a significant step in addressing this, and provides modern, single-room inpatient accommodation with improved infection prevention and control capabilities, as well as patient flow throughout the hospital. This follows two separate rapid-build projects which delivered 38 beds under the Government national action plan in response to Covid-19.

Medium-term plans for Limerick include provision for a 96-bed ward block at UHL. The evaluation of tenders received has been completed and the awarding of a works contract was approved by the HSE board on 25 March 2022. The capital and estates department of the HSE will now be engaging with the successful bidder. It is anticipated that it will likely take 24 months from commencement to complete the construction phase, with a further eight to nine weeks required to equip and commission the new block for use by the hospital. In the longer term, the plan for UHL, and nationally, is to enable more patients to be seen in the community wherever possible.

I thank the Minister of State. The Sláintecare plan recommends that three elective-only hospitals be built - one each in Dublin, Cork and Galway. Given the continuous overcrowding at UHL and the compelling case that has been put to the Minister, Deputy Stephen Donnelly, by the executive management there, Government policy clearly needs to change. Priority must be given to delivering an elective-only hospital for the mid-west. I want to establish what the Minister's position is on the provision of that hospital. It is of critical importance that it be prioritised and that every effort be made by the State to fast-track its delivery. I have sought an urgent meeting with the Taoiseach and the Minister and I understand that request is with the Taoiseach's private secretary. When the Minister of State reports back on this debate, will she raise this issue with the Taoiseach and the Minister?

The HSE and the Minister need to examine an enhanced role for the model 2 hospitals in Ennis and Nenagh and for St. John's Hospital. There is a need to build additional bed capacity at Ennis General Hospital by adding new wards and extending the opening hours of the medical assessment unit and the minor injuries unit, which was recently refurbished at a cost of €2 million. Private hospitals played an important role during the Covid crisis and their services should now be contracted to cater for elective patients at UHL and deal with the extraordinary waiting lists for procedures.

I understand a number of initiatives are being rolled out in the mid-west to divert older people away from the emergency department at UHL. The integrated care programme for older people, ICPOP, is being rolled out, with a hub in St. Joseph's Hospital in Ennis, as well as the pathfinder initiative. In the context of her responsibility for services for older people, will the Minister of State update the House on those initiatives?

I take on board all of the points the Deputy has raised regarding the proposal to build three elective-only hospitals, his comments on UHL and the enhanced role for the model 2 hospitals located in that particular community healthcare organisation. The health service capacity review 2018 was clear on the need for a major investment in additional capacity in both acute hospitals and community services, combined with a wide-scale reform of the manner and location of the provision of health services. Since January 2020, more than 800 additional acute inpatient beds have been provided nationally on a permanent basis.

However, even with all the extra capacity in Limerick, it clearly is not enough. I provided details in my reply about the number of new beds, as the Deputy acknowledged. The most important thing we can do for people, especially older people, is to ensure they can get care in their community. The ICPOP teams are fantastic in supporting older people, ensuring the first step is not always the emergency department and providing wrap-around support in outpatient services.

I note the Deputy's request for a meeting with the Taoiseach and the Minister. I will feed that suggestion back to them. All the Deputy's points have been really well made. I recognise and respect the sincerity with which he has made them. I will speak to the Minister on his behalf.

Animal Welfare

As much as I enjoy a debate with the Minister of State, Deputy Butler, of which we have had many, I am disappointed that the Minister for Agriculture, Food and the Marine is not present to take this important debate. Clondalkin Equine Club was opened in 2017. I attended the opening alongside Deputy Gino Kenny and it has been a really welcome addition to our community. It was born out of the need to facilitate a community tradition of urban horsemanship in an area of disadvantage. The club is like an oasis in the heart of our community. It was developed as a joint enterprise between the Department of Agriculture, Food and the Marine and South Dublin County Council, with the latter providing the land and the former giving the initial funding. There are 20 horses stabled at the facility that might otherwise have been left tethered in a field. The number of horses seized by the council has dropped dramatically over the years since the club opened.

The reality is that if funding is not found, this beautiful space will close. The club is in a really difficult position. While I accept it is not the sole responsibility of the Department, somebody needs to take the reins, if I may be excused that pun. Children using the project have progressed into jobs in the horse industry, including in veterinary practices. The club has enabled children to participate in educational projects. It has created a space where children can be safe and away from the pitfalls of a disadvantaged area. The club has hosted children with disabilities and those from marginalised groups in our community.

Clondalkin Equine Club needs core funding of €60,000 to stay open. Will the Minister of State ask the Minister, Deputy McConalogue, to provide immediate interim funding to give the club some breathing space? I also ask that the Department take the lead by bringing together the other stakeholders. Like mental health provision, this is a cross-departmental matter, encompassing issues relating to education, justice, community development, children, local government and sport. Will the Minister of State ask the Minister to get all those people around the table?

I have been a board member of Clondalkin Equine Club for the past five years. I was one of the co-founders of the club ten years ago. The concept was somewhat unique in a context where there was an enormous number of problems relating to equine welfare in the Clondalkin area. Horse owners got together more than ten years ago to appeal to the council and the authorities to prevent a type of revolving door system whereby horses were impounded and destroyed, which resulted in animosity. The club has brought all the educational and safety guidelines to bear on the project.

The money we are talking about is a pittance relative to what the State gives to Horse Racing Ireland, which amounts to approximately €70 million a year. Clondalkin Equine Club is asking for a very small amount. Urban horse ownership is a great tradition in working-class areas in Limerick, Cork and Dublin. It stems from the movement of people from inner cities to suburbs and the tradition of horses being used both for work and as a hobby. There are 20 horses stabled at the club and it facilitates 20 children as well as their parents. Speaking as a board member and a representative of the area, the idea that it will close in July is an absolute travesty. For the amount that is needed, it would be an absolute sin to see the closure of a club that gives joy to so many young people. I hope we can find a solution over the next couple of months.

I thank the Deputies for raising this issue. I am taking the debate on behalf of the Minister for Agriculture, Food and the Marine, Deputy McConalogue, who is on official business as part of an agriculture trade mission to the US. He sends his apologies. The Deputies have brought great passion to the points they raised. I am not familiar with Clondalkin Equine Club but they have made clear how important it is to their community.

The Minister is fully committed to supporting sustainable One Health, One Welfare initiatives in line with the programme for Government and Working Together for Animal Welfare - Ireland's Animal Welfare Strategy 2021-25. His Department continues to support a number of urban horse projects nationwide. In line with the strategy, the Department's focus is on supporting start-up infrastructure costs as well as initiatives that bring education on all issues relating to equine welfare to areas dealing with urban horse challenges.

The Department is committed to working with local authorities, charities and community stakeholders in supporting urban horse welfare programmes, in particular in the context of facilities and education programmes.

The Clondalkin Equine Club is an important example of this activity. The Department has shown considerable commitment through the provision of the largest capital outlay in support of an urban horse programme in support of the Clondalkin Equine Club. A sum of €503,000 was provided to South Dublin County Council in 2016 for the development of the club's infrastructure. This funding was committed on the understanding that the club, when up and running, would be self-sustaining. It was made clear to both the council and the club that, following the investment in infrastructure, funding would not be available for the day-to-day running of the club. Funding under the terms of the urban horse projects is limited to the provision of education courses and infrastructure. However, to assist with the initial sustainability of the project, the Department worked with the club and the local authority towards the hiring of a development manager, responsible for the further development of the club. This agreement was subject to the club agreeing further efforts to secure alternative funding.

Last year, following further representations from the club board and meetings with the board and management, the Department agreed to provide a final tranche of short-term funding to the project through the council. This agreement was in the context of limitations imposed by Covid-19, the club agreeing further efforts to secure alternative funding, and the proposed formulation of a strategy and robust governance for the organisation going forward.

To date, the Department of Agriculture, Food and the Marine has committed over €580,000 to the project. In addition, officials from the Department have worked with the club, South Dublin County Council and Government agencies in attempting to source funding for the club. From these interactions it has become clear that, under the existing model, the club has not met the commitments undertaken in order to qualify for long-term public funding.

I am pleased that discussions between the club board and the council are continuing and I understand that the club has agreed to work with the council to review its business model and governance structure.

I mentioned six different Departments. I do not want to oversimplify, but €60,000, €10,000 from each Department, would really work. We need to get these people around the table. At the moment Departments are working in silos. The left hand does not seem to know what the right hand is doing sometimes. I was asking the Minister for Agriculture, Food and the Marine to arrange such a meeting to get all the stakeholders around the one table and to see if there is any other funding in other Departments that could really help this club.

For example, and I got a reply to a parliamentary question about this tonight, we have done a fair bit of work on a Bill relating to proceeds of crime and returning the proceeds seized by the Criminal Assets Bureau, CAB, into disadvantaged communities. In fairness to the Minister, Deputy McEntee, she has moved a fair bit on that. There is a grant open for that. I got news of that only tonight. That, I think, would really benefit this community. It is a community of high disadvantage and one that has been detrimentally impacted by crime over the years. If that money seized by CAB were given over to something like the horse project, it would send out a really clear message to the community that it is being listened to and valued. Something needs to happen.

I speak as a board member of the club. The board and the club have exhausted every single known funding avenue to the point where we are at this juncture. If we do not get this small amount of funding, the club will have no alternative, unfortunately, but to close its doors in July. As I said, that would be an absolute travesty in respect of the Department of Agriculture, Food and the Marine. I commend the Department. It has been really good in promoting urban horse ownership. Previously, people who owned horses in working-class areas were marginalised and stigmatised and looked upon as scumbags, but that is not the case. The majority of people who keep horses in working-class areas manage and keep their horses very well. A minority could not look after a goldfish, never mind a horse. It is so important this club is kept open.

I thank both Deputies again. I acknowledge, as Deputy Kenny himself has done, that the Department of Agriculture, Food and the Marine has committed over €580,000 to the project. In addition, officials from the Department have worked with the club, South Dublin County Council and Government agencies. However, I take on board what the Deputy said as a board member, that the board and the club have exhausted every single avenue. I also take on board what Deputy Ward said about how it is a highly disadvantaged community. That is very important. All I can say to the Deputies is that I will bring their thoughts back to the Department of Agriculture, Food and the Marine and give them a commitment that I will also speak to the Minister, Deputy McConalogue, about what they have raised tonight. That is all the information I have so I cannot say any more about the matter, but I take on board how genuine both Deputies are about this facility. I thank them for their time.

Common Agricultural Policy

I will have to revise a number of my remarks because I had very much hoped I would be having a discussion with the Minister for Agriculture, Food and the Marine this evening. Of course, that is no disrespect to the Minister of State.

One of the fundamental problems I had with the Minister's approach to the Common Agricultural Policy, CAP, strategic plan is that he refused even to indulge us with a debate prior to submitting the plan. He refused to bring it before the House for approval and refused to bring it before the Oireachtas committee for consideration. Perhaps if he had done either of those things, we in this House and those of us who understand the importance of the Common Agricultural Policy to the future of not only Irish farming but the rural communities that depend on our family farmers, collectively, would now be in a better position. As it stands, the Minister essentially has to own the correspondence he has received from the European Commission because the strategic plan was his and his alone. He was very forceful in that regard. That was despite the fact that he resisted some of what I would describe as the progressive measures that were sought at EU level in respect of the next round of the Common Agricultural Policy. The reason he gave for opposing those measures at a European level was that they should be made at a national level and made democratically, whereby those people who will be impacted would have an opportunity to engage, but then he did not follow through, as I said.

There is quite an amount to take in from the observation. It is a detailed critique. I saw one report describe the European Commission as "less than pleased" with the Irish CAP strategic plan, which seems a fair, if understated, description given that, essentially, the Commission has rejected the Irish CAP strategic plan. I do not agree with the view and the analysis in everything the European Commission has said. In some areas it makes points we in this House made in advance of this plan being developed within Agriculture House, that is, points about redistributive measures, particularly in respect of organics and the need to promote and support farmers making transitions to mixed farming or other types of farming. Some of the aspects of the report are frankly mind-boggling. There is a line in the correspondence that states: "... the Commission has doubts [as to] whether [or not] what is proposed goes far enough. In this context, it particularly has in mind the substantial growth in the size of the Irish dairy herd in recent years...". The substantial growth in the size of the Irish dairy herd is a direct result of the EU's removal of quotas, which led to an expansion of the herd in Ireland and also a corresponding, or almost corresponding, decrease in the size of the herd in other EU member states.

My questions, which I hope will be dealt with in the Minister of State's response, are as follows. What will the Minister's approach now be in how he deals with this? Does he intend to engage with all stakeholders? Does he intend to engage with this House before he responds to the European Commission? What status does he give the comments the European Commission has made? Does he consider its reflections to be binding on him to make amendments or does he consider them simply to be commentary that he can ignore?

I thank the Deputy for raising this matter. I am taking it because the Minister, Deputy McConalogue, is away on official business. I welcome the opportunity to update the House on the matter.

The receipt of the observations letter from the European Commission on 31 March marks another important milestone in the development of Ireland’s CAP strategic plan for the period 2023 to 2027. Ireland is one of the 19 member states that submitted plans ahead of the statutory deadline of 1 January last and to which the Commission is now responding following an assessment by all of the relevant Commission services, including those responsible for agriculture, climate and the environment.

The Commission has carried out a comprehensive assessment of Ireland’s draft plan. The observations, which number over 200, set out high-level and more detailed technical observations. The letter acknowledges the quality of the plan. It notes the coherency of the plan, the level of completeness covering all of the specific objectives of the CAP and the European Commission recommendations. It notes that potential to contribute effectively to a competitive, resilient and diversified agricultural sector that ensures long term food security. From an environment and climate perspective, it welcomes the ambitious approach to landscape actions through the flagship agri-environment and climate measure, AECM, which will benefit water, biodiversity and climate, as well as the setting of a national target for the European Green Deal, including our significant ambition in organics, nutrient loss and landscape fixtures. However, areas have been identified where the Commission considers that we have an opportunity to strengthen our ambition and to set higher targets. They are requesting more information on the extent of environmental benefit that will be achieved by some interventions, including the new eco-scheme intervention. They note also the environmental challenges resulting from the substantial growth in the dairy herd. The Commission has also asked all member states to review their plans in the context of the impacts arising from the Russian invasion of Ukraine.

In terms of next steps, the Secretary General of the Department of Agriculture, Food and the Marine has already provided an initial reaction by way of written response to the observations to the Commission. I understand that the Commission intends to publish the observation letters of all 19 member states and their responses shortly. The Department has already published the Commission’s observation letter on the Government website.

The Department officials are currently in regular bilateral discussions with the European Commission to finalise the plan. The approval process will be a continuation of the structured dialogue with the Commission. The latter has proven to be very effective to date. The officials will provide the necessary clarifications and explanations in more detail around the level of environmental gain expected from the interventions. We consider that all elements of the green architecture must be considered as a package. There has been extensive engagement with the stakeholders. The plan strikes the right balance to support the economic, environmental and social sustainability of the sector. Other supports outside of CAP will also be required to achieve climate and environmental targets, including regulation, industry market initiatives and new technologies and innovations.

The Department of Agriculture, Food and the Marine will continue to consult with stakeholders as the approval process unfolds over the coming months. A meeting of the CAP stakeholder consultative committee is scheduled for Friday of this week. It is anticipated that work will intensify over the coming weeks to reach agreement on the draft plan before the summer break. It is anticipated that the final CAP strategic plan for Ireland will be adopted by September of this year, allowing the new CAP plan to begin as planned on 1 January 2023.

Overall, the Minister and the Department are confident that the CAP plan is robust, that it will support farm incomes and that it helps deliver on our climate ambitions. The Minister asked me to inform Deputy Carthy that if he has any specific questions, I will take them on board and feed them back to the Minister.

I thank the Minister of State for that, but I could have sent the Minister an email with the questions. I would have thought that the purpose of Topical Issue debates is that we could have a debate on a matter such as this. If the Minister is unavoidably absent, then we accept that. In fairness to the Minister, he is one of the better Cabinet Ministers at attending for Topical Issue debates. I want to put on the record that this whole process needs to be reviewed. I do not believe it is fair on the Minister of State or me to be here at 10 p.m. to have a debate whereby I ask her questions and she then relays them to the Minister.

I will say this, and maybe the Minister of State will take this point back, because I will take the Minister up on that specific offer of questions. Does the Minister see a difficulty in the response, which indicates that the Secretary General of the Department of Agriculture, Food and the Marine has already provided an initial reaction by way of written response to the Commission on the observations? The Commission has seen the Government's response to its observations. We, as elected representatives, have seen the observations. Farmers have seen the observations. However, we have not seen what the Secretary General, on behalf of the people, of farmers and of the agriculture sector, has said. I would have hoped that a topical issues debate, like this one, would have been an opportunity to, rather than just passing on an oversight of what is in the observations and which we can all find out, to hear what the Government has said specifically in respect of those observations.

The crucial question must be asked again: what is the status of this observations? Are they binding? Are we expected? Are we obliged? Will it be a matter for individual governments? How can the assertion be made with such confidence that a final agreement will be reached by the summer break so that the CAP can actually proceed as planned on 1 January next? These are legitimate questions and I hope that the Minister for Agriculture, Food and the Marine will be forthcoming in a public way as soon as possible in answering them.

I thank the Deputy. In response to his question about when the letter relating to the observations will be published, it has already been published on the Department's website. The Commission intends to publish all the member states’ letters and member states’ responses on it website shortly. That is the answer I have in relation to that matter. The officials are working through the observations with the Commission and will consider if changes are required as we move through the process over the coming weeks. Some elements are technical. Others may require further explanation. Stakeholders will be kept advised through the CAP stakeholder consultative committee.

I will communicate to the Minister the questions the Deputy has posed. I thank him for his time.

That concludes the Topical Issues debate. Sin deireadh le gnó le Dála don lá inniu.

Cuireadh an Dáil ar athló ar 10.17 p.m. go dtí 9.12 a.m., Dé Céadaoin, an 27 Aibreán 2022.
The Dáil adjourned at 10.17 p.m. until 9.12 a.m. on Wednesday 27 April 2022.
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