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Dáil Éireann debate -
Wednesday, 15 Jun 2022

Vol. 1023 No. 5

Saincheisteanna Tráthúla - Topical Issue Debate

Disability Services

I thank the Minister of State for being present this morning. I look forward to her response.

We all know the importance of early intervention for children when it comes to critical therapy services. I know this is also a matter close to the Minister of State's own heart, and that of the Taoiseach. I have spoken to both of them previously about cases I have been working on and they are also looking at these issues and trying to find the answers. However, I am sorry to say that in many cases at the moment, we are not getting there soon enough. What is worse, for many worried parents, is the complete lack of empathy shown by the HSE. I will read a recent email from a very stressed parent in my area. She states:

... I have another pressing concern for [my son]. He is in serious need of speech and language therapy. He was [given] an initial assessment for speech and language in Shamrock Plaza in April 2021. We were [given] exercises to do and were scheduled to go back in June 2021. We received communication that we had been transferred to the disability team. There has been a lack of communication from then in the past year apart from last summer when they were in the process of moving this service over.

I've called numerous times to try [and] speak to someone. The only communication I've received in this regard is a letter to tell me to stop ringing them. They are too busy to give [my son] an appointment. It is absolutely ridiculous how our children and the families of these children are being treated.

[My son]'s paediatrician has sent letters to the service explaining the urgency of the situation ... They haven't even received a response to these letters.

[My son] is scheduled to start preschool [at the end of August this year] and national school in 2023. He is being let down by these so called services again and again. He is well able to attend main stream school but the longer he is left without these services, the harder it will be for him to settle into school.

At the end of that email, the lady in question wrote a very serious line, asking, "Can you please help some very stressed parents?" They are at breaking point. What I want to know is how the Minister of State can help. Would she agree that this is no way to treat parents? The parents who are contacting me are at breaking point. The communication from the HSE to the parents has not been acceptable. This lady told me she has been tormented. She has been ringing and ringing and yet has not received any other information. No one is communicating with her. What can we do? How are we with regard to early intervention services for the children who need them in CHO 5, Carlow-Kilkenny?

I thank the Deputy for raising this important matter and for giving me the opportunity to speak on it. She is right that I take this issue very seriously. A script has been circulated but I am not going to stick to it. I would like to tell the Deputy the case she has raised is unique. I would like to say that parent is the only parent in the country who is experiencing this. I would hate that parent to think I have sat on my hands for the past 12 months. I have repeatedly asked the HSE to improve its communication. To spend the time to write a letter to that parent to tell her to stop contacting the HSE is unforgivable. There is no excuse for that. That woman, like any other parent, is seeking services for her child so she can give him the best start in life. That is what early intervention is about. Time and again, communication has failed us, whether in how we communicate with parents, how we communicated the reconfiguration of progressing disability services for children and young people, PDS, or how we told parents what PDS teams they were part of. We have failed again and again.

That is why I secured funding in the most recent budget to ensure we would have administrative staff on all those teams. If we had dedicated people to answer the phone and ensure communications went out, parents would not get to the level of frustration where they have to continuously contact their public representatives to make representations so their child may get seen to or even find out where they are on the list. The plan was that there would be two posts, a grade 3 and a grade 5, on each of those teams, so the telephone would be answered and proper communications made.

My office has worked tirelessly with national head office within the HSE to support it in terms of what good communications might look like and what parents are seeking, that is, information on when the team will be reconfigured and how the process will involve the parents.

It is regrettable that the parents' forum part of PDS has been established in only five of the 91 teams. Through this forum, parents can come together and get a clear understanding. When I was in Cork recently, one parent said that, if parents knew what the plan was and understood it, they would work with the HSE but that there had been no communication whatsoever. This is no way to treat parents. Communication is the essence of what PDS should be about from the start, not telling parents where their children's cases are in April, moving them in June only to then leave them not knowing what is happening.

Without proper early intervention and diagnosis, services cannot be accessed. The HSE talks about delivering needs-based services, and we know from recent months that, if people want to access social welfare and education services, they must have their diagnoses. Early intervention is key.

The Deputy asked about CHO 5, what position it was in compared with other CHOs and so on. No different from any other CHO, the Deputy's CHO is under immense pressure relating to the recruitment of staff. To support teams on the ground, I wrote to the Tánaiste in recent weeks asking for occupational therapists, physiotherapists and speech and language therapists to be included on the critical skills list. Doing this would be important. I have also met Mr. Paul Reid and the Minister for Children, Equality, Disability, Integration and Youth, Deputy O'Gorman, in recent weeks. We want to put together a roadmap - we will have it in the next four weeks - for bolstering our PDS teams. While I am committed to the PDS, we must consider more agile ways of supporting families in getting interventions. This would involve returning therapists to special schools.

I can see how passionate the Minister of State is. I met CHO 5 two weeks ago when I raised my concerns about communications regarding services. The CHO told me it was understaffed. While I believe it is doing its best, there is no communication from the HSE to the many families involved. Some sort of system needs to be put in place so that parents can be told there is a plan. We need a plan from all of the CHOs, although I can speak only about CHO 5.

Early intervention is important. From speaking with parents, I know they are tormented about this and concerned for their children. Could there be at least more communication with them so that they are told what will happen but that it will take a few months longer because the CHO is understaffed? As the Minister of State knows, it is unfair if there is no communication. I am concerned for the parents and the children. It is not good that parents are contacting us saying they cannot get answers. I even feel I am not getting answers unless I go to the Minister of State.

We need to recruit staff as quickly as we can. We cannot have children not being assessed or not receiving the therapies they deserve just because their parents do not know what is happening. We need to sort out this issue as soon as possible. How will we put a better plan in place through all of the CHOs so that there is communication for parents?

As I have repeatedly stated, it is my job to seek funding for the HSE through the good offices of the Ministers, Deputies Donohoe and Michael McGrath, and then to operationalise that funding. For the past two years, I have been successful in the funding I have acquired. While I am grateful for that, it is disheartening to secure enough funding for 475 posts but for it not to be operationalised on the ground. I was disturbed to discover recently that the HSE did not have a pay grade for behavioural therapists. Section 38 and section 39 organisations do. I am grateful that Mr. Reid has taken on board this issue and I hope to see behavioural therapists as part of my plan.

Funding is available, so this is not a resource issue. We need to consider a more agile approach. I am working with the Minister for Further and Higher Education, Research, Innovation and Science, Deputy Harris, on trying to create more third level spaces, but let us be realistic, it will take three to four years for those places to come on board. This is why the critical skills list is important, as is an examination of what is being produced in Northern Ireland and the rest of the UK in terms of speech and language services. From what I gather from CORU, only two modules are missing. Why not recruit those staff but train them in those two modules while they are in place? The main dearth of delivery is in speech and language therapy. We need to consider a more agile approach that works with the universities across the Border that are producing speech and language therapists and creates opportunities for them. I have also discussed assistant psychologist posts and funding and supporting assistant psychologists in education as a way of encouraging them into the service.

It is important that we return our teams to their maximum capacity. Until such time as they are at least 90% staffed, we cannot train young people coming through college because there will not be proper clinical oversight.

A great deal is happening and I hope that I will be able to answer the Deputy better within the next four weeks.

I thank the Minister of State.

Hospital Services

Baineann mo cheist le barda Naomh Monica in Ospidéal na hOllscoile, Gaillimh. Tá sé dúnta anois le beagnach trí mhí agus gan focal ón ospidéal maidir le cén fáth go raibh sé dúnta, nó fiú go raibh sé dúnta. Bhí orm an cheist a ardú sa Dáil coicís ó shin. Tá mé fós ag fanacht ar fhreagra ón Aire. Fuair mé freagra ón ospidéal seachtain tar éis mo cheiste a bheith curtha agam. Is ceisteanna bunúsacha iad seo. Cén fáth an raibh an barda dúnta? Cén uair a bheidh sé oscailte arís? Cad mar gheall ar na hothair? Sin an cheist is tábhachtaí. Seo 2022 agus cailleadh Savita Halappanavar in 2012. Tá straitéis náisiúnta máithreachais againn agus tá muid ag déanamh beag is fiú den straitéis sin.

I must raise the issue of St. Monica's ward in University Hospital Galway, UHG. I heard that it was closed for three weeks. I decided to write to the hospital's management and ask it some basic questions about when it closed, why it was closed, when it was going to reopen and, most importantly, what the implications were for the patients on the main gynaecology ward of UHG, which serves approximately 1 million people from Donegal to Galway. The Minister of State is familiar with the hospital.

Savita Halappanavar died in 2012. Her death and the deaths of many other women - significantly, until Deputy Martin Browne entered the Chamber, all of the representatives on the floor were female, but this matter is of concern to us all, including the male Deputies - were never to happen again, so we developed a national maternity strategy. Here we have UHG's main ward closed, though.

When I got answers, I found out that it had been closed since March. Was the Minister of State aware of that? She can answer me later, but the Minister was certainly not aware of it, and neither were people in Galway. People are contacting Deputies at their peril, terrified that something might happen to them. We call them "whistleblowers" when all they are doing is making basic facts known to us. I found out to my horror that the ward had been closed since 23 March. I am told that it will not be reopening, although it is not put in that way. The hospital's management gave me no date because the hospital has no staff. It does not tell me what staff the hospital does not have or what the management has done to address this issue since March. The management tells me that there are no consequences to the closure, which begs the question as to why the ward was necessary in the first place.

I will put this in perspective. The person involved has given me permission to read out this correspondence. I will not use her name: "I heard you on [the local radio] and I was so upset to hear that the HSE has told you that the closure of the main Gyne ward in UHG has had no impact on care well let me tell you my story." She does this in four very short lines, at the start of which she gives her name and says that she had an operation elsewhere, after which she took ill at home and was brought by ambulance to UHG. She continues:

The harrowing scenes we then witnessed in the Emergency Surgical Unit were beyond distressing.

I then waited 3 nights on a trolley after major surgery before I could be given a bed in St Angela's [this is one of the two wards identified for use while St. Monica's ward is closed]. Every day I heard o we'll have a bed today for you. I was admitted on [Tuesday at 1.30 a.m.] and did not get a bed until that Friday evening at 6.30pm.

It is unusual for me to read out something, but when I was trying to digest the answer and see where the meaning was, that brought it home that this is spin. It is unacceptable that this is the reality. I spoke to that person and she said she witnessed patients on the ground with blankets over them. I will leave it to the Minister of State to answer.

I thank the Deputy for raising this question and it is not the first time she has raised it here. I have also heard the Deputy talk about it locally. As the Deputy has said, St. Monica's ward in University Hospital Galway was temporarily closed on 23 March this year, but I am pleased to report the ward reopened on 13 June. I reassure the Deputy that during this time all gynaecology patients were cared for in St. Angela's ward and we are aware of that. Experienced staff from St. Monica's ward provided care to the women in St. Angela's ward. In addition, women who experience a foetal loss were cared for in St. Catherine's antenatal ward by experienced midwives. No gynaecology surgeries were cancelled due to the ward closure or due to bed capacity during that time.

To answer the Deputy’s question I was not aware it was closed initially and now I am telling the Deputy it is open as of 13 June. In the answer I have and which the Deputy has, there is no reason given that ward closed so I cannot answer that question the Deputy asked me. As part of the Saolta University Health Care Group, University Hospital Galway is the Saolta model 4 hospital delivering emergency medicine, acute medicine and acute surgical and critical care 24 hours a day, seven days per week. It is one of the major teaching hospitals and it is partnered with the National University of Ireland, Galway. Since 2018, €3.1 million in funding has been provided for additional staff for women's health services in University Hospital Galway, and the Government is committed to promoting and improving women's health outcomes. It was only this morning that I read in our local newspaper about the menopause clinic that will be opening in September this year.

The HSE's national women's and infant's health programme has developed an ambulatory gynaecological model of care that centres on the establishment of one-stop see-and-treat ambulatory gynaecology clinics. The development of these clinics will help to improve access to gynaecological services, reduce the requirement for multiple gynaecological appointments and ensure sustainability of service provision into the future. Importantly, it will help to improve clinical outcomes. It is estimated that approximately 70% of general gynaecological referrals are suitable for management in this setting. The roll-out of this new model of care began in 2020 and at present nine of these clinics are operational, including the one in University Hospital Galway.

I confirm that St. Monica's ward has reopened and that the patients have been provided with care in other wards in the hospital. I apologise that the Minister, Deputy Donnelly, is not here himself to answer the question, but at the same time he has taken on board what the Deputy has raised here and he has asked questions on it. I am glad to see the outcome is this ward is operational again.

I thank the Minister of State. How many beds have reopened? How many beds are in St. Monica's ward? Have they told the Minister of State that?

No, they have not.

I think it is 17 or 19 but I am not sure. They have given the Minister of State an answer simply because I raised it in the Dáil, like other Deputies do. I have received no reply from the Minister. I know he is busy and I know exactly how busy the Minister of State is. I pay tribute to her work all the time but this is the most serious situation. This is spin upon spin. If the ward is closed because of a lack of staff, and I welcome that it is reopened, then how did it suddenly reopen? Where did they get the staff from? Why did they have to close it in the first place?

There was mention of communications in the previous Topical Issue matter and I understand the communications unit had no idea St. Monica's ward was closed since March. I did not know it was closed. The person who told me said in great fear that it was closed for three weeks. It was closed since March and nobody was going to tell us that. It was not going to reopen on whichever date the Minister of State gave us and we do not know if all the beds have reopened. I am a female Deputy and I have read all the reports, including the report on the series of deaths in Portiuncula University Hospital and the long-term consequences of practices there. I have read the report on the Midlands Regional Hospital Portlaoise, the report on Savita Halappanavar and all of the reports, and here we are. Two years ago I was obliged to bring a motion before the Dáil for the implementation of the national maternity strategy, following on HIQA's condemnation. I will take the word "condemnation" back because HIQA is not inclined to condemn but it had serious concerns with the failure to implement the national maternity strategy more than halfway through its term.

The Minister of State does not engage in spin and that is the last thing I want. When I raised this two weeks ago, I got all the good news. I read the strategies and I do not need to be told about these things. I am here to highlight an unacceptable situation, disingenuous communications, the most serious consequences for women and a pretence that they are being treated in other wards that are at capacity. I visited someone in hospital a few weeks ago and there were 17 people there, men and women, in various stages of distress and undress, and the nurses were run ragged. There is something seriously wrong with our model in the hospitals in Galway generally but I will stick to the point today.

I thank the Deputy. She is right that it is unacceptable that a ward would be closed and that we would not be communicated with on it so that we would know how many beds were closed. I do not know today how many beds have reopened other than I have been told the ward is open. I will find out for the Deputy. When we talk about spin and everything else, I know the Minister, Deputy Donnelly, takes this role seriously, so much so that he paid a surprise visit to the accident and emergency department in University Hospital Galway last Thursday night week. He walked right through it unannounced because he wants to see it operational as the Deputy and I hear about daily from our constituents. I have to thank him for paying that flying visit, unannounced, to see what our accident and emergency department is like.

The Deputy is right that the accident and emergency department is one of the issues that takes over our headlines regularly, as is the women's and maternity side of the hospital. I am glad to see the ward is open but I will be twice as happy when I know it is open to full capacity. People entering the gynaecological side of University Hospital Galway are going there for various reasons and there are various levels of trauma from which we need to protect each woman who is passing through it. It could be a woman getting the good news she is pregnant, it could be a woman in for a 12-week scan, it could be a lady who is experiencing the loss of a baby or it could be other ladies who have gone in for many other issues. We need to ensure the hospital works to maximise the supports for women who are entering it. I will get the Deputy an answer on whether the ward is open to full capacity.

Social Welfare Benefits

I am glad to get the opportunity this morning to raise the anomaly in legislation on disability allowance. This anomaly was exposed by Tracy McGinnis last week in the midst of grieving for her beloved son, Brendan Bjorn. She is seeking action from the Government to amend the legislation and she has put forward a solution she believes will ensure no other parent faces the additional pain and suffering added to grief already felt following the loss of a child. I am sure that is the most difficult time in any parent's life. Because Brendan was 17 and in receipt of disability allowance, which due to the severity of his disability, his mother collected for him weekly, on his death the payment ceased immediately. If Brendan was 15 and in receipt of the domiciliary care allowance, that payment would have continued for 12 weeks. What it comes down to is the question of what is the difference between a 15 year-old with a disability and a 17 year-old with a disability when they pass away. Why should they be treated differently based on age? This is wrong, it has been highlighted by Tracy, and it needs to be fixed because this can and should never happen again to any parent in this State. I commend Tracy on looking out, at this time of immense grief, and trying to ensure this does not happen to any other parent.

Yesterday I wrote to the Minister with a draft amendment that will fix this situation and see disability allowance treated the same as domiciliary care allowance when it comes to children who are cared for at home after they pass away.

I ask the Minister to accept that amendment, make any necessary changes and bring it forward urgently. Having spoken to Tracy, I also ask that the amendment is done in the name of Brendan Bjorn as a fitting tribute to him.

I reached out to Tracy yesterday. It was hard to find the words to say to her because on 17 May, her whole world came crashing down. Brendan was 17 years of age and she had cared for him at home each day since his birth. Most of us here can only imagine the immense loss Tracy must feel. I express my deepest sympathies to her and to Brendan's brother.

All of this came about initially following a letter that was sent from the Minister's Department asking Tracy to repay the disability allowance that was paid out the day after Brendan died. I acknowledge the Minister rightly apologised for that and the payment is not now owed. However, the wider issue here is the way in which disability allowance is treated after a child passes away. The other anomaly here is the fact that many other social welfare payments continue for six weeks after a person has passed away. Disability allowance is one of those payments but only in respect of a recipient who is a spouse or partner. The disability allowance, when it is paid to a spouse or partner, continues for six weeks but not when it is paid to a son or daughter. Such people face an immediate cliff edge when they lose a child.

I raise the issue this morning to ask the Minister to please consider that amendment. She can fix the situation today and I ask her to do so.

I thank the Deputy for raising this issue. I again extend my sympathies to Ms Tracy McGinnis on the loss of her dear son, Brendan, and to his brother, Declan.

This matter came to my attention at the weekend. I apologised on behalf of the Department and I accept we need to look at the matter. I am committed to doing that. I will put some context to how the system works. The key role of the Department of Social Protection is to provide income support where an income need arises because of a particular contingency, be that illness, disability, caring or unemployment. Disability allowance is the Department's main income support for people who have a disability.

To be eligible for disability allowance, the disability must be expected to last for at least one year and the person must be aged between 16 and 66 years of age. The nature of the disability must substantially restrict a person's ability to undertake work that would otherwise be suitable for persons of similar age, experience and qualification. The allowance is also subject to a medical assessment, a means test and an habitual residency requirement.

There are currently just under 156,000 recipients of disability allowance with expenditure in 2022 expected to be almost €1.9 billion. The current maximum personal rate of payment is €208, with the maximum adult dependant rate at €138. Rates for child dependants are €40 for children under 12 and €48 for children over 12.

The main legislative provisions relating to payments after death are contained in section 248, chapter 2 of Part 9 of the Social Welfare (Consolidation) Act 2005, as amended. If a recipient of disability allowance dies and there is an increase for an adult dependant in payment, the payment continues for six weeks. If a recipient of disability allowance dies and there is no increase for an adult dependant, entitlement to payment ceases when that person passes away. However, if another person is in receipt of carer's allowance in respect of that person, the carer's allowance payment will continue for a period of 12 weeks. In circumstances where a person is in receipt of another social welfare payment together with a half-rate carer's allowance, then the half-rate carer's allowance will also continue for 12 weeks. The carer's support grant, which is paid on the first Thursday in June, will automatically be paid where carer's allowance is paid on that date. This will also include instances where the person being cared for has passed away before that date.

The Department recognises the need for a transition period during which people can grieve and plan for a life following the death of a family member. If a person is unable to collect a payment or manage his or her financial affairs, that person can appoint an agent to collect social welfare payments on his or her behalf. Where disability allowance is paid to a collection agent, the Department may not be aware of the relationship between the agent and person who was in receipt of disability allowance. In many cases agents may be a spouse, adult child or a non-relative, such as a carer, neighbour or a manager of a residential care setting.

I am conscious of the matter the Deputy has raised. I know Tracy must be suffering unthinkable grief following the sad loss of Brendan. That, of course, was not helped by the correspondence she received from my Department. For that, I again apologise.

My Department is staffed with hard-working, dedicated people who went above and beyond for our citizens during the recent Covid-19 pandemic. They deal with members of the public, including those enduring a period of hardship, with care and compassion. This example has shown us that sometimes we get it wrong and we have to do better. We must learn lessons and will improve our processes. I have no doubt we will do that.

If the Department does indeed recognise the need for a transition period during which people can grieve and plan a life following the death of a family member, then this anomaly should be fixed. It can be fixed easily and I have sent the amendment to the Minister. I would appreciate it if, in her response, the Minister would confirm whether she believes this is an anomaly. What is the difference between a 14- or 15-year-old child with a disability, who is in receipt of domiciliary care allowance and who passes away and a child who is 16, 17, or 18 years old and in receipt of disability allowance? Whether that payment continues should not be dependent on age, the payment the person is receiving or whether a wife, spouse, partner, son or daughter is accepting the payment. That makes no sense. It should not be the case.

The Minister referred to the letter that was sent by the Department. I acknowledge what she has said. That is fine. To be honest, I was not going to raise the matter of the letter. I did so only to give a bit of context because that is how this all came about. It is how this anomaly was exposed in the first place. The wider issue here is not the letter. The issue is the fact that disability allowance should be treated in the same way as domiciliary care allowance when a child who is in the care of a parent at home and is in receipt of disability allowance passes away. That is an anomaly. If that anomaly were fixed, there would be no letters and the issue would not arise. The issue is not so much the letter, albeit the Minister is right that communication needs to be considered. I find it hard to believe the Department in certain circumstances may not be aware of who the collecting agent is and what his or her relationship is with the person involved because the Department knows a lot of things. Even if the names of the collecting agent and the child are not the same, I find it difficult to understand that the Department would not know the agent who is collecting a payment from the Department of Social Protection or what their relationship is to the eligible person. I find that hard to believe. Will the Minister accept this is an anomaly? Will she consider the amendment I have proposed? Will she please make this happen?

I have asked my officials to examine the arrangements in respect of the case we are talking about. Some particularly difficult cases arise and, as I said, we must consider our processes. On foot of that review, I will consider a further change, if necessary. I give the Deputy that commitment. Since taking up this role, I have learned that the staff in my Department do not just say they are here to help; they follow that mantra. We know that. The staff of the Department do a wonderful job in difficult circumstances.

Department systems do not recognise who the agent is. The domiciliary care allowance is paid once per month. We know it is paid to a family member.

The disability allowance is a weekly payment and it goes to the actual recipient. There may be a collection agent assigned to that person. The social welfare system does not recognise who the agent is. We have to look at the systems. It is not just a matter of pressing a button and it all happening. I have asked my officials to look at the matter. I am happy to commit to ensuring that we improve our processes into the future and make the system better for those who are grieving, like Tracey is, as we speak today.

Horticulture Sector

I am raising this issue for a number of reasons. The first is the fact that workers on the ground within our horticultural sector feel as though decisions on access to horticultural peat have been seen as a done deal. It is felt as though now that the furore over the issue has abated, the Government feels as though it is business as usual and the sector has been left to pick up the pieces and carry on. That was the distinct impression a representative of the sector got after confronting a junior Minister at the Department of Agriculture, Food and the Marine about the issue. The operator felt sidelined and ignored and was more or less told that the Department hoped it had weathered the storm and could move on. In the same way, the working paper compiled by three Departments totally ignored the recommendations of the working group on the use of peat moss in the horticultural industry. That was a pivotal moment, and is the second reason for me raising the matter.

Following a series of delays, the final report of the working group on the use of peat moss in the horticultural industry was published. It was more or less ignored, despite many sensible recommendations being set out in the report. The possibility of developing primary legislation to resolve the dual issues of the planning and harvesting of peat for horticultural purposes has been effectively dismissed, despite the working group's recommendations to do so. Instead, guidance on the regulation of peat extraction in Ireland was to be provided. The working group outlined that growers are reporting that they are being quoted prices for imported peat in 2022 more than 45% more expensive for volume purchasing, and that prices are likely to rise even further for smaller customers. This was ignored as well. At the time, I said that serious questions needed to be answered about whether the three Departments with responsibility for the issue were only ever intent on following their own preconceived plans of action, rather than taking the work of the group chaired by Dr. Munoo Prasad seriously. Those questions were not answered per se, but the response to the report spoke volumes. Research into peat alternatives is all well and good, but when the sector is suddenly left without a stable ingredient, research is of limited benefit, as its needs are immediate. Operators in the sector say that they should have seen the Minister of State's colleagues in the Green Party as natural comrades. Instead, a sector that has offset more carbon than any other was targeted with a brush that gave no recognition whatsoever to the contribution it makes and the potential it has in carbon offsetting. Its needs have been met with the granting of a tiny amount of the area of land traditionally used for peat extraction. Instead, we have seen tonnes of peat imported into this country in a way that expels far more carbon than would ever be needed.

I ask the Minister to State to outline what progress has been made in providing alternatives to the sector. Did the 2,000 tonnes of peat that Bord na Mona stated was to be sold to the highest bidder actually go to the sector? We were told that we had 2,000 tonnes of peat that is suitable for professional growers. Are we starting with the 2,000-tonne stockpile that we were told about? I ask the Minister of State to confirm whether the recommendations of the working group on developing primary legislation to resolve the dual issues of the planning and harvesting of peat for horticultural purposes have been cosigned to history, or whether work to pursue it is happening.

I thank the Deputy for raising this matter. As he will be aware, extraction of peat for the Irish professional horticultural industry in recent years has been challenging from a legal and regulatory perspective. A series of High Court judgments, beginning in the early 2010s, that dealt with peat extraction and lack of compliance across the extraction sector has generated supply challenges for the horticulture sector, which continues to rely on peat as a raw growing material.

I want to highlight the importance of the horticultural sector and its significant contribution to the economy with a farm gate value of almost €521 million in 2021. The horticultural sector is the fourth largest in agriculture in terms of output value. An estimated 17,600 people are employed in the sector between primary level and value added downstream. Approximately 60% of the value of Irish horticulture is dependent on peat as a growth medium with the mushroom, amenity and soft fruit sectors being most reliant.

The working paper to address challenges related to peat supply in the horticulture sector was put in place by the Department of Agriculture, Food and the Marine in conjunction with the Departments of Environment, Climate and Communications, and Housing, Local Government and Heritage following the publication of the Final Report of the Working Group on the Use of Peat Moss in the Horticultural Industry, which was commissioned by my colleague, the Minister of State, Deputy Noonan. The paper sets out a series of joint actions that have been put in place to alleviate the difficulties being faced by horticultural growers dependent on peat as a growing medium. The actions include a range of targeted measures that reflect the multifaceted nature of the problem and the subsequent need for short-, medium- and long-term solutions. These actions were developed to address the short-term issue of peat supply, the medium-term issue of future access to peat and the longer-term issue of replacement with alternatives. The ultimate ambition is to support the horticulture industry, the people employed and the many families that depend on this important sector.

Peat is a finite resource and there is an acknowledgement of the need to transition to more sustainable growing media. Indeed, most amenity horticulture growers are now using reduced peat levels in growing substrate, where the peat is blended with material such as bark fibre at levels of between 10% and 30%. I welcome the general agreement across the horticulture industry that the use of peat should be phased out by 2030 or by 2035 at the very latest, provided alternative materials are available. The phasing out of the use of peat by 2030 would align with other climate commitments the Government has made. However, there is also a recognition that a very limited volume of peat may be required for a period in certain sectors, in particular, professional horticulture, until alternatives become available that are affordable and sustainable and meet quality, environmental and productivity requirements for the horticulture sector. My colleague, the Minister for Agriculture, Food and the Marine, and I have continued to highlight the importance of transitional peat supply and to assist in considering solutions to this issue. In doing so, the working paper and associated actions led by the Department will support Irish horticultural growers who are dependent on peat until viable alternatives are found. The Department is also funding two sustainability research projects through the EU producer organisation, PO, scheme for fruit and vegetables. The first project is looking at spent mushroom substrate and how this could be used as a peat replacement material within the wider horticulture sector. The second project is investigating the sustainable replacement of peat in mushroom casing material. This support is being reflected in ongoing shelf and house trials on peat alternatives, and good progress is being reported by industry.

I thank the Minister of State. In her response, she said that an estimated 17,600 people are employed in the sector. If the Government would only listen to the sector, it would realise that it is putting those working in the sector at risk of losing their jobs because of the price of importing peat from 3,000 miles away. As a member of the Green Party, I do not know how the Minister of State and her party can stand over the practice of importing peat from 3,000 miles away. Hundreds of trucks bring peat to ships over there, it is shipped 3,000 miles across the sea, and another few hundred trucks have to pick it up here. We are talking about a minuscule volume of peat required to keep the mushroom and horticultural industries going. The Government is closing the sector down. It does not make any sense. The Government keeps talking about alternatives. Again, I ask the Government to listen to the stakeholders. It is fine to say that there will be alternatives available down the line. The sector is at risk now because the smaller operators cannot afford to import peat. For the bigger operators, the price of importing peat has gone up by 22% from last year. The Department needs to pull it finger out. The Minister of State did not confirm whether the 2,000 tonnes of peat to which I referred is available to the sector. Is that peat there? Has it been assigned to the sector? Alternatives are no good to the 17,600 people who are affected. There will be a furore when big mushroom operators or other horticultural centres start closing down. The Ministers and other politicians will go and get their pictures taken with operators, and will say they are in favour of helping them out. Now is the time to help the sector. I do not know how the Green Party can stand over the practice of importing peat from 3,000 miles away. There is talk about carbon footprints. We all know that things have to change.

It makes no sense that we have a product in this country and we are refusing to let a sector use it by bringing it so far around. Can the Minister of State answer me about the 2,000 tonnes? Is it available to the sector? How soon or at what stage will alternatives be there for that sector?

I assure the Deputy that we certainly accept his concerns and those he has raised for the sector. I am acutely aware of the key importance of the professional horticulture sector and he has highlighted the significant number of jobs and value to our economy. I want to assure him that the Government is working as a priority to assist the horticulture industry in resolving these issues.

I cannot speak for Bord na Móna and its supplies but this is one of the aspects the working paper will examine in terms of available supply to the horticulture sector. With regard to the Deputy's queries on importation, I understand we are still a net exporter of peat in this country. Perhaps there is some engagement we should have with those exporters to ask them to maybe not export and keep it in this country to secure the horticulture sector here.

The legal and regulatory issues cannot be ignored. We get in difficulty a lot in this country by breaching regulations and rules in the EU and beyond. Horticulture has gotten caught up in this. As I said, however, I recognise that the sector itself realises that it must transition away from peat. It is finite; we only have a certain volume of it and we need to preserve as much of that as possible in the ground. Having said that, however, we are working hard as a Government. I am working with my Government colleagues. We are working hard in the Department on the working paper. We have put in place independent experts to assist us with that. I hope that in due course we will have some answers. I accept the frustrations are there but we are very cognisant of them.

One of the biggest things the Minister of State could do is actually listen to the sector and try to engage with it.