Adjournment Matters

Broadband Services Provision

Gabhaim buíochas leis an gCathaoirleach as ucht an deis seo a thabhairt dom an t-ábhar tábhachtach seo a ardú ar an Athló inniu.

I thank the Minister for Education and Skills, Deputy Quinn, for taking the Adjournment debate. I listened with interest to the debate. He has taken a very progressive approach to the issue of bullying.

I was contacted about the broadband service in Scoil na Trionóide, Lismullen, a national school in the Hill of Tara area outside Navan, County Meath. It is impossible for the staff to download an e-mail. While the school is well equipped and has whiteboard technology, it is not possible to do anything online because of the lack of broadband.

I know the Department of Education and Skills has a scheme in place to provide broadband for schools. It also has a more advanced scheme for second level schools. The broadband programme is certainly failing in Lismullen national school. After the people of Lismullen contacted me, the parents from Scoil Na Ultain Naofa, Baile Ghib, a Gaeltacht school between Navan and Kells, who experience the same problem with the inadequate broadband service contacted me independently. They too cannot open e-mails. Will the Minister outline the Department's position on this issue?

I thank the Senator for raising this important matter in relation to broadband. I am very aware of the importance of broadband for integrating ICT into teaching and learning. The ICT in schools programme addresses new policy challenges and opportunities, and Members will know all about access to broadband.

What we are doing for the 730 post-primary schools will be completed by the end of this year. Each of these schools will be connected up to the 100 Mb highway, which will enable them to access broadband.

If the schools in Lismullen and elsewhere are experiencing problems with broadband, the businesses located beside them must be experiencing it also.

The schools are located in isolated areas. The businesses are suffering but there are just a few of them.

Yesterday I attended the launch of the schools digital programme. What I am hoping to do is see what we can do to start to link up the 3,200 primary schools to the service. Obviously isolated schools have a difficulty. I will raise the matter with my colleague, the Minister for Communications, Energy and Natural Resources, Deputy Pat Rabbitte, to see what we can do about rural areas. We must move towards connecting primary schools that are in isolated areas, otherwise their very survival will be difficult to sustain.

I have a note that might be of interest to the Senator. Through the public procurement process, the Department has gone as far as possible to reduce the reliance on slower services or in this case non-existence services, and has seen the number of schools operating on a satellite connection fall from approximately 1,800 to 200 at present. Under the procurement process in 2012, the only broadband solution proposed for Scoil na Trionóide was satellite. Satellite connections and some other slower connections were only awarded where no other solution was proposed by the suppliers in the framework and contracts for these connections were only awarded for one year. I am referring to 2012. These schools, including Scoil na Trionóide, were retendered for a mini-competition in August this year to see if better solutions were available. Officials in the Department are in the process of evaluating and awarding contracts from this mini competition. Contracts are being awarded to suppliers for 109 schools, which at present have satellite connections. This will see these schools move from satellite to faster broadband connections. I am pleased to say that Scoil na Trionóide is one of these schools. In relation to the remaining schools which were tendered under the mini competition awards, these awards will be made in the coming weeks, taking budgetary constraints into account.

The Senator might keep in touch with me in this regard.

I am pleased with the Minister's positive statement. The school was slightly aware of what was going on but those involved felt everything was proceeding slowly. I take comfort from the Minister's comments that broadband will be provided in Lismullen school shortly and I am encouraged by what he said. There are other two schools I would like to check, one of which is Scoil Ultain Naofa in Baile Ghib. One of the parents attended a meeting there last night and relayed information to me. I will check with departmental officials as to whether the other school is on the list. There may be good news for that school also.

I would be happy to deal with that matter.

Fodder Crisis

I thank the Minister for coming to the House to take this matter. I would like to raise the fodder crisis earlier this year and what can be done to help farmers and to prevent future crises. I commend the Department for Agriculture, Food and the Marine on all the measures it put in place last spring to assist farmers in dealing with the crisis. The funds to help to transport fodder from the Continent and the availability of emergency assistance were instrumental in helping them survive this crisis. Thanks to the efforts of the Government and the good weather this summer farmers have, on average, an 8% surplus in feed for their animals. However, this figure is based on a strict 140-day winter feeding period, which does not allow for the risks of an early winter or a late spring and, despite surpluses for some farmers, one in five still faces a 20% deficit in food supply.

The Government's efforts fall a little short in the provision of longer-term assistance for farmers and the prevention of another serious crisis. The fodder crisis, although alleviated, is not over and farmers face even more problems with the reduction in the cost of beef. It is estimated they are losing up to €5 million per week. They also have reduced stock following the past winter. We cannot allow our farmers to suffer under these circumstances. Although I realise we are in times of austerity, this year's €1 million allocation for the fodder crisis is nothing near the amount that should be provided to assist farmers to head off another crisis this winter.

Additionally, importing fodder from the Continent turned into a logistical nightmare with some co-operatives only receiving 2.5% of what they ordered on time. Does the Minister for Agriculture, Food and the Marine and his Department feel this is an acceptable way to deal with such a crisis? The importation of fodder undoubtedly helped but we need solutions within Ireland, which is why I tabled this matter.

I propose that the Government sets up an audit committee to audit all publicly-owned grasslands as a means of identifying those lands that could be cut in the event of a fodder crisis. We need solutions within the country and using publicly-owned grasslands is a way to do this. While importing from the Continent is helpful, we can help ourselves by utilising the resources at our disposal. A number of farmers have contacted me to say next year's problems are starting now and, therefore, we need to ensure they have a reserve into the future. Many farmers feel the only thing coming down on them these days is rain. We must ensure the Government is proactive in helping with the lingering effects of the crisis earlier this year as well as addressing the potential for future crises in the coming years. The setting up of an audit commitment to examine publicly-owned grasslands is a necessary step towards preventing another crisis.

On behalf of the Minister for Agriculture, Food and the Marine, I thank the Senator for raising the important issue of fodder availability on farms for the coming winter. Furthermore, I would like to convey the Minister's regrets that he cannot be here today, owing to previous commitments. This is an issue the Minister and the Department of Agriculture, Food and the Marine have been monitoring and dealing with for many months. The Senator will be aware that a range of measures have been put in place in recognition of the difficulties experienced by a great number of farmers across the country resulting from the unseasonable weather in 2012 and earlier this year, which led to an extraordinary fodder shortage.

As part of the Government's response to the issue, an inter-agency fodder committee was established in early summer under the chairmanship of Dr. Tom Kelly of Teagasc. The committee comprises representatives of all agricultural stakeholders, including a representative from the Department of Agriculture, Food and Marine. The committee not only monitored the fodder situation but also co-ordinated actions to ensure sufficient fodder would be conserved for next winter, which is at the centre of the Senator's concerns. The committee ensured a co-ordinated approach to the delivery of a strong advisory campaign to encourage farmers to maximise grass growth and conserve sufficient fodder for next winter. It produced a fodder budget worksheet, which was widely publicised and allowed farmers to make decisions regarding feed planning for next winter.

In addition, the committee conducted a fodder survey earlier this month. The survey shows a major improvement in availability of fodder for the season ahead, with an overall average surplus of 8% across the country when considered on the basis of a normal winter period. The survey noted that with prudent management of existing stocks, along with appropriate supplementation with concentrate feeds, farmers are well positioned to come through this winter from a fodder perspective. The survey also shows that 72% of farmers said they had a "good" supply of grass going into the autumn grazing period, with the remainder saying they have "normal" levels of grass available in fields.

In April this year, a fodder transport subsidy scheme was established to help alleviate the difficulties being encountered by farmers. The scheme reduced the cost of imported fodder to farmers by approximately one third and supported the importation of almost 2,800 loads of imported fodder, amounting to more than 40,000 tonnes. A total of 81 different bodies participated in the scheme and the Department is paying claims as they are received and processed. I thank all those involved in implementing the scheme and making it a success.

In recognition of the severe difficulties experienced by farmers due to a shortage of fodder and the serious risk of a further shortage this autumn and winter, a temporary and targeted adjustment of two provisions of the nitrates regulations to support additional fodder production on Irish farms were introduced, that is, an extension of the period for the application of chemical fertiliser from 15 September to the end of the month and the discounting of the phosphorus content of a portion of meal fed to livestock.

The Senator will appreciate that publicly-owned grasslands are the responsibility of my colleague, the Minister of State with responsibility for the Office of Public Works, OPW. During the height of the fodder crisis, both Dublin and Shannon airports provided the grass cuttings from their lands to farmers for fodder use. This was a welcome initiative which provided much needed additional capacity at that time. However, the favourable grass growing conditions over the summer, which has continued into September, have been of great benefit to farmers in addressing the fodder issue for the forthcoming winter. The Department of Agriculture, Food and the Marine along with Teagasc and other agricultural stakeholders will continue to actively monitor the issue. The Minister has indicated that he will also consult our colleague, Minister of State with responsibility for the OPW, Deputy Brian Hayes, with a view to assessing the possibility of an audit of publicly-owned grasslands.

I thank the Minister for his response. I convey my thanks to the Minister for Agriculture, Food and the Marine. This would be a progressive step which would complement the committee's strategy to alleviate future fodder crises.

Garda Operations

Today is Arthur's day, the annual event where Diageo encourages people to go to the pub and raise a toast to Arthur. The company has spent a significant amount on advertising, promotions and live music with the objective of getting as many people as possible to drink Guinness tonight. The vast majority of people will have a fun and safe night out. They will have a few pints, listen to live music and go home without any trouble but, unfortunately, if tonight is anything like previous years, there will an increase of up to 30% in ambulance call outs and the Garda will have to deal with an increase in public order offences as people who raise a toast to Arthur at 17.59 fall onto the streets many hours later in Dublin and elsewhere.

Earlier this week I called on Diageo to cover the additional policing costs of today because there is a precedent for this in the context of concerts and sports events. For example, it will be the case on Saturday for the All-Ireland hurling final replay when the GAA will cover the cost of the additional gardaí deployed in Croke Park because they are not on normal public duty. The same applies to concerts. If MCD or other promoters put on a concert, they must cover the additional policing costs. I call on Diageo to do the same.

The company's spokesperson when interviewed on various programmes during the week has questioned whether today is any different from St. Patrick's Day or any other day when people go out to enjoy a few pints. However, while it is one thing for people to celebrate an official national holiday, sporting event or a similar occasion, it is another for a commercial company to concoct a national drinking day or an "alcoholiday", as it has been called by Christy Moore.

Diageo, as it has admitted in programmes during the week, has put together the event to get people out on a night when they would not ordinarily drink. It is to boost consumption of alcohol. It is a commercial event and it is wrong that a company would take the profits from that commercial event but not cover the public cost of it. Given that additional gardaí will need to be rostered tonight, they will not be available to work on some other night during the year. The extra pressure put on our health services tonight will have the same effect. We all know we are working in an environment of reduced budgets. That is why I issued my call to Diageo earlier in the week.

The front page of this morning's Irish Examiner reported that Diageo has agreed to contribute to some of the policing costs of the event. I know that the Minister, Deputy Quinn, is here representing the Minister for Justice and Equality and is not the Minister directly responsible, but I am hoping he can give me more details on what the company has agreed to do. Has it agreed to cover the full cost of the additional gardaí working on the streets tonight or just part of it? Perhaps the Minister can give us an estimate of the additional cost of Arthur's day on the State. The Minister is always very frank as he was in the debate we just concluded. I ask him to give his views on the event.

We all enjoy a few drinks - I celebrated last week's all-Ireland victory in my local pub, as did half of Dublin. I am looking forward to going out and having birthday celebration drinks with a friend of mine tomorrow night. However, I also accept there is a problem with excess alcohol consumption in Ireland, which is why I have an issue with an event being concocted purely for the purpose of encouraging people to drink more. In recent years the alcohol industry has emphasised taglines such as "drink responsibly". Its representatives tell us they get the message that they need to move away from promoting consumption and be more responsible in their marketing. That is why I have a concern about this event. It is not because I am a teetotaller or anti-drink. I believe it is marketed in a very cynical way. I ask the Minister for his personal views on the event.

As the Senator has pointed out, I am responding to her on behalf of the Minister for Justice and Equality, Deputy Shatter, who unfortunately is not available and has asked me to thank the Senator for raising these matters.

As the Senator may be aware, under the Garda Síochána Act 2005, the Garda Commissioner is the Accounting Officer for the Garda Síochána Vote and, accordingly, he is responsible for operational expenditure incurred by the force. Section 30 of the 2005 Act also provides a statutory basis for the Garda Commissioner to charge for police services on a non-public duty basis for certain events. This is a function which is undertaken by the Commissioner independently of the Minister for Justice and Equality and his Department.

The Minister has consulted he Garda authorities which have indicated that Garda financial records are not maintained in a format which would provide a breakdown of the costs incurred in policing activities linked to the set of events to which the Senator has referred. I wonder why they are not, but that is the situation. I would have thought that appropriations-in-aid would come in separately as would be the norm for other things, but that is another day's work. In addition, the Minister has been advised that the extraction of this information would require a significant use of resources - the usual excuse.

With regard to the question of charging for the relevant policing services involved, this is, as I have mentioned, a matter for the Garda Commissioner. In that context, I understand arrangements have been made with the organisers of some of the events in question for the recoupment of costs in respect of the additional policing requirements that will arise. All of the relevant details are not available but I can confirm that the Minister is strongly in favour of this approach.

The Minister has asked me to say that he fully appreciates the concerns that have been raised by the Senator. In the overall context, the Minister would like to stress that, while people are fully entitled to enjoy the Arthur's day events, personal responsibility should play an important part in the way in which they behave.

From that perspective, the Minister urges everyone attending the events to drink alcohol sensibly. As we are aware, this has not always been the case in previous years and the result has been that very heavy demands have been placed on the emergency services, not to mention the personal consequences for the individuals directly involved. In particular, the Minister emphasises the need for care on the part of persons who may be driving, especially either today or tomorrow, and their responsibilities to other road users and to themselves. We are all aware of the consequences of drink-driving which has caused so many serious injuries and fatalities on our roads. Unfortunately, this has, on occasions, been the result of reckless driving by young people who have consumed large amounts of alcohol. In this context, the Minister encourages parents of young people to urge them, not only not to drink and drive, but also not to get into a car with a driver who has been drinking.

The Minister has asked me to express his appreciation for the work done by An Garda Síochána in the policing of major events. It is often a very difficult task and at all times it is the policy of the force that the safety of the public must be the primary consideration. This will be the priority for the Garda personnel who are charged with policing the events the Senator has mentioned.

As regards my personal view, I would be very similarly disposed to the attitude the Senator has expressed. I do not believe we need specific saints of alcohol to encourage us to come out and have a go. It is a marketing event and I just hope it is not abused. As a nation we need to learn how to drink. I have made reference elsewhere to youngsters. In places where alcohol is banned or is at a prohibitively high price, there is still alcohol abuse. We need to get that balance right. I do not have a recipe as to how best to do it, except education.

I thank the Minister. I appreciate he is responding for the Minister for Justice and Equality, Deputy Shatter. I am surprised, as the Minister has said, that the Department of Justice and Equality is not able to get figures from the Garda Síochána about the extra staff working tonight. I have spoken to gardaí working in different stations across Dublin city and they have said they have them because obviously they know how many extra gardaí are working tonight. They say they need to staff the night as if it was a very busy Saturday night rather than an ordinary Thursday. I ask the Minister to ask the Minister for Justice and Equality to make an effort to seek those figures from the Garda. There is a district network there and it is not very difficult to ask the superintendent of each district to report back on the additional staff needed to be rostered to make Arthur's day safe.

I note from the response the Department of Justice and Equality supplied to the Minister that the organisers of some of the events this evening have agreed to pay for the policing costs, with "some" being the key word. I ask the Minister to convey to the Minister for Justice and Equality my strong view that because this is a commercial night from which it will make significant profit, Diageo should cover the all of the costs of Arthur's day. It should also be done in a consistent way across the country. I gather considerable pressure has been put on the company by the Garda in Cork, which is why the story is on the front page of the Irish Examiner today. Gardaí have been commenting to newspapers and raising it as an issue in recent weeks and that seems to be the reason behind the response in Cork. Is the same thing happening in Dublin and in other cities?

I will certainly bring this debate to the attention of the Minister for Justice and Equality and his departmental officials. I suspect that the note that was prepared was written in advance of what was reported in the newspapers today. No doubt the Minister will get a report on that matter. I share the Senator's broad sentiments that if this is to be a recurring event, an accountancy system should be introduced to enable extraction of that cost detail relatively simply - we do not want to overload it. If there is a spike on the normal traffic coming through emergency departments in our hospitals, it should be possible to monitor that aspect also.

The Seanad adjourned at 2.10 p.m. until 2.30 p.m. on Tuesday, 1 October 2013.