Skip to main content
Normal View

Seanad Éireann debate -
Wednesday, 15 Jan 2014

Vol. 229 No. 1

Adjournment Matters

Disabilities Services Funding

I wish to share one minute of my time with Senator Martin Conway.

I had better first declare an interest in that my child has received a service from the group I am about to mention. I will not second-guess the Minister's reply, but I do not imagine we will receive any great news this evening.

The group is a parents' group and the Minister of State has met them in the past. I do not need notes to speak about what the group does. I am one of the people who raise €250,000 a year to provide services for 350 children in County Clare. The lady who set up the group, Ann Norton, will not mind me putting her name on record. I remember having an argument with her eight years ago and I said the day would come when we were all older and unable to do it any more. The children get older and require more support. Without the Clare Federation in County Clare supplying those services, Clare Early Intervention Services provides only 5% of the services and supports in County Clare.

We talk about value for money and I can guarantee that the Clare Crusaders are value for money. As we do not spend any money but fund-raise ourselves, the group must be good value for money. We do not get the same value for money from the Clare Early Intervention Services structure and we never will. The model does not work and I said as much eight years ago when it was set up under Deputy Micheál Martin. It was not going to work then and it will not work now.

I am very passionate about the children and the services they receive and the support we can give them. Last Thursday, my 21 year old child was swimming with the group in the Auburn Lodge Hotel. There were children from eight to 18 years and they have held onto our 21 year old, even though we said we would finish at 20 years of age. One of the two issues is the core funding needed to keep the group ticking over, which does not amount to €250,000. Between €50,000 and €100,000 will get them through this year. I ask the Minister of State to examine the new implementation framework and facilitate a meeting. Deputy Michael McNamara attended a meeting in Ennis and Senator Conway is part of the same Clare group. Local Deputies also attended. We would like to look at the model in County Clare. We do not want to turn it into the current service provider model. The Minister of State knows my views on the matter, which are that the model is too expensive and does not work. As parents, if we could set up a board of management and support the Government and the agencies and receive some support now, I would like us to be considered as a pilot group under the new implementation framework. Perhaps we can meet with the Minister of State and the representatives of the bodies involved to explain what the Clare Crusaders do.

If we are not able to continue tomorrow morning and if no one comes along to raise funds, Clare will become a disaster in respect of disability services. Even though I have been involved with the group since its inception, I was not aware that a real problem is the failure of the HSE in County Clare to inform the HSE in Limerick and the HSE nationally that the Clare Crusaders exists and provides services. Worst of all, the HSE refers clients to the Clare Crusaders, which is a voluntary group. I do not want the standard HSE reply. A root-and-branch investigation of the Clare Crusaders must be put in front of the Minister of State, the HSE and the steering group to show people what they do. The Minister of State will see absolute value for money. Perhaps Senator Martin Conway will add to that point. I can only speak as a parent and as a representative of the group.

There are a number of positive aspects. Senator Tony Mulcahy has outlined the work of the Clare Crusaders, which I will not repeat.

I do not think the Senator can speak at this point.

Senator Tony Mulcahy agreed to share time.

I will not delay. The work of the Clare Crusaders, as outlined by Senator Tony Mulcahy, is vital. There is unanimous political support across all parties and including those of no party for the Clare Crusaders to be considered a pilot group under the new system. We are looking for political leadership from the Minister of State to make sure that happens. We know the track record of the HSE. It is a big body that moves incredibly slowly. Political leadership is required to make this happen urgently. There is an awful lot of uncertainty in County Clare and among the Clare Crusaders staff, who are primarily volunteers, parents and service users, and we have a responsibility to eliminate it.

The confusion between the Senators was my fault as much anyone else's and for which I apologise. Senator Tony Mulcahy asked if he could share time.

We are at the end of the day and time constraints should not be the issue.

I would love to give the formal answer and read out the five pages prepared, but that would not satisfy anyone. The prepared answer goes into Government policy, which we all know, particularly Senators Martin Conway and Tony Mulcahy. Some €1.4 billion is spent on disability and 80% of it goes to non-statutory agencies that deliver disability services. There are 300 agencies around the country. My prepared answer is available to any Member who wants it and it provides worthwhile information.

The big advantage we have this year is a director dealing specifically with disability and older people. He is very familiar with the area, having been the regional director of operations for HSE South. I know him well, although I was not part of the interview process and had nothing to do with it. Everyone recognises that he has in-depth knowledge of the area. His credentials are the fact that such difficulties or crises did not occur in HSE South, because Mr. Pat Healy is very capable of managing issues and is au fait with possible difficulties in order that they can be dealt with as they arise.

When we concluded budgetary negotiations, he managed to get €4 million for those under 18 years of age. That is where we need to be. The issue involves the availability of a service when people need it rather than relying on a diagnosis of disability. Legally, we are still obliged to carry out a diagnosis because it is part of the Disability Act. We must also carry out an assessment of needs. The difficulty is that I can afford to have my child diagnosed at an early age by paying €600 or €1,200, and the diagnosis gives me access to services. This is unfair and unequal because some people cannot pay for a diagnosis.

The €4 million set aside for those under 18 will have a major impact on the service. We must continue to deliver a service in the community as opposed to having the service tied up with service providers. Senator Tony Mulcahy will agree with that point and we must ensure it happens. There are groups, maybe one or two or more, providing the types of service the Clare Crusaders provide. I know about the Clare Crusaders. They are providing the service on the basis that mainstreaming is what we all want to do. It is about how people live their lives rather than how they interact with services. A combination of elements coming together will make sure we deliver the service in the way groups such as the Clare Crusaders are delivering it. Groups such as the Bray Lakers have a similar model. The legislation, in terms of capacity, will change things fundamentally for people with disabilities.

We are going to start to do things differently. I know the director has very clear ideas on how to change the service and his aim in life is to ensure people live as normal a life as possible. I will bring to his attention the fact that the likes of Clare Crusaders do not receive any funding. I should say to both Senators that it is always tempting, when an organisation works extremely well without receiving State funding, providing a service with which everybody is happy, to tell the people involved they are doing a great job and leave it at that. I very much take on board that the group that is there now will not always be there. I suppose it needs to be more established.

I will bring the concerns of both Senators to Mr. Healy, the new director of social care, and I will ask him to look at these matters. We are confined with regard to funding and it is not like the good old days when we could go back and get more. That is not how it works any more. I will consult with the director about having a serious look at the issue. He knows the group involved. The beauty of having a director with responsibility for the service in the entire country - with planning and development of services - is that there is a degree of flexibility. I thank the Senators for raising the matter.

I thank the Minister of State for not reading the five-page reply that has been distributed to us but rather answering the questions. I know her heart is in the right place with this subject. There is now an appropriate director and perhaps the group can meet him in order to sustain the project.

Coastal Erosion

I welcome the Minister of State, Deputy Brian Hayes.

I welcome the Minister of State, Deputy Brian Hayes, and know of his concern about these matters as I have heard him speaking about the €45 million fund available. He has stated that much more funding must be allocated. I know the efforts that he and his Department are making to obtain further funds from the European Union with regard to the disaster that struck in recent times, particularly in view of the fact that two storms occurred in quick succession and did major damage everywhere. Although I am concerned about the effects everywhere, this matter relates to Rossbeigh, which was a fantastic expanse of sand dunes. I spoke today to my colleague Senator Tom Sheahan, who was born and grew up in Glenbeigh, a neighbouring village, and he told me there were 375 acres of sand dunes there not long ago and that is now down to approximately 100 acres. As the Minister of State probably knows, the gap between the dunes has extended to approximately a kilometre.

The concern must be for the back lands where the sea has invaded. I do not have the townland names off by heart but there are low-lying houses in the area, with a unique 18 hole golf course, and I presume they are under threat. People are resident in the area and they face such a threat. What has happened to the beautiful beach is a disaster and I do not know what can be done. I look forward to hearing the Minister of State's response, as that is why I tabled this matter.

I thank my good friend and colleague, Senator Paul Coghlan, for raising this important issue. As he has highlighted, we had a very difficult week or two, with storms ravaging parts of the western counties, especially Galway, Kerry, Clare, Limerick, Cork and Mayo. I know there is a Senator from Galway present and Waterford was also affected.

Senator Paul Coghlan is aware that the Cabinet considered the matter yesterday and the initial assessment from the affected counties is that €65 million will be needed to repair some of the damage, of which €35 million relates to a variety of issues around coastal works. My Department has written to all the city and county managers advising them of the minor works schemes that we run in the Department, with funding of up to €500,000 provided for flood defence schemes of a minor nature. Anything beyond that is clearly on a larger scale. We have written to managers and changed some criteria to make it easier to make applications. I publicly gave a commitment - which I repeat tonight in the House - that when we see those applications come in from local authorities we will prioritise the counties that have been worst affected and see if we can quickly get money to these areas.

The first priority for us is to repair damaged flood schemes, as many parts of the western counties had flood schemes in place that have been damaged. The priority has to be to repair the damaged schemes as quickly as possible. It is still relatively early in the winter and there are difficult weather days before us. The €45 million allocation is for the whole country and we must wait to see the full scale of applications that will come to us. As I stated last week, it is inevitable that more funding will have to be found to deal with repairs.

The Senator raised the specific case of Rossbeigh. Consideration must be given to the fact that coastal erosion is a natural and ongoing process. Although it may have an adverse impact on coastal communities and infrastructure, it can also have beneficial effects, such as providing natural nourishment and a supply of sediment to adjacent beaches. Due to the considerable extent and nature of the Irish coastline affected by erosion and the fact that it is an ongoing natural process, it is clearly not feasible from an economic or practical viewpoint for the State to protect all of this coastline. Any approach toward addressing problems of coastal erosion must be informed by an assessment of the risks involved. The Government recognises this and is taking active measures to assess and monitor the risks of coastal erosion.

The Irish coastal protection strategy study, which is a major examination of this matter, is effectively complete, and this will provide invaluable and essential information. That strategy is providing an entire mapping system for the national coastline, which is a very important element in the proper management of the coastline. The Office of Public Works is currently undertaking a series of catchment flood risk assessment and management, CFRAM, studies, which also feed into the issue of coastal communities. The CFRAM assessments are supported by the collection of data under the programme following flood events to identify areas and numbers of properties flooded, flood depths and mechanisms, etc.

There is a tendency sometimes to assume that problems such as coastal erosion require fixing, usually through engineered solutions. These interventions are usually very costly in terms of both initial capital and ongoing maintenance costs. However, it is important to stand back and look at the problem in the round. For example, the European Commission study entitled Living with Coastal Erosion in Europe, completed in 2004, highlighted some important findings, including the fact that some previous interventions, while solving erosion problems locally, exacerbated coastal erosion at other locations. This study also highlighted the concept of "coastal squeeze" which occurs in low-lying and intertidal areas which would otherwise naturally adjust to changes in sea level, storms and tides but cannot do so due to the construction of sea walls. The outcome can often be a gradual loss of amenity beach and habitat.

I am fully aware of the coastal erosion issues at Rossbeigh. I was there some years ago with a colleague of the Senator.

Only a year ago, I would say.

That is right. The Office of Public Works will give due consideration to any application received from the local authority. As I indicated, however, the scale and nature of the erosion problem on the Rossbeigh spit needs to be looked at in a holistic manner, having regard to the natural processes in operation in that part of the coastline and the economic viability. We are really in the hands of Kerry County Council. If it wishes to apply for funding we will consider the application. I am not so sure there is any great confidence at local authority level that a scheme of work in the area would resolve the problem, as the issue is very complicated.

I know that might not be of any great assistance to the Senator, but I assure him that were an application to come from Kerry County Council we would consider it.

I thank the Minister of State. He referred to the natural erosion that occurs on the entire spit. Nature will have its way, so to speak. We must be concerned about the people who live in the area in so far as some remedial defences could be provided for them to prevent further erosion by the sea. Perhaps some defensive work could be carried out, in particular where the road meets the beach initially and where the car park and other facilities have been damaged. I fully appreciate what the Minister of State said about the totality of the situation. I wish him well in dealing with this considerable problem on a national basis.

If a problem arises with a road following a storm that is an issue for the Department of Transport, Tourism and Sport to resolve.

We fund flood defences, big and small. That is our mandate. We have repeatedly given big and small amounts of money to all parts of the country amounting to €45 million on an annualised basis. That is €250 million over a five-year period from the Government. It is one of the few areas of capital funding that has not reduced. If anything, it has increased. We recognise that we are underfunded as a country when it comes to infrastructural flood defences. We have an open mind and if there is a solution to the problem we will look closely at what Kerry County Council includes in its application. If colleagues in other Departments can bring something to the party on the transport or tourism side we would also encourage that. In the first instance, if home owners have insurance, we encourage them to speak to their insurance broker.

I have received a communication from the Kerry county manager, Mr. Tom Curran, and will communicate with him. I thank the Minister of State.

Fishing Communities

Cuirim céad fáilte roimh an Aire Stáit agus táim thar a bheith dó as ucht an t-am a thógáil le teacht isteach leis an rún seo ar an Athló a phlé, rún ar an téama céanna maidir leis an damáiste a rinne na stoirmeacha, ach ó thaobh an chiste cúitimh d'iascairí beaga. The Minister of State, Deputy Tom Hayes, is very welcome. I thank him for coming to the House. We are following on the theme of the recent storms but focusing on a different element of what took place.

I spent much of the past week or so walking the highways and byways of Connemara and Galway looking at the damage, which in many cases was devastating. One issue that came to light was the situation in which small fishermen found themselves. I spoke to people who are in their 80s who said they had never seen anything like the damage that was done and the type of storm we saw in recent weeks. Among the casualties were fishermen, some of whom had their boats and pots well away from the pier but they found that even that was not enough to protect them. Their boats have been damaged, gear has been lost and engines have been damaged. In a number of cases, slipways and piers have been badly damaged. The extent of the damage to the infrastructure of the piers will not be apparent for a number of weeks or months. Structural engineering audits of piers must be carried out to see whether damage has been done to their bases.

Much of the focus to date has been on the response of county councils, the Department of the Environment, Community and Local Government and the OPW among others. Fishermen find themselves in a much more difficult situation. Small fishermen in particular have been finding it hard to make ends meet. A joint Oireachtas committee compiled a report on fishing and a group visited the island of Inis Oírr in County Galway. One of the main findings of the report is that more support must be given to smaller inshore fishermen with boats under 10 m. Many of those fishermen have found their livelihood is in serious jeopardy because of the damage done to boats and gear. The gear of a small number of fishermen has been severely damaged and their livelihood is in jeopardy.

Will the Minister of State indicate whether an emergency fund is available to help reinstate the boats, gear and lost pots due to what has been described as a perfect storm? The swell, full moon and spring tide all came together in conjunction with the wind to do untold damage. In most cases the fishermen do not have the financial wherewithal to cover the cost of replacing their gear. Last year when there was a fodder crisis the Government was rightly able to introduce measures to alleviate the pressure on farmers. Small fishermen are in an equally bad position. If they do not get help they will not be able to resume fishing. That is the bottom line. We need to keep as many men as possible fishing in their boats on the sea. I hope the Minister of State will have positive news for me.

I thank the Senator for raising the issue and giving me an opportunity to come to the House to discuss the matter. We must look at the variety of impacts the storms have had on the fishing industry and coastal communities. The Minister for Agriculture, Food and the Marine, Deputy Simon Coveney, with all his colleagues in government, are acutely aware of the ferocity of the recent storms combined with the exceptionally high tides which in combination have resulted in widespread damage right around the coast. A critical impact of the storms for fishermen has been the damage to vital pier and harbour infrastructure, which the inshore fishing industry depend on to carry out their work safely and efficiently.

Since the storms occurred, the Minister has been actively assessing the damage to the many small local authority piers and harbours right around the coast. He presented an assessment on the damage to fishery piers and harbours to Government at yesterday's meeting. He is aware that serious damage was caused to vital public infrastructure in various small local authority piers and harbours and to various navigational lights and beacons around the coast. He continues to assess the damage and to estimate the cost of repair and will feed the information into the Government's overall consideration of the issue.

The Government, in considering the totality of the impact of the storms yesterday, decided that local authorities need to carry out a full assessment of the damage and the costs involved and should revert to Government in the coming weeks. The comprehensive assessment will then enable the Government to decide on a fully informed response to the damage that was wreaked on our coastal communities as a result of the exceptionally bad storms. The Minister is aware of the critical importance of the local pier and harbour infrastructure to the 1,900 odd inshore fishing vessels that provide a backbone to our inshore fishing fleet. He is anxious that damage to critical pier and harbour infrastructure is addressed as comprehensively as possible and will work through the Department and with the local authorities to achieve the objective. The Minister is anxious that the repair of vital public infrastructure for the inshore fishing industry is a priority element in any overall Government response.

On the specific issue of Government support for inshore fishermen for losses of equipment or boats, it is useful to recall that there is a range of grant aid schemes already available to inshore fishermen administered by Bord Iascaigh Mhara. There have been some reports in the media about the loss by some inshore fishermen of their pots. It is not unusual for inshore fishermen to experience some pot losses through the winter. The Minister will talk to industry groups in the coming days and endeavour to assess the scale of losses that may have occurred.

In deciding on an appropriate response to the situation that emerges, the Minister will have to take account of the fact that EU law limits the options. The EU requires that any financial assistance provided by the Government to the seafood sector must always be considered in terms of what is permissible under EU state aid rules. It is clear that under state aid rules, no aid may be given for the replacement of any lost or damaged fishing boats. As aid for the purchase of a fishing boat is only allowed for young fishermen under 40 years of age purchasing their first fishing boat, no replacement boat is eligible for assistance.

The European fisheries fund regulation does allow for financial assistance for purchase of pots, but only where the replacement pots provide for more selectivity in regard to by-catch and under size fish. Any such assistance to purchase fishing gear may not increase the ability of a vessel to catch fish and would be difficult to implement without the risk of breaching state aid rules. However, while constraints and considerations do exist, the Minister is actively endeavouring to get a full picture of the situation. When that is to hand, he will be in a better position to inform Government and determine what responses are practical. I spoke to him just before I came to this House and he stressed that he is intent on doing that and he wants to assure the Senator that he understands the difficulty and will do what is possible, within the law, to try to assist in this situation.

I thank the Minister of State for replying to my Adjournment matter on behalf of the Minister. I appreciate what he said, but I believe the issue needs to be sent home to the European Union. This is an extraordinary circumstance and the normal rules should not apply in this case. This has been a catastrophe for many of the fishermen involved and we need to use whatever mechanisms we have to make the case in the European Union. I imagine it would be favourable because the numbers are minuscule.

It is welcome that the Minister will talk to industry groups in the coming days to endeavour to assess the scale of losses that may have occurred. One of the groups had a very positive input into the report launched yesterday - Iascairí Intíre Éireann, the inland fishermen's organisation which represents many of the smaller fishermen along the west and south coasts. Will the Minister of State ask the Minister to meet that group to discuss these issues with it as it is anxious to talk to him and give him an accurate picture of the extent of the problem?

I will make the Senator's request to the Minister. I know he will and that he wanted me to assure the Senator that he will do everything possible. I presume that means he is willing to meet some groups. I cannot guarantee he will meet them, but I will relay the Senator's request when I meet him tomorrow morning. On the overall issue, the Senator stated the farmers were looked after, and that was necessary. The same applies in this case. The message the Minister wants to send is that if it is possible, it will be done. If the Senator has any further information, we would appreciate it. We are as amenable to helping as we can be.

Retail Sector

I welcome the Minister to the House and thank him for coming in to take this matter on the Adjournment. The issue relates to retailers with sizeable buying power and their ability to compete unfairly against small individual retailers. This issue was highlighted over Christmas in the case of below-cost selling of vegetables and fruits by some retailers. Some retailers in my town point out that they cannot even buy at wholesale prices from suppliers for the same price at which multiple chain retailers can sell the same product. This below-cost selling may sound like a good idea for consumers, but as we know from our experience of the below-cost sale of vegetables over the Christmas period, the multiples are able to sell below cost and squeeze small suppliers and retailers out of the market. Then, when the multiples have got rid of the competition, they can charge whatever price they like. This practice occurred many moons ago in regard to the sale of petrol and gasoline in the United States, to the point that monopolies were created. We now have retailers that are squeezing the small guys out of the market. Their mantra is that they are doing a service for consumers, but in the long run it will be the consumer who pays higher prices owing to the lack of competition from small retailers.

The Senator has raised an issue that is narrower than provided for in the response I have about what is happening in the retail sector.

The Minister can give me the abridged version as it is late.

Since the abolition of the Groceries Order in 2006, retailers are free to charge what they choose. Therefore, below-cost selling is no longer illegal and I do not have any powers to set minimum prices. The reason the change was made was that the order was seen to uphold high prices rather than promote competition or protect consumers.

Robust competition and cutting prices is not illegal. However, the practice to which the Senator referred, of predatory pricing, as it is known, where dominant players seek to use price cuts to eliminate another competitor, is entirely illegal and would be in breach of our competition law. This applies to a specific situation and requires us to establish dominance and the fact that it is predatory. Much of what happens in the market is that opportunistic pricing strategies are pursued for a short period on a certain product. This is not illegal and it would be difficult to see that it is damaging to consumers' interests. Therefore, it is only if it becomes an anti-competitive instrument that there would be a question of assuming powers to deal with it.

There is a wider issue on which I am introducing legislation and this concerns fairness in the supply chain for the retail sector. At times, suppliers believe they are in a weak position and that unfair conditions are applied or contracts are changed without notice. I propose to use statutory powers to introduce regulations that will define what practices must be pursued. The merged competition and consumer authority will be the enforcement agency in that regard. Inevitably, one must prove that such breaches occurred and regulations still require the onus of proof. During the years, there has not been much evidence offered in this area and there have not been complaints of the practice of which the Senator complained, predatory pricing, brought to the Competition Authority.

We propose to introduce fair rules in this area. An attempt was made to introduce a voluntary code of practice, but it did not gain much support. Under the programme for Government, we are bringing in statutory regulations and they will be enforceable. This will come before the House shortly as we are finalising the drafting of the Bill. I hope it will be approved by the Government and brought to the House in the near future. The issue covered in the Bill is slightly different from that of selling below cost. In the case the Senator highlighted that occurred over the Christmas period, there was a dispute as to whether the retailers were absorbing all the costs themselves or putting a squeeze on their suppliers. Putting the squeeze on suppliers is the area that will be regulated, but retailers can still choose to sell at whatever price they like, once they are not engaging in either predatory pricing as a dominant player, which would be illegal, or breaching the regulations we will introduce in due course.

I thank the Minister for not reading his entire speech. The abridged version was more welcome and is appreciated. It is welcome that regulations are being introduced in regard to suppliers and protecting them. My concern is that small retailers just cannot compete. When a supermarket can sell a litre of coca cola at a price at which the local retailer cannot buy it, this is a problem.

It is up to the industries, the small retailers associations and the suppliers groups to encourage their members to use the instruments available to them when this law is introduced to tackle those uncompetitive and unfair practices. If they do not blow the whistle on such practices, there is nothing the Minister or anyone else can do about it. I thank the Minister for coming to the House to address this matter.

Do I get a chance to respond again?

The Seanad adjourned at 9 p.m. until 10.30 a.m. on Thursday, 16 January 2014.