Adjournment Matters

An Teanga Gaeilge

Cuirim céad fáilte roimh an Aire Stáit. Ta an cheist atá curtha síos anocht agam pléite againn cheana agus tá súil agam go gcloisfidh mé go bhfuil dul chun cinn déanta ar an méid a luaigh muid. De réir mar a thuigim, is ceist don Tánaiste atá i gceist anseo, mar sílim gurb é an Roinn Gnóthaí Eachtracha agus Trádála a chaithfidh cinneadh a dhéanamh maidir leis an gceist seo. Ach is dóigh go bhfuil saineolas faoi leith ag an Aire Stáit ar seo chomh maith.

Táim ag labhairt faoin mhaolú ar stádas na Gaeilge san Aontas Eorpach a chur ar cheal ag deireadh na bliana 2016. An suíomh reatha atá ann ná gur aithníodh an Ghaeilge mar theanga oifigiúil don Aontas Eorpach ón gcéad lá d'Eanáir 2007. Cuireadh maolú ar an stádas sin, ar dtús ar feadh tréimhse cúig bliana, go dtí deireadh 2011 agus arís ansin go dtí deireadh 2016, ionas nach raibh gá na doiciméid dlíthiúla ar fad a aistrítear go dtí na teangacha oifigiúla eile a chur ar fáil i nGaeilge. Tugadh easpa saineolaithe Gaeilge mar chúis don mhaolú, ach níl an easpa sin ann a thuilleadh.

Anuas ar sin, níl an deis céanna ag ionadaithe na hÉireann an Ghaeilge a úsáid san Aontas Eorpach, de dheasca easpa ateangairí. Is ceist faoi leith í sin, os rud é go bhfuil roinnt Gaeilgeoirí breise curtha go dtí an Eoraip againn le cúpla seachtain anuas, mo chomhghleacaí Liadh Ní Riada ina measc. Beidh siad ag úsáid na Gaeilge thall, le cúnamh Dé.

Is faoi Rialtas na hÉireann atá sé é a iarraidh go hoifigiúil ar an Aontas Eorpach gan an maolú ar stádas na Gaeilge a athnuachan. Is gá don Rialtas an cinneadh sin a ghlacadh go luath, má tá an feachtas earcaíochta a mbeadh gá leis idir seo agus 2017 le riaradh mar is ceart. Tá daoine á bhfostú ag an Aontas Eorpach faoi láthair. Mar shampla, tá deich bpost do dhlítheangeolaithe le líonadh i 2014. Beidh breis agus 180 post breise le líonadh roimh an chéad lá d'Eanáir 2017, má chuirtear deireadh leis an mhaolú. Mar sin, táimid ag caint, isteach agus amach, ar 200 post.

Glacadh leis an Mháltais mar theanga oifigiúil i 2004 ags d'éirigh leo fáil réidh leis an maolú a bhain leis an teanga sin taobh istigh de thrí bliana. Baineadh é seo amach trí chonarthaí sealadacha a thabhairt do go leor saineolaithe Máltaise chun deis a thabhairt dóibh an tríú teanga a shealbhú agus iad ag obair le hinstitiúdí an Aontais. Tá an tríú teanga riachtanach le go bhfaighfí post buan mar shaineolaí teanga.

Cén fáth an bhfuil muid ag cuartú seo agus céard iad na buntáistí a bheadh ann d'Éirinn? Bheadh an Ghaeilge ar chomhchéim le gach ceann eile de na 24 teanga oifigiúil san Aontas Eorpach, an Máltais, an Eastóinis agus an Laitvis ina measc. Cuirfear 183 post ar ard luach ar fáil idir seo agus 2017 - 103 aistritheoir, 32 dlítheangeolaí, 42 rúnaí agus 6 cinn d'aonaid - gan aon chostas ar Rialtas na hÉireann. Bheadh buntáiste fadtéarmach maidir le tionchar na hÉireann san Aontas Eorpach, de réir mar a rachadh líon áirithe de na daoine seo ar aghaidh go dtí poist a bhaineann le réimsí polasaithe san Aontas. Freisin, chuirfeadh sé le stádas na Gaeilge in Éirinn, Thuaidh agus Theas, agus leis an íomhá den teanga sa phobal, ach go háirithe i measc daoine óga in aois scoile agus ag an tríú leibhéal.

Mar sin, táim ag tacú leis an éileamh a rinne Conradh na Gaeilge, atá á éileamh acu le fada agus atá muid féin ag éileamh, go ndéanfaí an maolú ar stádas na Gaeilge san Aontas Eorpach a chur ar ceal ag deireadh na bliana 2016. Le go dtarlódh sin, bheadh ar Rialtas na hÉireann a chur in iúl don Chomhairle i 2014 go bhfuil sé ar intinn ag an Rialtas deireadh an mhaolaithe a mholadh ag cruinniú foirmeáilte sa bhliain 2015. Sin an cheist atá agam anocht. An bhfuil sé i gceist ag an Rialtas sin a dhéanamh? Tá súil agam go ndéarfaidh an tAire Stáit liom go bhfuil.

Ba mhaith liom mo bhuíochas a ghabháil leis an Seanadóir as an ábhar seo a thógáil ar an Athló. Fáiltím roimh an deis insint go díreach dó agus don Teach conas mar a sheasann cúrsaí maidir leis an cheist thábhachtach seo i láthair na huaire.

Bhain an Ghaeilge aitheantas amach mar theanga oifigiúil agus oibre de chuid an Aontais Eorpaigh, AE, ar an 1 Eanáir 2007. Bhí feidhm ag an gcéad mhaolú maidir le húsáid na Gaeilge in institiúidí an AE ar feadh cúig bliana, ón 1 Eanáir 2007 go 31 Nollaig 2011. Cuireadh síneadh cúig bliana eile leis sin ón 1 Eanáir 2012 go 31 Nollaig 2016. Faoi théarmaí an mhaolaithe, aistrítear téacsanna dlíthiúla, a dhéantar faoi nós imeachta na comhchinnteoireachta, go Gaeilge. Mar thoradh ar theacht i bhfeidhm Chonradh Liospóin ar an 1 Nollaig 2009, is é nós imeachta na comhchinnteoireachta an gnáth-nós anois, seachas an eisceacht, i reachtóireacht an AE. Mar thoradh ar sin, tá méadú mór tagtha ar líon na dtéacsanna dlíthiúla a aistrítear go Gaeilge. Ina theannta sin, ní miste a rá go ndéanann na hinstitiúidí Eorpacha cuid mhór ábhair eile taobh amuigh de théarmaí an mhaolaithe a aistriú go Gaeilge.

Éilíonn an maolú féin go ndéanfaí cinneadh faoi mhí na Nollag 2015, ar a dhéanaí, maidir le todhchaí an mhaolaithe. Tá plé ar bun ag an Roinn Ealaíon, Oidhreachta agus Gaeltachta i gcomhar le Roinn an Taoisigh le páirtithe leasmhara éagsúla, institiúidí an Aontais Eorpaigh san áireamh, ar mhaithe le moltaí sonracha a fhorbairt maidir leis an gcur chuige is fearr i dtaca leis an maolú. Mar ghné lárnach de mholtaí ar bith, tá an fáil a bheadh ar dhaoine a bheadh na scileanna riachtanacha acu chun dul i mbun poist in institiúidí an AE, chomh maith le giniúint téarmaí i gcomhair a n-úsáide in aistriú cáipéisí oifigiúla. Agus é sin tugtha san áireamh, tá dhá thionscnamh maoinithe ag an Roinn Ealaíon, Oidhreachta agus Gaeltachta le roinnt blianta anuas, is iad sin an tionscnamh téarmaíochta agus an Tionscnamh Ardscileanna Gaeilge.

Cuireann mo Roinn maoiniú ar fáil do Fiontar in Ollscoil Chathair Bhaile Átha Cliath chun téarmaí Gaeilge a aistriú do bhunachar sonraí téarmaíochta an AE, a dtugtar IATE, InterActive Terminology for Europe, air. Chuimsigh an maoiniú ó mo Roinn do Fiontar don tionsncamh seo ó 2007 go 2013 os cionn €2.1 milliún. Ina theannta sin, tá maoiniú ceadaithe don tionscnamh seo in 2014. Tá os cionn 50,000 téarma Gaeilge curtha ar fáil ag Fiontar do IATE, a chuimsíonn naoi milliún téarma i 24 teanga oifigiúla an AE. As an 24 teanga oifigiúla, tá an Ghaeilge anois ar an 14ú teanga is mó sa bhunachar sonraí téarmaíochta seo.

Bunaíodh an Tionscnamh Ardscileanna Gaeilge in 2006 mar fhreagra ar an riachtanas sainaitheanta go méadófaí líon na gcéimithe le scileanna i réimsí sonracha i gcomhthéacs Acht na dTeangacha Oifigiúla 2003 agus an Ghaeilge ina teanga oifigiúil de chuid an AE. Tá soláthar daoine cáilithe le scileanna Gaeilge, chun freastal ar riachtanais earcaíochta, á bhaint amach tríd an tionscnamh seo. Faoin tionscnamh, cuireann an Roinn Ealaíon, Oidhreachta agus Gaeltachta maoiniú ar fáil do réimse sainchúrsaí Gaeilge tríú leibhéal in Éirinn - i réimsí ar nós aistriúchán, ateangaireacht, teicneolaíocht faisnéise agus dlí. Tá an ciste á riar ag an Roinn Ealaíon, Oidhreachta agus Gaeltachta i gcomhar leis an Údarás um Ard-Oideachas. Tá os cionn €11 milliún caite ar an tionscnamh seo go dáta.

Mar fhocal scoir, ní miste a rá go ndeirtear sa Straitéis 20 Bliain don Ghaeilge 2010-2030 go n-oibreoidh an Rialtas: "chun na himthosca a chruthú ina mbeidh go leor céimithe cáilithe ar fáil le freastal ar riachtanais earcaíochta an AE le go bhféadfar deireadh a chur leis an mhaolú sin le linn ré na Straitéise seo." Is léir ón méid atá ráite agam anseo inniu go bhfuil plé leanúnach gníomhach ar siúl leis na páirtithe leasmhara ábhartha ar mhaithe le moltaí sonracha a fhorbairt maidir leis an gcur chuige is fearr i dtaca leis an mhaolú.

Gabhaim buíochas leis an Aire Stáit, ach i gcead dó is beagnach an freagra céanna atá muid ag cloisteáil ó 2007 ar aghaidh, le seacht mbliana anuas, ar an gceist chéanna seo. Cén fáth an bhfuil an Rialtas ag tarraingt na gcos ar an gceist seo? Tá cuid mhaith daoine imithe tríd na cúrsaí aistriúchán, tá daoine ar fáil don tionscnamh, tá poist ag teastáil go géar agus tá poist ar fáil anseo nach mbeidh aon chostas acu ar an Stát. Táthar in ann é a dhéanamh i Málta, san Eastóin agus i Laitvia.

Cén fáth nach bhfuil an tAire Stáit ag tabhairt ceannródaíochta agus ag rá go bhfuil muid chun seo a dhéanamh agus chun an cinneadh a dhéanamh roimh dheireardh na bliana. Beidh na daoine ag teastáil sa bhliain dár gcionn agus cuirfear an traenáil ar fad ar bun. Cén fáth nach bhfuil sé ag glacadh smachta ar an gceist seo agus cén fáth nach ndeireann sé leis na Ranna agus na páirtithe leasmhara, atá á lua aige anseo, go bhfuil sé le déanamh go tapaidh agus go mbeidh sé déanta sula mbeidh an tAire Stáit imithe as oifig. Mura ndéanfar é seo, beidh muid ag caint ar seacht mbliana eile agus níl sin maith go leor. Beidh deich mbliana caite agus is ceap magaidh muid ar fud na hEorpa mura féidir a cruthú go bhfuil muid in ann daoine a chur ar fáil leis an chéim thábhachtach seo a thógáil ar son na Gaeilge ar fud na hEorpa.

Seo mí Mheitheamh 2014 agus caithfidh cinneadh a bheith déanta roimh mí na Nollag 2015. Ciallaíonn sé sin go bhfuil bliain go leith againn le cinneadh a dhéanamh agus é a chur in iúl don Aontas Eorpach. San am i láthair, tá an cheist á scrúdú agus táimid ag amharc ar na féidireachtaí go léir.

Ní aontaím ar chor ar bith nach bhfuil aon rud á dhéanamh. Táimid ag caitheamh airgid mhóir le oiliúint a chur ar fáil do dhaoine a mbeidh na scileanna riachtanacha acu má táimid chun deireadh a chur leis an mhaolú seo. Tá €11 milliún caite cheana féin, agus ní suarach an tsuim sin, le daoine a chur ar fáil a bhfuil scileanna sa teanga acu. Chomh maith le sin, tá na milliúin euro curtha ar fáil d'Fhiontar. Tá an Rialtas ag cur an airgid isteach, ag iarraidh cór daoine a fháil a mbeidh an oiliúint agus na scileanna riachtanacha acu a bheidh á éileamh ag an AE. Ní dóigh liom go nglacfadh siad leis an Seanadóir féin, cé chomh líofa agus atá sé i nGaeilge. Is cinnte nach nglacfadh siad liomsa, an tAire Stáit, thall ansin mar theangaire nó mar aistritheoir nó mar shaineolaí, cé gur cainteoir dúchais mé.

Tá ardchaighdeán i gceist. Caithfidh muidne bheith ábalta daoine agus foireann a chur ar fáil a bhfuil an ardchaighdeán sin acu. Is é sin an fáth go bhfuilimid ag cur acmhainní ganna, luachmhara agus fiúntacha isteach. Tá sé sin á dhéanamh leis na daoine sin a oiliúnt. Mar a dúirt mé, tá an cheist seo á scrúdú. Níl dearmad déanta di. Tá bliain go leith againn le cinneadh a dhéanamh. Ní aontaím leis an rud a dúirt an Seanadóir.

Tá treoir le tabhairt ag an Aire Stáit roimh dheireadh na bliana.

Níor chuir mé isteach ar an Seanadóir.

An tAire Stáit, without interruption.

Ní aontaím ar chor ar bith go bhfuilimid ag tarraingt na gcos. Tá mé i ndiaidh na bhfíricí a thabhairt. Tá mé cinnte go n-aontóidh éinne atá réadúil nó éinne atá seasmhach liom.

Public Procurement Contracts

I welcome the Minister of State, Deputy O'Dowd, to the House.

I am grateful to the Minister of State for coming to the Seanad this afternoon to respond to what I have to say about local authorities being allowed to put out to tender the contracts to stock Irish libraries. I was appalled to learn that many similar contracts are being farmed out to overseas companies and multinationals at a time when we should be taking all opportunities to sustain and support Irish small businesses and jobs. While the problem I am highlighting is particularly apparent in that instance, it applies to all other businesses. This issue has been raised time and time again by Chambers Ireland, the Small Firms Association and the Irish Booksellers Association. I will refer to a case in point. Large UK-based multinationals are undermining Irish publishers, which are small businesses, by virtue of being able to tender in a fashion that puts Irish businesses at a distinct disadvantage. For example, they use wholesale discounting that cannot be matched in any sustainable way by Irish businesses in the short term.

The Small Firms Association, in conjunction with other stakeholders in the Irish small business sector, recently published alarming data which illustrate that 28% of Government contracts under procurement and tendering procedures are now being awarded to overseas companies. That is the equivalent of business worth €3.5 billion, which translates into the sustainability of 42,000 jobs. I know the Government is putting all its energies into the Action Plan for Jobs and its job creation efforts. I put it to the Minister of State that, in the first instance, the Government must at all times try to support and sustain existing jobs as a priority. Once they are lost, it is hard to get them back.

There are some really harrowing personal stories behind what is happening in the whole procurement and tendering sector. As we speak, people are losing their jobs because Irish firms cannot compete with the multinationals under the procurement and tendering criteria that are applied. I know we cannot go back to the age of protectionism. I know we must comply with EU regulations. It was suggested to me that one never sees an Italian policeman driving a Peugeot or a French policeman driving down the street in a Fiat. Ireland seems to be far more zealous and vigorous when it comes to embracing EU rules and regulations, to our own disadvantage and to the disadvantage of Irish businesses. I appeal to the Minister of State to impress on the Government the need to examine why this is the case. Why can we not adopt a far simpler system of procurement and tendering which is more compatible with the Irish small business sector and more conducive and strategic in terms of supporting Irish jobs?

I am responding on behalf of my colleague, the Minister for Public Expenditure and Reform, Deputy Howlin, who cannot be here, unfortunately. I understand this question arises in the context of a procurement process that is currently being undertaken by local authorities. Activity being undertaken in that sector is a matter in the first instance for the Minister for the Environment, Community and Local Government. In addition, it would not be appropriate to comment on a live procurement process that is under way. In December 2013, the Department of the Environment, Community and Local Government launched its libraries policy, Opportunities for All, which set out a shared procurement policy in relation to the procurement of library materials. The current debate has been prompted by a competition being run by the Dublin local authorities for books. Under circular 10/14, Departments and agencies conducting procurement must perform market analysis.

I would like to comment on the broader procurement landscape. The reform of procurement across the public service is a key element of the reform programme. Public procurement savings enable public service organisations to deliver much-needed services from the tighter budgets within which they are now required to operate. Reforms are being carried out in a manner that recognises the clear importance of small and medium-sized enterprises in this country's economic recovery. The establishment of the Office of Government Procurement was a key part of the efforts to bring a more professional, whole-of-Government approach to procurement. It is driving fair, transparent and open competition in the marketplace, as well as providing better value.

Figures indicate that Irish businesses, particularly small and medium-sized enterprises, do well in winning Government business. The Office of Government Procurement estimates that more than 95% of the Government's total expenditure of approximately €31.1 billion on goods, services and works is spent within the State. In addition, an analysis by the Office of Government Procurement indicates that 75% of the 2013 spend with Irish business was with small and medium-sized enterprises. This represents an increase on 2012 levels. We want small and medium-sized businesses to be successful in public procurement. We also have to ensure there is fair, open and transparent competition. Strong small and medium-sized enterprises that have won Government business here have gone on to win business in other jurisdictions.

The recent circular 10/14 introduced business-friendly obligations on public procurers in areas like open tendering, breaking contracts into lots, lower financial qualification criteria, supporting consortia bids and requiring lower insurance, etc. The circular sets out the guidelines to be followed by public procurers when performing market analysis to ensure businesses remain competitive in the long term. We do not want to distort markets. The Office of Government Procurement continues to work closely with industry bodies like the Irish Small and Medium Enterprises Association, the Irish Business and Employers Confederation, the Small Firms Association, the Construction Industry Federation and Chambers Ireland to reduce barriers. The Office of Government Procurement continues to support supplier engagement in education through its successful Meet the Buyer events and Go-2-Tender programmes, which are run in conjunction with InterTradeIreland.

I thank the Minister of State. I am glad the Government realises there is an issue at stake here. I am pleased it is embarking on a range of positive and constructive initiatives to address the problem. While I accept that we need open, transparent and fair tendering and procurement processes, I do not think it is fair for multinationals to be able to undercut and underbid Irish firms. I refer to small family-run businesses. That has to be taken into consideration. While we have to get best value for the taxpayer when money is being spent, the lowest bid is not necessarily always the best bid. All factors, such as the social and employment implications and the quality of service provision, should be taken into account. These things must also be factored into the scheme. I urge the Minister of State to continue to press for ongoing engagement with stakeholders across the small firms and small business sector. This is necessary to ensure Irish firms get the maximum benefit from any Government tendering and procurement opportunities.

I will bring Senator Whelan's comments to the attention of both Ministers. It might be important for them to be sent to the Minister for the Environment, Community and Local Government, Deputy Hogan, if that is okay.

Alternative Energy Projects

I raise an important issue relating to the development of wind turbines in County Meath. As the Minister of State, Deputy Fergus O'Dowd, is aware, negotiations have been ongoing between the Governments in Britain and Ireland to put together a memorandum of understanding on the export of electricity between the two countries, which would result in industrial size wind turbines being erected in large parts of County Meath.

Prior to the election, the Minister for Communications, Energy and Natural Resources, Deputy Rabbitte, announced that the project would not go ahead. Many residents in areas affected across the country were very happy with the news. Exactly a week after the local elections, a notice of pre-planning consultation was lodged under the umbrella of the Planning and Development (Strategic Infrastructure) Act. The proposal related to 50 wind turbines in County Meath. Recently, the company concerned issued a press statement to the effect that it is now involved in a different project to generate electricity for the domestic market and that the project is not dependent on the intergovernmental agreement. It seems strange that the project could proceed so quickly with a planning application, which the company says is slightly different from what was previously intended, following a major Government announcement on the project.

I wish to clarify the Government’s position. Have there been any further developments on the intergovernmental agreement? Was the Government given notice of the planning application? The Government would have been in contact with the wind farm companies in recent years. The Minister, Deputy Rabbitte, addressed a number of conferences on wind energy. What is happening from the Government’s point of view? Is the project authorised by the Government? Is the Government encouraging it? Does the Government know anything about the project in order that we can tell local residents what is going on? Residents consider what is proposed to be a complete contradiction of what was said by the Government three to four weeks ago.

I wish to respond on behalf of the Minister, Deputy Rabbitte, who cannot attend. The overarching objective of our energy policy is to ensure secure, sustainable supplies of competitively priced energy. As a State, we have ambitious targets for 16% of our energy from renewable sources by 2020 through meeting 40% of electricity demand from renewable sources, with 10% for transport and 12% for heat.

Underpinning the energy and economic policy objectives are five strategic goals, the first of which is progressively more renewable electricity from onshore and offshore wind power for the domestic and export markets. In 2012, a total of 7.1% of Ireland's overall energy requirement was met by renewable energy, equating to 19.6% of electricity demand. To date, wind energy has been the largest driver of growth in renewable electricity. In 2012, a total of 15.3% of electricity demand was met by wind generation. At the end of 2013, the total amount of wind generation connected to the grid was approximately 2,000 MW. It is estimated that a total of between 3,500 MW and 4,000 MW of onshore renewable generation capacity will be required to allow Ireland to meet its 40% renewable electricity target.

Currently, more than 3,000 MW of renewable generation has taken up connection offers. Therefore, private developers will be seeking planning consent for projects of varying scales to construct generation projects to meet our domestic needs. The progression of each individual project is, in the first instance, a matter between the project developer and the relevant planning authority. Given that the Department of Communications, Energy and Natural Resources has no planning function in this matter, the Minister, Deputy Rabbitte, has not received any report or communication concerning the planning specifics. Consideration of the project is a matter for the planning system and, in particular, An Bord Pleanála.

In any event, my Department is advised that the anticipated project referenced by the Senator is destined for supplying renewable energy to the domestic grid. I accept that is what Senator Byrne said. With regard to exporting renewable electricity generally, Ireland's renewable energy resources can deliver significantly greater volumes of energy than our domestic economy can absorb, presenting the opportunity to become a renewable energy exporter in the future.

On a number of occasions, the Minister, Deputy Rabbitte, has stated with regret that it has not been possible at this time to conclude an agreement for renewable energy trading as envisaged under the memorandum of understanding he signed with the UK in January 2013. Economic analysis conducted on the Irish side clearly indicates that under agreed policy and regulatory conditions, renewable energy trading can deliver significant economic benefits to Ireland and the UK, as well as being attractive to developers. However, that will not happen automatically. Renewable energy trading must be designed to work. However, I believe that in the context of the European Internal Market and greater integration, greater trade in energy between Britain and Ireland is inevitable in the post-2020 scenario. Any project seeking to export renewable energy would require the signing of an intergovernmental agreement.

I will just give my views for the record. I do not expect the Minister of State to respond directly. The project seems to be going ahead in a very similar format to what was proposed before the intergovernmental negotiations broke down. It seems to be the case that the Government hopes the intergovernmental negotiations will restart and that an agreement can be achieved. It appears to me that the company is hedging its bets and applying for planning permission so that it will be ready to roll if and when an intergovernmental agreement to export energy is signed.

The situation has already created serious cynicism. The application was made to An Bord Pleanála a week after the local elections. I raised the matter on local radio on Tuesday. No information was available from Element Power but a press release was published in the Meath Chronicle on Wednesday with details of the project. The company should have been a lot more proactive about telling the public what was going on instead of waiting for a local politician to ask questions about the project on local radio. We will keep an eye on what is happening. The situation highlights one flaw in the Planning and Development (Strategic Infrastructure) Act, namely, that the pre-planning consultation process should be public. The document and letters sent to An Bord Pleanála should be available on a public file but that is not the case. I would like to see that problem with the legislation addressed.

I will bring Senator Byrne's comments on the planning issue to the attention of the Minister for the Environment, Community and Local Government and the wind turbine issue to the Minister for Communications, Energy and Natural Resources.

Health Promotion

I welcome the Minister for Health, Deputy Reilly, to the House.

I thank the Minister for coming to the House to respond to the motion I raise on the Adjournment, which is an important one relating to folic acid in the diet of pregnant and pre-pregnant women. It was a cause of alarm to many that a new study has found a rise in neural tube defects in babies, mainly spina bifida, since 2009. That is a worrying trend and should be considered in a policy review of the fortification of food with folic acid. It is important to educate people, in particular pre-pregnant women, of the importance of folic acid in their diet.

Folic acid is a form of vitamin B but it cannot be made by the body and must be taken either in dietary form or as a supplement. The dietary form of folic acid is preferable but supplements must be considered for those who do not get it their diet. Foods rich in folic acid reduce the risk of having neural tube defects. The incidence of neural tube defects is higher in Ireland than in any other European country. The relative deficiency of folic acid in our diet contributes to the situation. The information is from a new study but such facts have been known for years. The recommended intake is 400 mg and sources include leafy green vegetables such as cabbage or cauliflower. For those who do not get folic acid through their diet, it is vital that they are aware they must take it in supplement form if necessary.

The new study by Professor Michael Turner from UCD’s centre for human reproduction has found that there has been an increase in neural tube defects in this country. There is clearly not enough awareness of the significance of folic acid in the diet of pregnant women or those who intend to become pregnant. At least one case a week of neural tube defect arises in newborns in Ireland and the trend must be reversed. One must take into account the suffering for the families of children who are born with a neural tube defect. Health economics must be taken into account as well as the suffering and social effects. The burden of the disease that falls on the child, the family and also on the health system must be examined.

The study in question in UCD and the HSE Eurocrat Register concluded that the recession could have an impact on women's ability to get folic acid naturally in food such as fruits and vegetables, especially women from a lower socio-economic background.

Education for young girls, pre-pregnant women and mothers is vital to ensure they receive sufficient folic acid, whether naturally through foods bought in shops or otherwise. More than 50 countries, including the United States, have mandatory folic acid fortification in foods such as flour. The Government reversed a decision on food fortification in 2008 owing to a falling rate of neural tube defects. However, the rate is increasing again and stands at more than one case per week, which is too many. A new study has revealed that the number of cases increased from 70 in 2009 to 87 in 2011, which is a significant increase, especially as the condition is preventable. It is possible that these 87 children would have been born without neural tube defects if their mothers had taken folic acid either prior to pregnancy or in the early months of pregnancy. The Government must not ignore this issue. I ask the Minister to review current policy on adding folic acid to food and to initiate a public health campaign to promote pre-conception folic acid intake. As I noted, 50 countries have a mandatory folic acid fortification policy.

I thank Senator Cáit Keane for raising this important issue. By so doing, she will raise awareness of it, particularly among young women.

It is important that women take folic acid long before they consider conception. General practitioners, who tend to be the first point of contact with the health system for young women in early pregnancy, will always advise taking folic acid. In some respects, however, the horse will have bolted at that point.

The Department of Health is keenly aware of the association between folic acid intake and neural tube defects. While such defects are not completely preventable, I accept the Senator's point that folic acid intake is an extremely important element in preventing neural tube defects and the pain, suffering and difficulty such defects cause to the individuals affected and their families. I note also the costs that arise for the State. This awareness is reflected in the health system's multifaceted approach to the issue, which includes educating women as to the benefits of folic acid in terms of reducing the chance of neural tube defects, promoting the use of folic acid supplements, and encouraging women to eat plenty of folate-rich food, such as spinach and watercress.

The paper to which the Senator refers, Neural tube defects in the Republic of Ireland in 2009-11, points to an increase in neural tube defects in Ireland from a rate of 0.92 per 1,000 to 1.17 per 1,000 between 2009 and 2011. It notes a very low intake of folic acid supplements among women at the peri-conceptional stage and recommends a review of public health policy on folic acid fortification, folic acid supplementation and pre-conceptional care.

The issue of folic acid food fortification was considered by the Department of Health in 2006 and 2007. A proposal to fortify bread with folic acid was examined in depth but was ultimately rejected following advice from the Food Safety Authority of Ireland, FSAI. The FSAI's advice was based on the following facts. First, in certain cases, excessive folic acid can act as a growth promoter of cancerous cells. Second, in 2007, at the time as its analysis, the Food Safety Authority of Ireland considered that there was sufficient folic acid available in foodstuffs. Finally, in 2007, the number of neural tube defects appeared to be in decline.

The Department of Health recognised the importance of ensuring a safe level of folic acid intake across all subgroups of the population. For this reason, the Department decided not to proceed with the planned folic acid fortification of bread products in favour of pursuing a more targeted approach through awareness campaigns such as the Health Service Executive's promotion of folic acid intake in its health pregnancy pack, of which more than 80,000 copies are distributed annually. Notwithstanding this, however, the Food Safety Authority of Ireland has continued to monitor folic acid levels added to food and food supplements marketed in Ireland. In this regard, I have been advised by the FSAI that it considers that we currently have adequate quantities of folic acid in the food supply through the voluntary addition of folic acid to various foods.

The issue of folic acid intake is much broader than simply food fortification. The recent report claims that only 13.7% of the women surveyed took folic acid supplements during the pre-conceptional phase, while 49.2% did not take supplements at any stage. This illustrates a possible lack of information and education among women on this subject. It is clear the Senator's concern is to ensure we take a multifaceted approach to this issue and I accept it is one that we need to address. Our endeavours in this area will be helped by the results of the current study by the Food Safety Promotion Board - safefood - on folate status and compliance with folic acid supplement recommendations among pregnant women. The results of this study will help to inform our policy further and will assist us in adopting a more targeted approach. We need to focus our efforts on those who need more folic acid, rather than exposing the whole population to the risk of excessive folic acid.

Prevention is always better than cure. For this reason, I will ask the Food Safety Authority of Ireland to review this matter urgently when new studies are to hand and to make further recommendations. I thank the Senator again for raising a critically important health issue.

I thank the Minister for his reply and look forward to further information on this issue when a second study has been published. I was not aware until this morning that this week is the inaugural Nourish Ireland Week. It is strange the event does not deal with folic acid, although it addresses many other nutritional issues such as eating disorders, fussy eaters, food allergies and intolerance, managing type 2 diabetes, healthy eating, labelling and so forth. While the Irish Nutrition and Dietetic Institute is responsible for Nourish Ireland Week and the folic acid issue is the responsibility of the Food Safety Authority of Ireland, all bodies that deal with food education and awareness, including all schools, should promote folic acid intake. I look forward to the further study to which the Minister referred and the Government's response to it when published.

Senator Cáit Keane has done a significant service in raising awareness of this issue. I undertake to discuss the matter with my ministerial colleague, the Department of Education and Skills, Deputy Ruairí Quinn. No girl should leave secondary school without understanding the importance of folic acid if she becomes pregnant later in life and wishes to increase her chances of having a perfectly normal baby.

The Seanad adjourned at 3.40 p.m. until 2.30 p.m. on Tuesday, 17 June 2014.