Cuirim fáilte roimh an Aire Stáit, Deputy McEntee, go dtí an Teach.
On 1 February Sinn Féin received a response from the Minister for Health, Deputy Simon Harris, regarding Question No. 52 on the new Irish Blood Transfusion Service questionnaire, a form completed by those wishing to give blood. Question No. 52 asks whether the prospective donor has in the past five years taken medication to prevent HIV infection, that is PrEP or PEP. We queried the inclusion of that new question and the response from the Minister states the persons who have taken medication to prevent HIV, that is PrEP, are deferred for a five-year period. That struck us as remarkable given that this is preventive medication.
I am sure many people will have seen last night's "Prime Time" programme which is timely to this discussion. PrEP is the use of antiretroviral medication which prevents HIV infection in someone who has been exposed to HIV. It prevents the user from contracting HIV with a 99% effectiveness rate. Condoms used for vaginal sex have an effectiveness rate in the high 90% range and for anal sex an effectiveness rate in, I think, the high 70% range.
This is an extra tool in the prevention of HIV. Anyone who can get hold of PrEP is being responsible and is doing good work for the blood supply in this case. However, under the current IBTS policy, a man who has sex with another man is allowed to give blood after 12 months, but someone who has taken extra precaution and extra safety measures now has to wait five years.
The reply to the parliamentary question by the Minister stated a study in the United States showed a sharp rise in STIs in men on PrEP and associated the use of PrEP with a greater likelihood of being diagnosed with an STI. We researched this and the only study we could find was one by Scott and Klausner, which contains questionable referencing and is pretty thin evidence on which to hang an entire new policy. Ireland is the only country we can find that prevents people who are taking PrEP from giving blood.
Before Christmas I attended an LGBTQI community discussion in The Cobblestone in Smithfield. It was organised by ACT UP. It was everything one could hope for from a positive community engagement and discussion.
What struck me about the event was that members of the gay community spoke publicly and took ownership of a whole range of issues, from Grindr and drugs to sex and chemsex. Those in attendance wanted to feel more empowered in their sexuality. They came together and it gave them the confidence to speak out and take responsibility, thereby fuelling greater consciousness of sexual health. What message is the IBTS now sending to people who want to be more responsible? What we are asking for is a statement of inclusivity from the Minister of State and the Department.
I thank the Senator for raising this issue. I am responding on behalf of the Minister, Deputy Simon Harris. While I might not be able to give the Senator all the responses he needs, I will certainly relay his views to the Minister.
The remit of the Irish Blood Transfusion Service, IBTS, is to provide a safe, reliable and robust blood service for the health system. It keeps all its deferral policies under constant review to ensure the ongoing safety of the blood supply. It is in this context that, on 16 January 2017, the permanent exclusion of men who have sex with men from donating blood was changed to a 12-month deferral from their most recent sexual contact with another man. While this one-year deferral protects against the risk of transmission of HIV, issues could arise in regard to an emerging infection. In that regard, those who have had a sexually transmitted infection such as chlamydia or genital herpes are deferred for five years after completion of treatment. Those who have had syphilis, gonorrhoea or other specified sexually transmitted infections are already permanently excluded from donating blood.
The general approach of the IBTS to blood donation is that adults are eligible to donate provided they fulfil the donation criteria. One of the fundamental criteria is that they must not have been involved in an activity or visited an area where they could be exposed to viruses that have been identified as risk factors that could compromise the ongoing safety of the blood supply. The IBTS has a range of operational options available to it to implement management measures to protect both the recipients and the donors of blood and blood products. All these measures are aimed at minimising, or acting on, identified risks.
The inclusion of Question No. 52 in the donor health and lifestyle questionnaire, which coincided with the change in the donor deferral policy for men who have sex with men, is one example of an extra precaution taken by the IBTS to protect recipients of blood and blood products. The question asks potential blood donors whether in the past five years they have taken medication to prevent HIV infection. The medication involved is pre-exposure prophylaxis, PrEP, or post-exposure prophylaxis, PEP. Persons who have taken PrEP or PEP to prevent HIV infection are also deferred for a five-year period. Studies of gay and bisexual men have shown that PrEP reduces the likelihood of HIV infection by more than 90% if used consistently. A common concern is that PrEP will also lead people to stop using condoms, putting them at risk of other sexually transmitted infections.
A study published in the United States in 2016 showed a sharp rise in sexually transmitted infections in men on PrEP and associated the use of PrEP with a greater likelihood of being diagnosed with a sexually transmitted infection. If the Senator has not been able to find any information bar this study, I will request that the Minister revert to him on the matter. Perhaps he might seek further clarification on the which study it actually is.
More broadly, the IBTS has protocols in place to minimise transfusion-transmitted infection of blood. This risk is at its highest when individuals donate blood during the five-day to 16-day period following exposure to a virus when there is no biological measure to detect infectivity. As a consequence, the IBTS temporarily or permanently defers from giving blood an average of one in five people who are ineligible to donate for a variety of reasons on the day they attend.
I accept a common concern is that PrEP may lead people to stop using condoms, thereby putting them at risk of other sexually transmitted diseases or infections. In the light of the lifting of the lifetime ban preventing gay men from donating blood and the introduction of a 12-month deferral period, the policy is an admission that HIV can be caught in a 12-month period. The concern is that sexually transmitted diseases could be caught in that 12-month period also. What we are saying is that the five-year wait is extreme. It is a considerable amount of time and we have to challenge it. What is the logic of demanding that those who take extra safety measures be required to wait five years rather than one? If HIV can be caught in the 12-month period, I do not see the need for those who take PrEP to be deferred for five years.
The Minister of State probably cannot add much more.
To reiterate, there are two groups of sexually transmitted infections and individuals infected by some of them are permanently excluded from donating. Perhaps that is the reason. As I said and as the Senator said, the lifting of the lifetime ban and other changes introduced recently were to ensure a fairer system. We need, however, to ensure we take precautions to protect not only the recipient but also the donor. I ask the Senator to write to the Minister to clarify the cases in question. That might help.
I welcome the Minister, Deputy Denis Naughten, and wish him a speedy recovery from his recent incident. He went through severe trauma and I wish him the best of health.
I, too, welcome the Minister and wish him a speedy recovery.
This is a subject on which I have spoken on many occasions in recent years. It is timely that I raise it again today. The Minister stated at the energy security conference just this week that the question of importing liquefied natural gas to the island and the role of natural gas storage would be under consideration by his Department. I warmly welcome that statement. The Minister is to be commended for organising such an important energy conference at this time, especially in the light of the very real threat to our future energy security posed by Brexit. We are almost totally dependent on the United Kingdom for our gas supply. Over 90% of our supply in 2015 was from the United Kingdom. Even with Corrib gas coming on stream, it is estimated we will have a dependency rate of 85% by 2025. Bearing in mind that we have a reserve capacity of only 5%, Ireland is clearly disadvantaged. This must be very worrying, as the Minister recognised in his statement. The Oxford Institute for Energy Studies reached the same conclusion in its January report. I referred to that last Thursday, fortuitously anticipating the Minister. I drew attention to the report.
It is most fortunate, therefore, that we currently have in place the Shannon LNG project in north Kerry. This was first announced by Deputy Micheál Martin when he was Minister responsible for industry, almost ten years ago. It has advanced very significantly in the intervening years. Strategic planning approval was obtained in April 2008. Pipeline construction approval was granted in May 2009, and foreshore leases and licences were obtained in December 2010. At that stage, the project was "ready to bid", as goes the expression. I happened to be Mayor of Kerry and a director of Shannon Foynes Port Company when the project was initiated. It is quite remarkable that such a valuable project has taken so long to come to fruition.
To date, approximately €67 million has been spent on this project, including on engineering, site investigation, lease costs, pipeline rights of way and land acquisition. The project hit a wall in 2012 when the energy regulator created new tariffing arrangements that had serious implications for a commercial liquefied natural gas, LNG terminal. These new arrangements would compel any new entrant to the energy market to contribute millions of euro annually to the interconnector network whether or not it required access to the interconnector. Shannon LNG most certainly does not require such access.
Shannon LNG, in simple terms, is a self-standing buy and sell operation. It should never have been penalised in this way. I do not think the European Union ever envisaged such penalties obtaining in this case. As the Minister knows, there is a clear and present danger posed by Brexit to our energy security. It is stated Ireland is a special case within the European Union because of our close dependence on the United Kingdom for so many aspects of our economy, not least energy. As a result, if the European Union is serious about assisting us through Brexit, this is one litmus test of its commitment. Many aspects of the regulator's decisions must be reviewed urgently. These regulations are going to have to be reassessed.
The Government will have to be more hands-on regarding the Kerry project, taking equity in it if necessary. Shannon LNG which has been long anticipated in an area that is devastated by unemployment and emigration will finally become a reality. If the Shannon LNG project did not exist, the Government would have to invent it. Clearly, much of the heavy lifting has been done and the operation is by a private company with full back-up and full support from all of the State agencies, the harbour, the local authority and, most importantly, the community of north Kerry, which has embraced this and has such high hopes for it. I hope the Minister will be able to give a favourable response to my presentation and move this project forward.
That was a very well researched question to the Minister. I hope his answer will fulfil the Senator's dreams.
I thank the Cathaoirleach and the Senator for their good wishes.
Brexit is the most significant economic and social challenge for Ireland in the past 50 years. It will impact on our economy and society due to the close links between Ireland the United Kingdom. It has implications for everyone on this island, North and South. Many sectors of the Irish economy have high levels of trade with the United Kingdom. However, the energy sector has one of the highest levels of interdependence with the United Kingdom, and one of the key links is energy, as most of the energy we import comes via the United Kingdom. Natural gas is a significant part of our energy mix, meeting approximately one quarter of all our energy needs. We use natural gas to generate over 40% of our electricity, heat many of our homes and fuel a significant amount of our businesses and industry. In 2015, 97% of the natural gas used in Ireland was imported via the United Kingdom. We also have our own indigenous source of natural gas, the vast majority of which comes from the Corrib gas field, which started production at the end of 2015. In the short term, Corrib will supply over half of our natural gas needs. However, it is expected that these supplies will deplete in the next seven to eight years, and by 2025 Ireland will most likely again be reliant on the United Kingdom for around 85% of our natural gas needs.
The proper functioning of the economy and society is reliant on energy. As the report referred to by the Senator suggests, the issue of security of supply is extremely important, and preserving the existing structures with the United Kingdom is the best way to ensure this security. In this regard, the continued secure trade in energy between the United Kingdom and Ireland as part of the 27 member states of the European Union is a priority for me. I will work to ensure the current strong energy relationship with the United Kingdom continues but in the European context. Ireland is, and will remain, a committed member state of the European Union, and our energy future will be very much as part of the European internal energy market. I note that Ireland has an existing intergovernmental arrangement with the United Kingdom in regard to trade in natural gas across the two interconnectors connecting Ireland with Scotland. In addition to these bilateral arrangements, there are arrangements and protocols in place between the transmission system operators in Ireland and Great Britain.
Gas Networks Ireland is also in the process of doubling the onshore section of the gas pipeline in Scotland to further enhance the resilience of our gas supplies from the United Kingdom. The report referred to by the Senator goes on to state that, in the absence of the existing structures with the United Kingdom, an LNG regasification terminal might be needed. LNG is one option that will be considered to ensure our security of supply. I agree that the potential benefits of importing LNG directly onto the island of Ireland and also the role of natural gas storage must be examined in the context of Brexit. A Programme for a Partnership Government, agreed in May 2016, commits to examining if there are ways to facilitate LNG on the island of Ireland. This is in line with the Government’s energy policy paper, Ireland’s Transition to a Low Carbon Energy Future 2015 to 2030, which commits to conducting a thorough analysis of options for increased gas storage and LNG potential. My Department has recently commenced the process of developing a report to identify options in order to ensure Ireland’s resilience to a long-term gas and electricity disruption. Part of this report will identify potential options to improve resilience, including the potential for LNG, storage, interconnection and fuel diversification.
I share the Senator’s concerns and my Department and I are working to identify the appropriate solutions that are in the best interests of the people. We have a number of options available for LNG, both on-shore and off-shore options. We will explore all those options. I have spoken with my Latvian counterpart about the off-shore option that has been used and been hugely successful in Latvia in driving down the cost of energy. All these options are on the table. I know there is an issue at the moment with the development of the site in Foynes and the port company is dealing with that. Once those issues are resolved, we are quite willing to engage with the successful bidders to see how we can explore the progression of this project.
I thank the Minister for his reply, which I find encouraging. In fact, I am very pleased with it. The Minister has been engaging since he was appointed Minister. He met all of the players some time ago in a delegation headed up by the Mayor of Kerry. There are no politics at play in this. All my Oireachtas colleagues from Kerry, both in the Dáil and the Seanad, are at one on this issue. It just happens that on this occasion we have tried to spearhead the initiative through the Seanad. It might just be the right thing to do. We all know that Britain is going to play Brexit in a way that will get the best deal for the United Kingdom. The United Kingdom is the priority. We in Ireland are committed to Europe, as the Minister stated. It is important that this project gets over the line. It will be good for Ireland and our security needs and for my area and for jobs. It will also be good for the whole European project to show that we can work out the best possible scenarios after Brexit.
I thank the Senator. He is correct that the United Kingdom is going to look at this issue from its own perspective, for which we cannot blame it. We would do the same. However, the United Kingdom is the United Kingdom of Great Britain and Northern Ireland. We have a single electricity market on the island of Ireland, North and South. Some 40% of all power generated on that grid comes from gas. That interconnection is vitally important for Northern Ireland also. We have always had a strong relationship with Whitehall in the energy area because of that interconnectivity.
Every European country must have 90 days oil storage within its own jurisdiction or within another member state of the European Union. Some 90% of our 90-day oil storage is on the island of Ireland and we are the only sovereign holder of oil storage on this island. There is a huge interdependence and, from a strategic point of view, what happens in the Republic of Ireland is as important from an energy perspective to the British Government as it is to the Irish Government because of the interconnected relationship with Northern Ireland.
I agree with the Senator that our natural gas supply is critical for energy security. While overall policy is a low carbon energy future, natural gas is a key part of the transition and potentially an important part of the low carbon economy.
In that regard, all options, including LNG, would be given full consideration to ensure the best options at least cost for the consumer are identified. In regard to the proposed LNG terminal at Ballylongford in north Kerry, A Programme for a Partnership Government expressed support for the proposal to construct an LNG terminal as it would bring connectivity for the first time to the global LNG market. It is also important to point out from discussions with my European colleagues that we are looking at trying to connect up LNG facilities right across Europe. Many of my colleagues in Europe, particularly in central Europe, are quite critical of the lack of connectivity between LNG terminals on the coast of Europe connecting with the main grid networks throughout Europe. We need to be conscious of that also.
My Department has supported this project in becoming an EU project of common interest and, although not successful, it also supported the application for funding from the Connecting Europe Facility for the gas pipeline from the proposed terminal into the gas network itself. In terms of engaging with the promoters of the Ballylongford project, as the Senator is aware, I met the principal parties and my parliamentary colleagues to discuss the project. Officials in my Department have also engaged with the relevant parties to assist, as appropriate. However, while I will provide any support I can in regard to assistance sought from the European Union, this is a commercial project and, therefore, the question of Exchequer or other public funding for this project does not arise.
I acknowledge that the development of an LNG terminal is one possible option to secure our natural gas supply in the context of Brexit. However, the continued trade in energy between the United Kingdom and EU member states is a priority. As I pointed out at the civic dialogue on Brexit, which I hosted in Boyne in County Roscommon earlier this week, we must be careful not to over-commit on particular technologies. I will consider the outcome of the study by my Department on the resilience of the long-term gas or electricity disruption and the recommendation it presents before making any decision on our long-term energy security.
As someone who in a previous life was a spokesperson on transport, shadowing the late Seamus Brennan, I took a huge interest in Foynes Port and the huge potential of the Shannon Estuary. I have spoken to the outgoing US ambassador to see if we could get pre-clearance for goods and have a facility developed in Foynes that would allow direct access into the United States. It is something that I intend to explore again with the new ambassador. What the levels of trade will be in the future I do not know. I will leave that to Senator Billy Lawless to decipher-----
I wish the Minister well.
-----but I am very positively disposed to seeing development taking place on both the northern and southern sides of the Shannon Estuary.
I thank the Minister. I always realised Roscommon bowed to pressure from the Kingdom.
Last December I met a group of 40 Egyptian fishermen who are, or have been, working in Ireland. They travelled across the country to my home town of Drogheda to tell me their individual stories on foot of a report in The Guardian in November of 2015. The then Government, of which I was a member, moved to introduce an atypical permit scheme for non-EEA fishermen. It sought to do a couple of important things. It introduced a work permit and visa scheme which would bestow all rights of Irish employment law on non-EEA fishermen who applied for and received valid permits and contracts of employment. It also sought to ensure there was a steady flow of legal and legitimate labour to work in an industry which depends on a predictable flow of skilled labour from Egypt and the Philippines, in particular, but also other states.
In creating that new system what we sought to do was to help restore the reputation of an industry that had been tarnished and, importantly, to protect the dignity and rights of those working in Ireland in a very exposed, fragmented and difficult to reach sector. For the first six months of the scheme, applications were limited to those who were already here, but from what I have learned from the fishermen I have met, the International Transport Federation and from compliant trawler owners, with whom I have engaged, it is hard to conclude that the scheme has been a success. There is a gulf, for example, between the official figures for permits issued and the reality on the ground. I have encountered situations where some workers who have valid permits are effectively on the run because of disputes that they have had with skippers on the trawlers on which they were working. One worker from Egypt, who has been here for a number of years, has effectively been banished from the community in which he works because of a very legitimate dispute over the non-payment of wages. He has a valid permit, but he is receiving absolutely no protection from the State. I have, in some cases, sought emergency social welfare payments to assist some of these people to make ends meet only to be told that, in the first instance, they must report to the Irish National Immigration Service or the Garda National Immigration Bureau. I have heard testimony from some that they were being paid the national minimum wage rate for a 39-hour week, which would amount to around €360, while working on vessels for in excess of 100 hours per week in many cases. This is illegal and these claims need to be investigated. The rights of these workers need to be vindicated by the State.
Months into the operation of the scheme, as I said, I met 40 fishermen from across the country in Drogheda. I was alarmed that of those 40 workers with whom I spoke only four claimed to have valid permits to work. The Minister may have seen a report by Lorna Siggins in yesterday's The Irish Times that a Mr. Elsisi from the Egyptian embassy said he believed up to 2,000 Egyptians are working on Irish trawlers, North and South. The scheme limits the number of permits to be issued to 500, and nothing even close to that number has been issued. I have in my possession a letter of approval from the Department of Justice and Equality, issued in November of 2016, to allow a certain Egyptian fisherman to come to Ireland. The truth is that the said fisherman was already living and working here since 2014. The terms of the scheme were, in fact, broken by the Department of Justice and Equality, the Department which has been charged by the State to operate the scheme.
I have spoken to a number of decent, compliant trawler owners who wanted the scheme to succeed and who have pointed out the flaws in the scheme to Departments. They want to be able to hire the skilled workers they need to operate their businesses and they also want to see those who are thumbing their nose at the scheme to be held to account and to be taken to task by the agencies which are obliged to enforce the terms of the scheme.
There is some common ground-----
The Senator has gone a good bit over time.
-----between the International Transport Federation, the trade union representing the workers, and the industry. Both want to see the scheme reformed and want to see a new scheme in place to protect workers and works for the industry. That is something I believe that the agencies of the State need to consider seriously and urgently.
I thank the Senator for raising this important matter and to apologise on behalf of the Tánaiste Minister for Justice and Equality, Deputy Frances Fitzgerald, who cannot be here.
It is now almost 18 months since the issue of the employment of non-EEA crew members in the Irish fishing fleet was highlighted in the media as an issue of concern. The Guardian, in particular, highlighted issues, with claims of exploitation of migrant workers on Irish fishing trawlers. Following these revelations, the Government moved swiftly to address the concerns and abuses highlighted through an interdepartmental task force chaired by the then Minister for Agriculture, Food and the Marine, Deputy Simon Coveney, which was established in November 2015. The task force, of which the Senator in his then capacity as Minister of State with responsibility for business and employment was an active member, met on a number of occasions and a new scheme was developed that addressed the issues of concern, improved the situation for non-EEA workers, reduced the possibility of abuse and allowed the fishing industry to meet its labour needs.
As one of the authors of the report, the Senator is aware that the scheme only applies to crew members working on licensed and registered fishing vessels in the polyvalent, beamer and other specific segments of the Irish fleet where the vessels are more than 15 m in length overall, multi-crewed and labour intensive.
The role of the Tánaiste's Department comes at the end of a process that clears the way for a non-EEA national to be employed on a particular boat after the input of the various departmental and statutory bodies with oversight of the sector. The Department of Justice and Equality provides, through a special atypical working scheme for seafarers, work permission for non-EEA fishermen. This permission provides an appropriate pathway through which this category of worker can be lawfully employed within the industry. Following this, the relevant statutory bodies responsible for implementing employment law, including employment protection, can effectively discharge their responsibilities as part of the overall regulatory regime for the employment of non-EEA workers. The programme commenced on 15 February 2016 and, for the first three months, applications were confined to non-EEA crew members who were already working in the Irish fishing industry. However, owing to the slow uptake of the scheme, the Department extended the initial three-month period from 15 May to 30 June 2016.
The new scheme required the establishment of the central depository of contracts, managed by the Department of Agriculture, Food and the Marine, to record, examine and monitor the number of contracts in the scheme which was to be capped at a maximum of 500; a pre-clearance system managed by the central depository to be introduced for all applications; and the grant of atypical working permission. Like many others, the fishing industry is not immune to abuse by unscrupulous employers. Therefore, it is important that these overall arrangements which involve the co-operation of all stakeholders remain a deterrent to such abuses to protect employees. To that end, officials in the Department of Justice and Equality have worked with others within the industry to ensure compliance where issues arise that were not dealt with by the appropriate authorities. Officials from the Department of Justice and Equality have contacted their counterparts in the Departments of Agriculture, Food and the Marine and Jobs, Enterprise and Innovation with a view to meeting to assess the overall operation of the scheme to date.
I am glad that there are moves afoot to review the operation of the scheme, but it has been brought into disrepute to a certain degree by what I have heard directly from fishermen from Egypt, some of whom have been in Ireland for years and are still operating without permits. I was shocked to read testimony in The Irish Times yesterday in an article by Lorna Siggins who had attended a meeting organised by the International Transport Workers Federation in Liberty Hall. It is unprecedented for a representative of a foreign embassy in this country to draw the State's attention to a matter of this seriousness through the national media and make a claim that, of the approximately 2,000 of the representative's fellow countrymen operating in Ireland, many hundreds were without valid permits, even though a permit system was in place. The scheme could be better enforced. There were difficulties in getting it off the ground. The Minister alluded to this when he stated the initial three-month period had to be extended for a variety of reasons, even though it had been intended to limit the scheme to those living in Ireland. There is some common ground between employers and the trade union representing workers. The common view is that the scheme can and should be improved. We all agree that the industry cannot continue to contribute to our economic development in the absence of a scheme to allow non-EEA skilled labourers to work in the sector.
As we are in danger of running late for the Order of Business, I ask the Senator to conclude.
Those who come to Ireland in good faith need the State's protection to vindicate and enforce their rights, but I cannot conclude that this is happening to a successful degree. Efforts are being made, but more needs to be done.
I can give the Senator a copy of my prepared response, but this matter is close to my heart. As I am from an inland county, I am not just referring to fishermen but also to undocumented workers. The Senator is aware of my background in that regard. If he wants to drop details of his specific concerns into my private office, I will bring them directly to the attention of the Tánaiste and ask that the relevant issues be included in any review of the scheme.
Local Authority Boundaries Review
I am proposing the establishment of a boundary commission to review local government constituencies. After the 2011 census, the then Minister, Phil Hogan, established a boundary commission in 2013 to consider introducing local government municipal districts. The subsequent proposals must be reviewed. The figure of 1,653 representatives - 883 councillors and 773 town councillors - has been reduced to approximately 950. The main issue with municipal districts is that there is none in any of the three major cities of Cork, Galway and Dublin. That makes no sense.
There are other flaws, one of the greatest of which was that we used electoral districts as a means of sorting out constituency divisions. That made no sense either. For example, the town of Carrigaline which has a population of 20,000 people has been split in two because of an electoral district divide. Half of the town is in the Carrigaline-Ballincollig electoral district, a ten-seat constituency, while the other half is in the Bandon-Kinsale electoral district, a six-seater. That is illogical. The town was divided because the Department used the electoral districts which were formed in 1850, at the time of the Famine, as guidelines.
We must re-examine the system for devising all boundaries, be they for Dáil, European Parliament or local government elections. The world has moved on. In using electoral districts we are going nowhere. We must move forward. The Department needs to consider using an up-to-date system to divide constituencies. Illogically, we have created ten-seat constituencies. Adopting the criteria used in the previous review, most are six to ten-seat constituencies. Ludicrously, Ireland now has six ten-seat, 13 nine-seat and 23 eight-seat constituencies. One of the ten-seat constituencies in Cork covers more than 70,000 people in Carrigaline, Ballincollig and the southern half of Cork city. That is the size of a Dáil constituency. There is no representation on the ground because these areas are too vast. The old constituencies had three to seven seats. We need to return to them in order that there can be actual local government. The current system needs to change because it is not working.
We must consider other issues. Previously, there was one councillor per 4,800 people outside the two major cities of Cork and Dublin. We limited the number of councillors in Cork to 55 and to 63 in Dublin, which made no sense in the context of the principle of one person, one vote. On the other side, as the Acting Chairman knows better than me, is the county council constituency of west Cork which stretches for 110 miles. It starts at Courtmacsherry and ends beyond Glengarriff near Kenmare.
The entire system needs to be reviewed. We have seen what happens when we stick to electoral districts. They do not work. The census has been carried out and the elections will be held in 2019. The preparatory work must start now. If we go into it in the way we did previously just nine months before the local elections, we will not achieve the desired result.
We need to examine the geographical areas in order to ensure constituencies are not too big and do not consist of eight, nine or ten seats, yet still provide good representation.
The Senator's points have been very well made and represented the views of many.
I am replying on behalf of the Minister for Housing, Planning, Community and Local Government who cannot attend.
The reviews and revisions of local electoral areas have been carried out over the years in response to changing needs, including population changes. The most recent review was carried out in advance of the 2014 local elections. Before that, reviews were carried out in 2008, 1998 and 1985. Unlike the position for Dáil constituencies, there is no constitutional or legislative requirement to review local electoral area boundaries. Having said that, the Minister for Housing, Planning, Community and Local Government is empowered by section 23 of the Local Government Act 2001 to divide each county, city or city and county into local electoral areas and to amend those areas. Each of them must have a council. This can be done following a review by a boundary committee established under the Local Government Act 1991. The terms of reference for a local electoral area boundary committee are set by the Minister of the day.
The terms of reference for the last review included a requirement to have regard to the new arrangements for local government set out in the Government's action programme for effective local government. The review had the specific goal of achieving a better balance and consistency in representational ratios than were in place before that time. The committee was asked to design local electoral areas on the basis of there being one member for every 4,830 population in each council area. This was subject to a minimum of 18 and a maximum of 40 members in every authority with exceptions for Cork County Council with 55 members and Dublin City Council with 63 members. Local electoral areas were to be represented by between no fewer than six and no more than ten members.
The Local Electoral Area Boundary Committee was established in November 2012 and reported to the Minister at the end of May 2013. The Minister accepted the recommendations of the committee in full. The new local electoral areas were specified in 30 statutory instruments made in January 2014. At the 2014 local elections, 949 councillors were elected in 137 local electoral areas to 31 local authorities. These local electoral areas provided the basis for the configuration of the new municipal districts that came into operation following the 2014 local elections. These structures are the framework for the new model of municipal governance that was introduced in the Local Government Reform Act 2014. This new model was designed primarily to strengthen local government within counties and address the widely acknowledged and long-standing weaknesses and anomalies in the previous system.
In 2015, the first full year of the revised local government structures, a broadly based advisory group was convened to carry out a review of their operation. This was done in conjunction with the local government forum for the engagement with the Association of Irish Local Government. Feedback from these deliberations, as well as the results of surveys of local authority members and chief executives, indicate that the revised structures are generally operating well but need more time to bed down fully.
I thank the Minister of State. Is Senator Tim Lombard happy with the reply?
I welcome the Minister's response. I recognise that my Commencement matter does not come within his brief and belongs to another Minister.
Councillors face an election in 2019, which is just two years away. Two of the key issues for them are certainty and what will happen in the future. I hope we will debate this issue in the House. It is important to invite the Minister to the House for a debate because we need to know whether there will be a boundary review and, if not, how he will work with the satellite towns that are divided in two. I have mentioned Carrigaline because it does not make sense to have 8,500 on one side and 12,000 on another side. Major anomalies exist locally and in other counties.
The structure for municipal districts has worked. Local authorities need to have an idea where structures will be placed. The knock-on effect of imposing different constituencies eight or 12 months before a local election is due to take place will mean different structures. In other words, districts will change as will the management, population and everything else. Clarity is required. If we have clarity, the management and public representatives can make plans. It is the people who need representation but large ten-seaters do not represent people properly. In terms of geographical areas that are 100 miles long, as most of us know, whether one is from Cork or Kerry, they make no sense whatsoever.
The Senator is right about the municipal districts and I have seen it happen in my constituency of Roscommon. The Athlone Municipal District of Monksland runs from Shannonbridge in County Offaly to halfway down the country. There is no connection between the areas. The communities do not even know how to get from one end of the district to the other. The districts are all six-seaters in Roscommon owing to the population. Sometimes these districts do not work that well when the population is dispersed.
The Senator is right that we must examine anomalies and challenges, particularly on a geographical basis. The idea behind local government is to have local councillors and that connection has been broken in many parts of the country.
The Senator raised the interesting issue of a review of district electoral divisions that dates back to 1851. If a review were to take place, it would not be done for the next local elections. A review of the district electoral divisions would be complex, slow and expensive. The Senator made a valid point for a review by pointing out that many towns are divided by district divisions. My constituency is divided by a district division. The town of Dunmore is in two Dáil constituencies. Part of the town is in the constituency of east Galway and the remaining part is in the constituency of Roscommon-Galway. Most towns and rivers have a drain or a river running through them, which causes problems in terms of district divisions. The same applies to disadvantaged areas. Electoral division is a very complex area and is a matter about which one must think long and carefully.
I thank the Minister.