Commencement Matters

State Airports

The Minister is welcome.

The Minister is always very welcome to Seanad Éireann, a House in which he had a distinctive career of service for many years.

He is a former father of the House.

He is a former father of the House and is doing a very good job in Cabinet.

I am tabling this matter following a notice of motion that was unanimously passed by Clare County Council. It requested that Clare County Council have a representative on the board of Shannon Airport and the Shannon Group. This is a reasonable request given there is an indelible link, which I am sure the Minister appreciates, between Shannon Airport and the people of County Clare. For many decades, people from County Clare emigrated to the United States and other countries due to economic circumstances and the last port of call for them to see their loved ones was Shannon Airport. Many of those people returned on holidays to Ireland and passed through Shannon Airport. The people of County Clare have a significant emotional attachment to the airport. Separate from its extremely important role as the economic driver of the region, it also plays a role in terms of connectivity with other parts of the world. It also plays an important role in terms of generating income and jobs and facilitating the many businesses that are located not just in Shannon but in Limerick and the mid-west. It plays a crucial role in terms of tourism but not just for people from the mid-west travelling abroad. Much more importantly, many hundreds of thousands of visitors come to the west of Ireland and they do not all come from Dublin. The Minister is cognisant of the importance of regional diversity. Many of these people come through Shannon Airport. There is a very strong traditional link between America and Shannon. The councillors on Clare County Council, who represent 106,000 citizens of County Clare at local level, believe their voices and opinions and ability to promote and counsel are not being taken on board by the Shannon Group simply because they do not have a position at the table.

I have huge regard for this Minister and what he is doing in terms of State appointments, of ensuring there is accountability and credibility and of ensuring people with integrity and ability serve on State boards. He will appreciate, more than anyone, the importance of including a representative from the local authorities. We must bear in mind that it is not just a question of the 26 elected members of the local authority but also the executive, the senior management team and the nearly 1,000 people who work there, as well as the expertise, the local knowledge, the driving of enterprise and the marketing of the region that the local authority does internationally. When representatives of Clare County Council travel abroad, for example, to the Milwaukee Irish Fest and other events, it is always Shannon Airport they are promoting. It is as if the airport and the local authority are joined at the hip. As such, I am of the view that it would be an appropriate step to create a position on the board of directors for a representative from the local authority in Clare.

I thank Senator Conway for raising what is a very important and topical matter and for putting such a strong case for what he believes in. I know he is a very consistent advocate for the people of Clare and for Shannon Airport, and in particular for the links between Shannon Airport and the people. The case he has made here today is one which they will appreciate and one which could be considered when we are setting out criteria for airports, namely, that boards should at least coincide with regional policy, as the Government spells it out.

As the Senator may be aware, the Department of Public Expenditure and Reform issued new guidelines in November 2014 on appointments to State boards with a view to introducing a more structured approach to such appointments. In accordance with those guidelines, all appointments to vacancies on State boards must satisfy the following criteria: they must be advertised openly on the State boards website operated by the Public Appointments Service, PAS; they must meet specific and detailed criteria determined by the relevant Minister necessary for the effective performance of the relevant role; and they must be processed by way of a transparent assessment system, designed and implemented by the independent Public Appointments Service to support the relevant Minister in making appointments to State boards under his remit.

It is no longer open to Ministers to populate boards on a purely ad hoc basis. It is my objective in my Department to remove, as far as possible, political influence or political patronage in the appointments to State boards because I believe political patronage has been one of the great curses of Irish political life. In accordance with this new model of appointments, it is open to anyone to register an interest in an appointment to a State board. They simply have to go online on the PAS website and they will receive an alert when vacancies on a particular board are advertised.

Since coming to office as Minister for Transport, Tourism and Sport, I have, however, come to the conclusion that these guidelines do not go far enough. There are too many gaps and there are still huge opportunities under those guidelines for ministerial choice and political patronage. It would be far better for the boards, the individuals and the State if they were reduced or removed. For this reason, I reviewed the guidelines with a view to putting in place an additional internal process that would allow me to make appointments with greater confidence in the ability of the selected person to contribute effectively to a State board. I subsequently approved new internal principles to be implemented by my Department for all appointments. In essence, these new procedures provide a more thorough and professional and less political process. The Government-agreed guidelines for appointments to State boards will continue to be applied but, in my Department, an additional internal selection process will be undertaken following the receipt of a list of candidates from PAS. I have notified PAS and written to the chairs of all the boards under the aegis of my Department setting out details of this additional process.

My preference is for a more broadly-based PAS assessment panel that would include one or more representative from outside the public sector and also for a minimal number of candidates who met the specified criteria to be submitted to me for consideration. Interviews, which were inexplicably missing from the 2014 process, are an essential part of the new process in my Department. As far as possible, I wish to remove my own discretion from the appointments process.

In regard to Shannon Group specifically, I acknowledge the importance of the local authorities in the region - that is, Clare County Council, Limerick County Council, Tipperary County Council, Galway County Council and Galway City Council - working with the company to ensure its success and that of the region. The success of Shannon Group will be enhanced by the support and commitment of all stakeholders in the region working together for their mutual benefit. It is open to representatives of Clare County Council or, indeed, any of the local authorities in the region, to register their interest with PAS. There is currently one vacancy on the board of Shannon Group and I hope this will be advertised on the PAS website shortly.

I thank the Minister. Given that it has not been an easy week, I am sure he is extremely busy so I want to thank him for coming to the House to address this matter. I will advise all members of Clare County Council that they should nominate somebody through that process. I sincerely hope the gap in local representation on the board can be addressed through the public appointments system. Of course, what I would like to see is a more formalised structure whereby a nominee is accommodated on the board, but we will take it one step at a time. I thank the Minister for his contribution and for coming to the House personally to deal with this.

I would like to reciprocate the goodwill expressed by Senator Conway. When I am filling this new board place and considering the criteria to be set out for the applications, which we want to make as narrow as possible so that few candidates emerge due to my discretion, I will certainly bear in mind what the Senator has to say.

I thank the Minister. Hopefully, he will be coming in to us for a long time to come. I thank Senator Conway.

Social and Affordable Housing

Go raibh míle maith agat a Leas-Chathaoirligh. Cuirim céad fáilte roimh an Aire Stáit. Táim an-bhuíoch dó as teacht isteach. Táim an-bhuíoch don Chathaoirleach, a roghnaigh an cheist seo. Is ceist iontach práinneach í atá ag teacht chun cinn.

I have been given documentation which suggests a senior management official with Galway City Council was allocated a house by another council official under the affordable housing scheme and that he was not eligible for this. It is claimed the income limit for the scheme was €36,500 and that the income for the position he was known to be in would have been at least double that, which should have deemed him ineligible for the scheme. It is asserted that the official in question has since retired and received a pension lump sum. It is claimed that he already had a primary residence prior to purchasing this house and that this new house is now being rented out.

I am told a number of other senior officials also acquired houses, which are essentially assets of the taxpayer, and they would appear to have profited financially in that the houses have risen dramatically in value, with a significant dividend accruing to them at a cost to the taxpayer. The documentation also indicates that other officials were awarded houses in excess of their need; for example, some were given three-bedroom houses when their need was only justified as a one-bedroom or two-bedroom house. It is alleged that officials were allocating the better houses to their colleagues and that they were getting priority over other people on the waiting lists. If these allegations are true, it is a very serious situation. Questions need to be asked as to how the Minister of State, Deputy English, and the Department will ensure that such irregularities cannot happen. If the Minister of State has any knowledge of the case I have mentioned, I would be interested to know. If so, what does he intend to do about it? I would also like him to clarify whether his Department is aware of similar cases happening in other local authorities.

If this is happening, it is grossly unfair to the thousands of people with a legitimate housing need who are being pushed down the waiting lists due to these irregular allocations. I have sought this debate because we need to investigate these serious allegations.

I note, from media reports dating back to May 2014, that an investigation was begun by the former city manager, Joe O'Neill, and was being continued by the current manager, Brendan McGrath. It did not, however, become public until media sources submitted lists of questions to city hall in the previous week regarding the fact that an internal investigation was taking place and that the alleged improper allocation of dwellings involved a number of staff members understood to be in the Galway City Council housing department.

That internal investigation was ongoing at the time and we were told that there was going to be a report issuing soon after. My understanding is that report has not been made available. I do not know whether the public representatives on Galway City Council have seen it. I understand they have not. Has either the Minister of State or the Department been made aware that this investigation was happening? If so, has the report been received. If it has, could the Minister of State furnish us with a copy of that report in order that we might see what were the findings? In a time of huge crisis in housing, when people are under massive pressure on very long housing lists, to even think that officials within a housing department were allocating and cherry-picking houses that were available to the local authority beggars belief. It would also be extremely serious. I look forward to the Minister of State's response.

I thank the Senator for raising this important issue. I will highlight the statutory basis for the provision of social housing support. Under the Housing (Miscellaneous Provisions) Act 2009 and the associated regulations made thereunder, the assessment of households for social housing support - and the allocation of that support - is a matter for individual housing authorities in accordance with the prescribed criteria. Households that qualify for social housing support on assessment are entered onto the housing authority's waiting list and are considered for the allocation of suitable tenancies in accordance with the authority's allocation scheme made by the elected members under section 22 of the 2009 Act.

As indicated, the assessment of individual housing applications and the allocation of accommodation to qualified households are matters solely for housing authorities. In the context of housing matters generally, the Minister has limited powers to give directions and guidelines to housing authorities under sections 4 and 5 of the Housing (Miscellaneous Provisions) Act 2009. However, section 6 of that Act specifically provides that these powers do not permit the Minister to exercise any power or control in the context of any particular case with which a housing authority is or may be concerned. I must also highlight the independence of local authorities in performing their functions, as provided for under section 63 of the Local Government Act 2001. The Minister has no role in the normal day-to-day operations of individual local authorities. The Minister's role in respect of local government is primarily to provide the policy, financial and legislative framework within which local authorities perform their functions.

In that context, it is important to note that the Local Government Act 2001, Part 15, includes important provisions in relation to the ethical framework applicable to the local government sector, including providing a statutory basis for a code of conduct that has been issued for all local authority employees. In the ordinary course of events, it would be a matter for the relevant local authority, in the first instance, to investigate any allegations of malpractice regarding the operation of its housing allocation system. Subject to the outcome of any such investigation, it would then be for the local authority to consider what further action, either internally or by way of referring the matter to other relevant appropriate authorities, may be required. Matters concerning the allocation of social housing in one local authority have been referred to in correspondence received by my Department and this is the subject of ongoing engagement with the local authority concerned.

If the Senator is aware of any cases which he considers require investigation, he should forward details to the appropriate authorities, be that the chief executive of the relevant local authority or, in the event that criminal conduct is alleged, An Garda Síochána, or through such other channels as may be appropriate.

I thank the Minister of State for the response but it sounds like a classic kick to touch. It does not answer the question I asked about this specific case in Galway City Council, whether the Minister of State is aware of it and has received the report. That report was to have been done in 2014. Surely by now the Minister of State should have got a copy of that report if it has been done. If so will he correspond with me to let me know whether it has been received. I will contact Galway City Council on the issue and if I feel it necessary I will contact An Garda Síochána and any other channels.

The Minister of State does not indicate whether there are similar issues in any other local authorities. If it is widespread, that would be a matter of great public concern. To say that the Minister has no responsibility is not good enough. We need the Minister to take control of the situation in order to ensure that we have a fair, transparent and open allocation system that cannot be abused by officials, particularly those within the housing department who deal with people that are under huge pressure to find homes. Will the Minister of State indicate whether he has received that report from Galway City Council. If he has received it, will he supply a copy to me? Will he also indicate whether any other local authorities are undergoing investigations of this type?

I have tried to answer the question as best I can, and I think I have answered it. The Senator asked were there other examples. I said very clearly one local authority has been referred to in correspondence with us. That is being dealt with. I cannot be any clearer than that. One has been referred to us and we are investigating it.

The Senator raised a few different issues. They are all very serious and should be dealt with. Any information the Senator possesses should be handed over through the appropriate channels. It is up to the Senator to judge which are appropriate. I have outlined the various options. If the Senator has such information, that is very serious. He is absolutely right to say this is taxpayers' money and we have to ensure that housing policy and allocation of houses is managed correctly throughout the system. It is a combination of local and national government. The Senator should pass along any information in his possession.

Animal Disease Controls

As the Minister of State for Agriculture, Food and the Marine, Deputy Doyle, is aware, there is a serious outbreak of the H5N8 avian flu. Only yesterday, the ninth case was confirmed. I compliment the Minister of State , the Minister, Deputy Creed, and the Department officials for the swift and appropriate action they took to minimise the effect of this bird flu within the Irish poultry business by introducing a compulsory housing order whereby all commercial poultry are kept indoors. I also compliment the poultry farmers who, by complying with that compulsory order, have to date kept this disease out of the commercial flock.

There are, however, many members of the industry who trade solely in the free range category, particularly free range eggs. Under EU and Irish legislation, if free range hens are continually housed for a period exceeding 12 weeks they lose their free range status. Can any action be taken to help the people involved to overcome this problem? They are in this position because they are doing what they were asked to do in good faith. I commend the Department and the farmers for their action but they will be victims of their own vigilance. The Commissioner for Agriculture and Rural Development was asked about this matter but he is not for lifting the derogation. Can we think outside the box? Is there a plan B to help these people get over the potential loss of their free range status which would put many of them out of business? They will lose their contractual markets. If they want to sell their eggs into the standard market, they will have to rebrand and remarket. This will have potentially serious consequences for these people. Rather than try to compensate and rebuild the industry after it has been lost, can we come up with some solution before that happens?

I thank Senator Daly for raising this important and topical matter. Following my opening comments I will be happy to further develop the points with the Senator in a subsequent conversation.

Avian influenza refers to the disease caused by infection with avian influenza or bird flu type A viruses. These viruses occur naturally among wild aquatic birds worldwide and can infect domestic poultry and other bird and animal species. The current events are caused by a H5N8 highly pathogenic avian influenza virus, which is present in Africa, Asia, Europe and the Middle East.

The epizootic started at the end of October. The virus has been confirmed in 37 countries in poultry, captive birds or wild birds. Over 300 outbreaks have occurred in poultry or captive birds and a further 300 cases in wild birds in Europe since the beginning of January. Some member states have been particularly badly affected, especially Hungary and France. Over 70 wild bird species have been affected, mainly water birds, such as ducks, geese and swans, as well as birds of prey. As the Senator has said, in Ireland there have been only nine confirmed cases in wild birds since 30 December. These have occurred mainly in migratory swans and ducks. However, this week, on 10 February, we confirmed cases in a mute swan and a grey heron. These are resident species. Thankfully, to date, there have been no cases confirmed in commercial poultry flocks.

As a result of an increased risk of highly pathogenic avian influenza affecting commercial poultry flocks in Ireland, my Department introduced regulations on 23 December 2016 under the Animal Health and Welfare Act 2013 requiring flock keepers to confine all poultry and captive birds in their possession or under their control in a secure building to which wild birds or other animals do not have access and to apply particular bio-security measures. The Avian Influenza (Precautionary Confinement of Birds) Regulations 2016 provide for these precautionary measures against bird flu. These regulations have particular effects on free range poultry flocks.

EU regulations lay down detailed rules regarding marketing standards for eggs and poultry meat. These regulations set down minimum requirements that must be met to use the term "free range", including rules around access to the range. The regulations also provide for situations in which veterinary restrictions are imposed to protect public and animal health, as is the case in Ireland, and whereby eggs and poultry meat may continue to be marketed as "free range" for the duration of the restriction but not for more than 12 weeks.

In Ireland's case, the 12-week period expires on 17 March 2017. Several member states currently have housing restrictions in place. The issue of what to do after the 12-week period expires was raised at an EU Agriculture and Fisheries Council in January.

Since the meeting in January, the Commission confirmed its intention not to table a proposal to extend the 12-week period during which the eggs or meat from birds subject to a confinement order can continue to be marketed as "free range". The Commission stated concerns about the integrity and credibility of marketing standards that were introduced for the protection of consumers. The Commission acknowledged that the 12-week period is a balance between the interests of the producer and the consumer and that it was regarded as a reasonable period to cover an avian flu epidemic. It is acknowledged that this outbreak or epidemic is prolonged in nature and the possibility that prolonged epidemics of this duration may become a more regular event. In these circumstances, the Commission has agreed to undertake a review of the marketing standards with a view to a possible modification of the current rule in light of the prolonged epidemic such as the epidemic we are experiencing.

Free range egg production represents approximately 40% of total egg production in Ireland. Free range meat production represents approximately 5% of total poultry meat production. The importance of these free range enterprises, which are based in rural Ireland and provide jobs to the local economy, is foremost in our considerations.

Staff in the Permanent Representation of Ireland to the EU in Brussels have engaged directly with agriculture officials in the European Commission on this matter and are liaising closely with officials in the Department. They have been considering practical solutions in the event that the Avian Influenza (Precautionary Confinement of Birds) Regulations 2016 remain in force on 17 March and beyond.

I am mindful of the Senator's concerns and I share them. Producers and consumers have concerns too and I believe it is necessary to work to strike a balance between these competing needs.

Yesterday, I was briefed further on this matter. Key stakeholders representing free range eggs and poultry meat producers, packers, processors and retailers attended a meeting at the invitation of officials in my Department to consider practical solutions to the labelling of product from free range poultry after 17 March should the restriction remain. Industry representatives are considering the proposals and further engagement is planned.

The decision to maintain the Avian Influenza (Precautionary Confinement of Birds) Regulations 2016 is subject to regular review by officials in my Department. It has been decided that the requirement to keep poultry and captive birds confined in Ireland will remain in place due to the continued findings of the virus in wild birds in Ireland. Moreover, it is considered necessary to protect the high health status of the larger national commercial poultry flock.

The most important actions that flock owners can take to protect their birds include, unfortunately, keeping them indoors and applying strict bio-security measures. Many outbreaks throughout Europe have been identified in housed poultry. Housing alone does not eliminate the risk but it certainly reduces it. The Department has produced material on the website for the various sectors to assist bird keepers.

I thank the Minister of State. I appreciate that this situation is unprecedented. As the Minister of State rightly pointed out, those of us who have an interest in the sector are all living in hope by virtue of the fact that until the last two confirmations, the birds affected were migratory birds. It might have been a question of living in hope somewhat and the expectation that they would migrate earlier than mid-March and in that way alleviate the problem. However, as the Minister of State has rightly pointed out, the most recent cases have involved native Irish birds. This leaves open the probability that we will not lift the compulsory housing order by 17 March.

The Minister of State will appreciate from what I have said already that poultry farmers with free range status are between the proverbial rock and hard place. Do they abide by the compulsory housing order and lose free range status? Will there be a temptation on 16 or 17 March to undertake some supervised net covered release of the hens to enable them to tick one box? Ultimately, I believe there will be a reversal of that and that they should not have to release them. If the Minister of State was in that situation and his livelihood was at stake, he would have a sleepless night on 16 March. God knows what decisions will be made off the cuff.

We have a little more than a month to the date. I have raised the matter today rather than coming to the House on 18, 19 or 20 March when the horse has bolted. I am delighted to hear about the negotiations with the stakeholders and that the European Union authorities will review the matter. When will that review take place? I doubt it will have come to fruition by 17 March.

I hope the Minister of State keeps his finger on the pulse on this matter. He referred to 40% of the eggs being free range. That is a lot. For the people concerned, it is everything; it is their livelihood.

I was surprised to learn the figure was as high as 40%. I knew it was significant but I had not realised that it was that high. The feedback from yesterday's meeting is that all sides were engaged. The relevant parties include the food and drink industry, IBEC, the IFA and all the various stakeholders referred to earlier. Those involved are trying to think outside the box. One option is an over-lay label that explains the context. In reality, if poultry has to stay inside, the produce will be deemed to be barn produced meat or eggs. An over-lay for free range stock temporarily confined could explain the position to the consumer. That option is being looked at.

There have been a number of suggestions and these have been left for consideration and comment from all sectors, so it is an ongoing consultation. The officials in my Department tell me they expect to have fairly active engagement. As Senator Daly says, we have about four or five weeks before this becomes a live issue. There was significant hope that the migratory season would end and that would take it away. The concern is that the latest two outbreaks have been in resident species which, wild though they are, will not be going anywhere. It is important that we contain it.

The problem with letting them out before we know we are safe is that if there is an outbreak in the flock, one is wiped out for a period of production time. That is nearly a bigger consequence than loss of free range status. If this were to go on, it would be important that the industry and retailers would work together in order that consumers would know exactly what they were buying and that they were produced from free range animals. We are not going to have competitors from outside the country coming in and taking the market, because they have had to confront this problem before us. That is the reason they have already been to the Commission, because their 12 weeks is due to expire or maybe has expired in some cases. As I said, it is affecting other countries in Europe worse than it is affecting us.

I thank the Minister of State for being on the case.

I cannot allow the Senator to continue.

On the overlay, there would be a condition that we could revert to the original label.

I cannot allow the Senator to continue, but he can converse with the Minister of State in private.

Sitting suspended at 11.12 a.m. and resumed at 11.30 a.m.