Commencement Matters

Road Projects

I am glad to raise the issue of the A5 road project, which is an extension of the N2 project linking Derry and Letterkenny with Dublin. It has been in the pipeline for well over a decade and I am raising it this morning because a Fine Gael Deputy for Donegal recently said the Government was steadfast in its commitment to the project, but omitted to say that when the Taoiseach, Deputy Varadkar, was Minister for Transport he reduced the capital funding allocation from €450 million to €50 million. I do not think that can be described as "steadfast commitment" to the project on the part of the Fine Gael Government. I am pleased that the current Minister, Deputy Ross, has made this project a priority but he is constrained by the decision taken by the Taoiseach when he was Minister. This project is vital to the north west region, particularly in light of Brexit and the constraints Brexit will bring to bear in Donegal. While we do not know the full implications of Brexit yet, it will certainly not be economically beneficial for the north-west region.

There is a tentative commitment to provide money and a huge amount in capital spend will be required but it is absolutely essential to the entire north-west region. I do not know if there is any scope to seek additional moneys from the European Union as a result of Ireland standing firm with Europe in recent negotiations. One might argue that the European Union was using Dublin to get at Britain, to some extent. Irrespective of that, there is a case to be made at European level, in the context of the peace process and concerns over Brexit, for additional moneys to be ring-fenced for capital infrastructure investment in Border regions, particularly in Donegal and particularly for this project.

I travelled from Donegal last night, a dark dreary night, and the north part of the road, which is a stretch of some 42 miles, is dangerous and difficult to travel along. There is a need to provide the A5 project and I hope moneys can be found to meet the capital requirements of the project.

I acknowledge the fact that the Senator has been an advocate for this project for a long time. His voice is welcome and keeps us to our commitment to the A5, which remains steadfast. It is even more important in light of the implications of Brexit. We are not yet fully familiar with them but any uncertainty will cause unease in the Senator's native Donegal and the north west. We hope to alleviate it.

The commitment of the Government to this project has not been reduced in any way. A Fresh Start, the Stormont House agreement and implementation plan which was concluded in November 2015, committed the Government to providing funding of £75 million for the A5 road upgrade to ensure the first phase of the project, from Newbuildings to north of Strabane, could commence as soon as the necessary planning issues were resolved by the Northern Ireland authorities. Under the agreement it was envisaged that construction of phase 1 of the A5 would start in 2017, with a view to completion in 2019.

In keeping with this timeline, Government funding was to be provided in three tranches of £25 million in 2017, 2018 and 2019, respectively. However, the planning process in the North relating to the revised A5 scheme took longer than anticipated. The Northern Department for Infrastructure only announced the decision to proceed with the scheme in late November. It also indicated that the project would be ready to start in 2018.

Financial provision for meeting the Government's commitment to the A5 project was made in the extra capital plan review funding and will be included in my Department's budget from 2019 to 2021, inclusive. Any commitment on funding for further phases of the A5 improvement scheme will be a matter for consideration at Government level. My Department's role at this point is to liaise with Northern Ireland officials on the implementation of the existing Government commitment as set out in A Fresh Start.

I hope that this answers the question about our commitment. The planning and implementation of the upgrade project is the responsibility of the Northern Ireland authorities. The current funding arrangements for the A5 are governed by the Stormont House Agreement, which reaffirmed the Government's commitment to provide funding of £50 million for the A5 project and committed an additional £25 million to ensure that the first phase of the project from Newbuildings to north of Strabane could commence.

As part of the capital plan review process, funding is now being provided in my Department's budget to meet the Government's commitment under A Fresh Start and my officials will be liaising with their Northern Ireland counterparts on project implementation arrangements.

That sounds positive.

It does. The Minister is committed to this project, and I thank him and his officials for their level of engagement with their counterparts in the North. This is a key project for the north west. The Minister will do his utmost to keep it on the agenda and secure the additional commitment, but I am unsure as to whether an opportunity for additional funding at European level could be explored down the road. I commend the Minister on his efforts and thank him for attending.

It is not as easy as it sounds to raise European funds for projects of this sort, as we are close to our ceiling, but we will certainly keep this project in mind if European funds become available. I acknowledge the role that Senator Ó Domhnaill is playing in keeping the Government aware of this project and high on our agenda. He will not find us wanting.

Electric Vehicles

I welcome the Minister, Deputy Naughten.

I welcome the Minister to the House to discuss this matter, which is one that people are starting to raise. Constituents have been approaching me about it in the past month or two. I work on the basis of, if constituents approach me about an issue, then it is an issue that requires addressing. The Minister is committed to this matter. I understand that there are approximately 1,200 charge points North and South, with 300 in the former. Eighty-five of the 1,200 are fast-charging points, with 70 in the Republic and 15 in the North.

I am raising the matter of fast-charging points on foot of a situation about which a constituent approached me. He has an electric car and drives to Dublin frequently. A fully charged electric car will do somewhere between 180 km and 200 km. He has to stop at junction 14, which he says supplies a great 20-minute service.

Other people have approached me, including someone with a forecourt garage. That person applied to get a fast-charging point through the garage's supplier but, for some reason, the supplier was turned down.

While I welcome the low-emissions vehicle task force that the Minister has established, what are his plans to expedite the roll-out of fast-charging points the length and breadth of Ireland? There is no reason for one of them not to be in a village or town. It should not be the case that such points would only be deployed at specific locations. The 70 in the Republic and 15 in the North are too few. In the UK, the Automated and Electric Vehicles Bill 2017-19 has just been published. It will make it compulsory for charge points to be installed in all UK filling stations.

All of this shows how much the issue of electric cars has advanced. The Minister might explain his plans for expediting the roll-out of a comprehensive national network of fast-charging points for electric cars.

I thank the Senator for having his finger on the pulse. No more than his office, my constituency office is now receiving queries on electric vehicles, charging points and the national network. This is a positive development. At long last, people are beginning to see the significant benefit of electric vehicles, EVs, particularly people with two cars and relatively short commutes. The average commute is less than 50 km per day. Undoubtedly, the bulk of commutes can be travelled via electric vehicles. Sadly, my part of the country still does not have the level of employment to ensure that people do not have to commute substantial distances, but the Government is determined through supporting regional and rural development to ensure that there are jobs in our regions in order that people do not have to commute to the cities.

I was interested in the Senator's point about the UK legislation.

The Minister is aware of it.

It will feed into a task force that has been established between the Department of Transport, Tourism and Sport and my Department, namely, the low-emissions vehicle task force, which I will discuss in a moment.

In May, the Government approved the publication of the National Policy Framework on Alternative Fuels Infrastructure for Transport in Ireland 2017 to 2030. This framework sets an ambitious target that, by 2030, all new cars and vans sold in Ireland will have zero emissions or be zero-emission capable. In November, my colleague, the Minister for Transport, Tourism and Sport, Deputy Ross, and I furthered this ambition by pledging to work together to ensure that all passenger cars sold in Ireland from 2030 onwards would be zero-emission vehicles, full stop.

The national policy framework recognises the benefits that electric vehicles can provide in assisting Ireland to achieve energy efficiency, renewable energy and climate mitigation targets. One of the main commitments in the framework is to ensure that levels of access to refuelling or recharging infrastructure will not act as a barrier to the uptake of alternatively fuelled vehicles. By setting minimum levels of provision for refuelling infrastructure, the framework works to provide a supportive and enabling environment for suppliers and consumers.

The provision of electric vehicle infrastructure, particularly the availability of public charging points, is a key focus of the work of the low-emissions vehicle task force. The task force is co-chaired by the Department of Transport, Tourism and Sport and my Department and is examining options for infrastructure, regulation and pricing in order to devise a sustainable policy framework for effective and efficient electric vehicle recharging.

Currently, there are almost 70 fast chargers in Ireland out of a total of around 900 chargers. I intend to increase that number significantly. In budget 2018, I secured a doubling of my Department's budget for electric vehicle supports from €5 million to €10 million. A key focus for this is on increased spending in the development of the charging network, with a particular emphasis on fast chargers.

The low emissions vehicle task force is working to develop the best method for supporting the roll-out of fast chargers. In this regard, a stakeholder workshop was held last month to explore issues related to the future requirements for electric vehicle charging infrastructure. This workshop included representatives of EV owners, the motor industry, local authorities and other key stakeholders. This is a complex area. It is important not just that we meet the current needs and demands, but that we future-proof this network. A simple initiative that has been taken within my own local authority, by Roscommon County Council, is painting the parking spots for electric charging points because of the number of people who have been parking in them and blocking those up has limited the substantial network that we have across this country. For the size of our country, we have one of the most extensive networks of public electric charging points within the European Union. I accept that we need to look at the issue of fast chargers.

Early in the new year, I expect the low emissions vehicle task force to complete its work on fast chargers and recommend how best to support their roll-out. It is likely that state aid clearance will be required for any Exchequer support. As a result, I expect the roll-out of fast chargers to commence in the second half of 2018. In October of this year, the Commission for Regulation of Utilities published a decision that envisages the future operation of the charging infrastructure on a commercial basis and the sale of the infrastructure by ESB Networks in the long term. However, the continued ownership and operation of the charging network by the ESB for a transitional period of up to ten years is provided for. This will safeguard those who rely on public electric vehicle charging infrastructure and result in as little impact to the network as possible in the short to medium term.

It also enables the ESB to continue to provide electric vehicle charging across Ireland. In addition to the existing charging network and the initiatives led by my Department, large car manufacturers are also expected to become involved in the provision of high-powered infrastructure. A number of providers are likely to emerge onto the Irish market in the coming years. For example, Nissan already has a number of charge points available through its dealer network and Tesla has recently opened its first supercharger location in Ireland.

I thank Senator O'Donnell for raising this important issue. I reassure him that expansion of Ireland's fast charging network is a key priority for me. I also want to say - this is important - from 1 January 2018 a new grant scheme is being introduced through the Sustainable Energy Authority of Ireland, SEAI, for putting in domestic charging points. Up to now, for new vehicles that were purchased, the ESB provided that service for the public. From 1 January 2018, that grant scheme is now going to be available for new vehicle purchases but also the purchase of second-hand electric vehicles. This has been a reason quite a number of people have been looking for charging points. A number of representations Members will have received in their offices are from constituents who are buying second-hand vehicles and who require the public charging infrastructure to charge the vehicle at the moment. They will now, if they purchase the vehicle from 1 January, be eligible to have a charging point installed in their own home.

We are three minutes over time, so the Senator should be very brief.

We have eight minutes and used 11 and there are other matters backing up.

I thank the Minister for dealing with this issue. My reason for bringing it up today is that, while I welcome the home charger and the €5,000 grant, if the electric car is to be able to compete with petrol and diesel cars it must be able to drive whatever distance. I note that an electric car cannot drive from Limerick to Dublin. When in the new year does the Minister expect the low emissions task force report to be published? In terms of state aid rules, will the State get involved in ensuring that there is a proper network, how large will that be, how many power points will there be and how long before that network is place?

I do not think Senator O'Donnell knows how to be brief.

The State will be getting involved in it. We do require state aid approval. I do not know how long that is going to take. It would be my intention to see some of these fast chargers installed before the end of 2018 and that ramped up in 2019. One final point is that it is not just about the financial supports and the charging infrastructure. It is also about exposing people to electric vehicle use. The SEAI, with the Department, is developing a three-year demonstrator programme. It will go around to Limerick, Roscommon, Galway and across the country with electric vehicles to get people to test drive them, try them out and encourage them to purchase EVs.

Speech and Language Therapy

I remind Members that they have four minutes. The Minister of State, Deputy Jim Daly, has been waiting impatiently to go into action. If I do not see the Minister of State before then, I wish him and his family a very happy and peaceful Christmas.

I welcome the Minister of State, Deputy Jim Daly, to the Chamber. I was shocked last week when a parent described how one of her children who has autism has not been in receipt of speech therapy since September. A principal in the locality told me that the reality on the ground is that unless a parent or a family is willing to set aside the time to scream and shout at the top of their lungs, they will not get the requisite attention from the education and health systems that their children deserve. She made the point that given that sometimes families can be collapsing trying to meet the needs of their children, to expect them to campaign as well for the assistance they so greatly need is completely unrealistic, unnecessary and unfair.

We seem to have a system held together with straw. We still have an issue with maternity leave not being covered. Speech therapy is a patchwork of a service in the area that I am most familiar with on the north side of Dublin. I can only imagine what it is like around the country. What words of comfort would the Minister of State, Deputy Jim Daly, have for the mother who spoke to me about her child, who has autism, and who has not been able to access speech therapy for her son since September?

I thank the Senator Ó Ríordáin for raising this important issue and highlighting it in the House. I assure him that the Government appreciates the difficulties these waiting times put on parents and the difficulties faced by those affected by the waiting times for children to access speech and language therapy. In recognising this, in last year's service plan, the HSE put €4 million aside and took on 83 full-time staff to address the front-line speech and language therapy waiting lists in the past year, focusing on children up to 18 years old. I am advised that nearly all of the posts have now been filled. Nationally, this investment has resulted in a reduction of nearly 10% in the overall waiting lists for those under 18 for the period from July 2016 to the end of October 2017.

With regard to the particular area raised by Senator Ó Ríordáin, I am advised by the HSE that, under the funding initiative, community health organisation, CHO, Dublin north city and county, Area 9, was allocated 13 additional posts, all of which have been filled. This gives a total of more than 71 whole-time equivalent speech and language therapy staff for children’s services in the CHO area. I understand that there are currently only three vacancies. One is in the process of being filled and requests have been made to fill the other two which are maternity leave related. I am advised that the managers of the services endeavour to maintain service provision where possible in the interim. I also understand that those waiting for a service can avail of drop-in advice clinics, while pre-assessment talks and additional group interventions have been offered during 2017.

Significant progress has been made to address waiting lists in CHO Area 9 in the past year. As a result children no longer wait over 24 months for an assessment and only six children have been waiting for more than 12 months for an assessment. Additionally, the overall waiting lists for under 18s in CHO Area 9 were reduced by nearly 18% for the period July 2016 to end October 2017 thus outperforming the national figure for the same period. That said, for any child to have to wait more than 12 months is unsatisfactory. Through the additional posts and other national initiatives, the Government hopes the number will continue to decrease.

One such initiative is the establishment of the HSE's speech and language therapy service review group. Its principal focus is to recommend an evidence-based national model for speech and language therapy provision in primary and social care that focuses on children aged up to 18 years. In addition, A Programme for a Partnership Government commits that a new speech and language service in schools will be established to support young children as part of a more integrated support system. The report of the HSE's review group will inform a new model being developed by a joint working group that is led by the Department of Education and Skills. Funding of €2 million was allocated under budget 2018 to develop and implement a pilot model.

It is evident that there has been and continues to be a clear commitment by the Government to enhance the provision of speech and language therapy services, particularly for children. Focused interventions, supported by dedicated funding for early intervention and prevention services, not only greatly benefits children they also go a long way to address the concerns of parents that their children receive timely and appropriate services.

I thank the Minister of State. I ask Senator Ó Ríordáin to be brief.

I thank the Minister of State for his reply. I appreciate the detailed nature of his reply and his acceptance that it is not good enough that six children have waited for more than 12 months for an assessment. Does he concede, notwithstanding the investment that is clearly being made, that there is still a level of desperation being felt on the ground? Does he concede that there is not the connectivity between his words and the reality experienced by school principals, teachers and parents in certain parts of this city? Parents need to be in their homes to help their children through their formative years, which can be a difficult period so the last thing parents need to be are campaigners. Can he assure us that any parent whose child is in need of speech therapy will not have to wait for months for therapy to be resumed? Does he accept that a situation where maternity leave breaks that service is unacceptable?

I ask the Minister of State to be brief.

I assure the Cathaoirleach that I will be brief. Yes, I can assure parents. Parenting is very difficult and we, as parents and practising politicians, understand the stresses and strains involved. I am very confident that the review group is making significant progress in this area. There is a keen focus on the area at HSE management level. The solution includes funding and the organisation of structures within the existing services. I cannot give the Senator a cast-iron assurance that parents will not have to wait months for the services. I am hopeful and confident that numbers will continue to decrease and that we will see more positive news on this area in the future.

Again, I thank the Senator for raising the matter and welcome the opportunity to focus on the matter.

I thank the Minister of State and Senator Ó Ríordáin. In the event that the Minister of State will not be in the House again before Christmas I wish him and his family a very peaceful and election-free Christmas and new year.

Many happy returns.

Work Permit Applications

Tá fáilte romhat, a Aire. I welcome the Minister for Business, Enterprise and Innovation, Deputy Heather Humphreys, to the House.

I call Senator Maria Byrne. Many of her colleagues could follow her example because she is usually time efficient and to the point.

I thank the Cathaoirleach. I welcome the Minister to the House this morning. I wish to congratulate her publicly on her new role in which I know she will excel. Given that Limerick has the fastest growing economy outside of Dublin, I look forward to welcoming her to Limerick and the region in the future.

I wish to raise the issue of the critical skills employment permit. On the one hand, as education spokesperson I know people go to college and upskill. On the other hand, employers say there is a shortage of people for certain skills. I give the two examples of chefs and hotel managers. Some people who have a small business approached me and told me that they got no response to an advertisement that they placed in The Irish Times and displayed in one of their windows seeking a chef. The shortage of chefs has been acknowledged across the board and the Restaurant Association of Ireland always mention the shortage. There was a man here from Nepal who came to Ireland as a student. As he was a student here he was entitled to work 20 hours per week so he started working in the restaurant as a trainee chef. The restaurant then paid for him to go to college and now wants to employ him as their chef because he has all of the skills.

On the other side of the coin, people who own a hotel came to me about a similar matter. They have a man who is well qualified as he has a degree in hotel management and business studies and other qualifications. He has been in Ireland on a stamp 2 form since 2003. His permit kept being renewed and he was able to work so many hours a week. As he is very qualified and gets on very well with the hotel's customers they want to make him a full-time employee. Unfortunately, hotel management does not form part of the critical skills list and he does not qualify for an employment permit. The scheme was established when there was a shortage in certain areas but it is time the list was expanded. We should consider the areas that are experiencing shortages, particularly areas where employers cannot find people to take up jobs. I look forward to hearing the Minister's response.

I am pleased to be in the Seanad today. This is my first time in the new Seanad Chamber and I compliment the Cathaoirleach on the wonderful work that has been done to adapt the ceramics room to suit the needs of the Seanad. The room looks lovely and I wish Senators well in their sojourn here in this temporary accommodation. I was involved in the works in my previous role as Minister for Culture, Heritage and the Gaeltacht. I am delighted to see everyone here in this wonderful building.

I am pleased to be here in my new role as Minister for Business, Enterprise and Innovation and thank everyone for their good wishes. I thank Senator Byrne for raising this important issue. Ireland's overarching labour market policy is to promote the sourcing of skills and labour needs from within the workforce of Ireland and the European Economic Area. The employment permit system is ordered by the use of lists that determine those occupations which are highly demanded and in short supply in Ireland. Also, those which are ineligible for consideration for employment permits as the domestic and European Economic Area, EEA, labour markets are should be able to meet demands.

Changes to these lists are made on the basis of research undertaken by the National Skills Council, in tandem with a public consultation process, as part of a package of measures to meet skills needs. Chefs are currently on the ineligible list for employment permits, with the exception of executive chefs, head chefs, sous chefs and specialist chefs who specialise in non-EEA cuisine.

In 2015, the expert group on future skills needs, EGFSN, study of the future skills needs of the hospitality sector indicated a rising skills demand in line with the economic recovery. The EGFSN made a series of recommendations to avoid skills shortfalls as the sector grows. A hospitality skills oversight group, comprising representatives from public and private stakeholders, drives and co-ordinates actions to address the long-term needs of the sector. Work is under way to increase the supply of chefs through training initiatives such as the development of culinary apprenticeships. In parallel, my Department is actively engaged with stakeholders in the hospitality sector to develop a solution to enable the removal of chefs from the ineligible list. I expect the matter will be resolved shortly as part of the current occupation skills review and I have asked my officials to expedite completion of the report.

Hotel managers are also on the ineligible list for employment permits. The National Skills Council has not identified a skill shortage with this occupation. It does acknowledge that employers are experiencing difficulties in retaining such staff. While the emphasis is on developing skills in the Irish labour market, the role migration can play is being kept under review.

As the economy improves it is critical that our economic migration employment permit system can continue to respond to emerging needs. In this regard, I have asked my officials to review the policies underpinning the current employment permit regime to ensure it is fully supportive of Ireland's emerging labour market needs.

I thank the Minister for her response and welcome the review. The two employers I referred to subsidised trainees going to college and worked with them. They have invested money in them. The hotel manager is multilingual and with the number of tourists coming to the country, it is wonderful he has so many languages. He is really qualified for the position. Should I encourage the two employers to make a submission to the Department stating where they see the shortfalls? Would that be acceptable to the Minister? It is welcome that there is a review and that this issue will be resolved. I am glad that she has acknowledged there are differences.

I take on board the points raised by the Senator and would be happy to receive a submission from her. Employment permit policy is part of the response to addressing skills deficits but it is not intended in the longer term to act as a substitute for meeting the challenge of upskilling our resident workforce. The work of the hospitality skills oversight group in driving practical actions and collaboration to address the skills needs of the hospitality sector is to be welcomed. It is my priority to ensure the Irish labour market is positively affected by the movement of skills into the country to ensure that labour shortages in key sectors do not stall economic growth. That is very important. For example, in recent years meat deboners and heavy goods vehicle, HGV, drivers have been removed from the ineligible occupation list in response to the labour needs of those sectors. I know from discussions with the Irish Road Haulage Association, IRHA, that there were issues regarding the shortage of skilled HGV drivers. I know the position remains challenging but I am delighted that in my own county of Monaghan, we were able to initiate a HGV driver apprenticeship programme, which is being rolled out in conjunction with Cavan-Monaghan Education and Training Board. That is a very welcome development and it will help to equip people with the necessary skills for HGV driving. I want to see more of this because our priority, first and foremost, should be to ensure that Irish workers have the necessary skills to take on these sorts of jobs. In the short term, that might not always prove possible and in that regard the role migration can play in addressing the skills shortages is being reviewed by my Department to ensure it is fully supportive of Ireland's emerging labour market needs, be they skills or labour shortages in areas such as the hospitality sector, as the Senator has highlighted.

I add my congratulations to the Minister on her new role and elevation, I should think. I wish her and her family a very peaceful and happy Christmas.

The Minister has always been pleasant. I remember her navigating the Heritage Bill very deftly through this House. She did well.

Sitting suspended at 11.15 a.m. and resumed at 11.30 a.m.