Commencement Matters

Hardship Grant Scheme

I welcome the Minister of State. I am raising an issue relating to eel fishermen, with which he is familiar. The depletion of eel stocks has rightly been a cause of concern for a number of years. The fact that the European eel stock is outside of safe biological limits proves there is a need for co-ordinated action to preserve the species. However, many Irish anglers have been without a vital source of income since a total ban on eel fishing was introduced in 2009. While there is no doubt about the need to increase eel stocks, there has been an increasing sense that an outright ban without accompanying Government efforts to improve stock or offer compensation to affected Irish fishermen is unfair. The European Commission confirmed to my colleague, Mr. Matt Carthy, MEP, that while the European Maritime and Fisheries Fund, EMFF, could have been used to compensate for temporary cessation of fishing activities, the Government opted not to include this as a form of support in its operational programme. This was in stark contrast to other governments in the EU, who chose this avenue. It was a grossly unfair decision by the Government. Eel fishermen found their equipment had been rendered worthless overnight and that their entire livelihood had been wiped out. Eight years on, they have not received one cent in compensation. The Commission also confirmed to Mr. Carthy, MEP, that it would be possible for the Government to give aid of up to €30,000 to affected businesses under an exception to state aid rules. He wrote to the Minister for Agriculture, Food and the Marine asking for this to be done.

There has been talk of a hardship fund for a number of years. I welcome Mr. Brendan Cuffe to the Chamber whom I believe the Minister of State knows. He met the former Minister of State, Deputy McHugh, on 4 April 2015, who promised a hardship fund would be set up. The Minister of State also said the documentation was on the desk of the then Minister for Public Expenditure and Reform, Deputy Howlin, waiting to be signed. The Minister of State, Deputy Kyne, met Mr. Cuffe outside the Dáil a few weeks ago and he said, "The hardship fund is there. I am waiting for clarification from Europe". These fishermen have been left waiting nine years for compensation. Mr. Cuffe is 78 years old and his colleague from Galway, Mr. Seán Creaven, a man I was delighted to meet outside the Dáil three years ago, is now 87 years old. I am not looking to treat this issue like a political football. All of us recognise that these men deserve compensation and the Government has indicated a fund will be set up. When will that happen? I hope that the Minister of State can give the House a firm indication of a date and that the Minister for Public Expenditure and Reform, Deputy Donohoe, has signed off on the funding for this. The Minister of State will not disagree that these men have been waiting too long. Let us do the right thing.

I thank the Senator for raising this important issue. He is correct that I met Mr. Cuffe and Mr. Creaven recently to discuss an eel hardship scheme. The latest advice from the International Council for the Exploration of the Seas, ICES, in late 2017 is that "the status of eel remains critical and that all anthropogenic mortality, for example, recreational and commercial fishing, hydropower, pumping stations, and pollution, affecting production and escapement of silver eels should be reduced to, or kept as close to, zero as possible". There is no change in the status of the stock as critically endangered.

In addition, the European eel remains on the United Nations red list of endangered species. In response to the conservation imperative, the European Commission introduced EU regulation 1100/2007 requiring each member state to implement an eel management plan, EMP. lreland's EMP was approved by the EU in 2009 under the regulation. The plan outlined management actions aimed at reducing eel mortality and increasing silver eel escapement to the sea. These actions included a cessation of the commercial eel fishery and closure of the market, and mitigation of the impact of hydropower installations. The impact of hydropower installations is addressed via a trap and transport programme on the rivers Shannon, Erne and Lee, managed by ESB Fisheries.

This involves the capture of adult eels migrating to sea, transporting them around the hydropower installations and releasing them. In addition, elver traps are installed at all ESB hydropower stations to facilitate the upstream movement of juvenile eels.

Reviews, including public consultation, of the EMP measures were carried out in 2012 and 2015 and existing measures were continued. In addition, I have provided funding to IFI for a collaborative research initiative involving IFI scientists and a number of former eel fishermen to further develop national knowledge of the species and its medium to longer-term potential for recovery. This three-year scientific fishery was commenced in 2016.

The Minister, Deputy Naughten, and I fully recognise the difficulty faced by eel fishermen. There is no property right attaching to public eel licences and, consequently, the issue of compensation is not relevant or appropriate, given that the closure of the fishery was applied for conservation reasons under the Fisheries Acts.

Notwithstanding this, we have progressed the issue of implementing support measures for eel fishermen and ensured that funding will be available for such measures. It is intended that potential support payments would be disbursed annually over a three-year period.

As Ireland’s EMP, including its conservation measures, was originally approved by the European Commission under EU Regulation 1100/2007, consultation and discussion with the European Commission is a key element in the consideration of any potential financial support measure.

I directed officials of the Department to contact the European Commission outlining Ireland’s objective to fund a support scheme for former eel fishermen. Initial responses have been received and I am advised that officials have now indicated to the Commission our intention to proceed with the measure.

Consultation is now required with the Revenue Commissioners and this is being commenced this week. Until consultations are completed, it is not appropriate to elaborate on the possible terms and conditions for, or the prospective number of participants in, any potential support measure.

The Minister, Deputy Naughten, and I fought hard to secure funding in this year's Estimates for an eel hardship scheme. We consulted with the Minister, Deputy Donohoe, during the Estimates process last year. We have engaged with the European Commission and we are now starting the process of engaging with the Revenue Commissioners to establish the terms and conditions of such a support scheme.

Progress seems to have been made.

I am encouraged that the consultations with the European Commission seem to have been concluded, that the Minister of State has contacted the Revenue Commissioners and that finances are included in the Estimates.

My last question is simple, but may not be easy to answer, but the man in the Gallery deserves an answer. When will we be in a position to pay these men some money? I would understand if the Minister of State cannot give me a hard answer, but I ask for an estimate because otherwise I will be back asking the same question again, which I do not want to do.

I recognise that the Minister of State has been working towards resolving this issue, but these men have waited a long time. Are we talking about weeks or months? Surely we are not looking beyond the summer. I ask the Minister of State to give me an indication.

I cannot give an absolute date, but I certainly hope it will not be beyond this summer. As I said, we have started a process with the Revenue Commissioners. Once that is concluded we hope to complete the terms and conditions. Initial preparatory work has been done on that and a draft scheme has been prepared, but that is subject, of course, to agreement with the Revenue Commissioners on the terms and conditions. Once that is completed, I hope in the next number of months we can announce it and seek applications from those who are impacted.

Will it be in this calendar year?

It will certainly be in this calendar year.

Renewable Energy Projects

I welcome the Minister, Deputy Naughten.

I welcome the Minister to the House. Last year I raised the European Commission's proposal to revise the renewable energy directive. I pointed out that the proposals to phase out biofuels made from EU-produced sugar beet, field corn and rapeseed would remove an income stream worth €5 billion to €6 billion per year to EU farmers, devastate rural economies, close the best immediate option for decarbonising transport and destroy investor interest in the biofuel industry.

I pointed out that by chopping and changing EU biofuel policy the European Commission has had a devastating impact on existing investments in sustainable EU biofuel production. Plants have been closed or mothballed. Investment proposals have been shelved. Jobs have been lost and thousands of farmers have lost the market for their products. In the UK alone investors have seen hundreds of millions of euro wiped off their investments.

One of Spain's largest companies went to the wall. A survey of investors carried out by German industry body VDB found that 81% of those surveyed believed the Commission policy will cause a reduction in investor confidence.

The destruction of investor confidence by the Commission will have a negative impact on the efforts that have been under way to attract private investment to restart Ireland's sugar industry through joint sugar and ethanol investment. The European Commission's policy shift lacks any hard scientific evidence to back it up. The Commission has been shown to have made fundamental errors from the outset. It has literally got its sums wrong in calculating the relationship between world commodity prices and biofuel outset. I am sure the Minister is aware that the Commission's impact assessment was queried from within the Commission itself. The Commission's proposals are completely out of line with biofuel policies being followed by governments around the world. As I pointed out on the last occasion on which I raised this matter in the House, Europe's farmers, in partnership with producers of EU sustainable bioethanol, could do the following: boost farm incomes; create investment that supports rural communities; bring jobs to areas that need work; cut Europe's need to import animal foodstuffs, many of which come from GMO grains and are contaminated with antibiotics; help cut Europe's dependence on imported fossil fuels; help Europe cut greenhouse gas emissions; and reduce the pollution from road transport for so many of Europe's cities which threatens the lives and well-being of so many EU citizens.

I welcome the fact that the Minister, Deputy Naughten, recently announced that it is his intention to increase the obligation to blend crop-based biofuels into road transport fuels. I had hoped the Minister would announce he was moving in this direction when I raised this issue in my previous contribution in this regard on Commencement matters, which was perhaps last year, but it is better late than never. I ask that the Minister give the House an undertaking that Irish officials will actively support conventional biofuels in the discussions which are ongoing in Brussels between the Commission, the Council and the European Parliament, support the line taken by the member states that are resisting the attempt to phase out sustainable "first generation" biofuels, and, most importantly, commit Ireland to pressing for an amendment to the current proposals which will ensure that all biofuels produced and marketed in the EU comply fully with the sustainability provisions contained in the 2016 Paris Agreement.

I ask that the Minister make available to the House the details of the line Ireland is following in the trilogue discussions. It is so important we know what line the Government is taking on this. I thank the Minister for coming before the House.

I thank the Senator for raising this important matter. The 2009 renewable energy directive established a common framework for the promotion of energy from renewable sources. It set Ireland a target of 16% of all energy consumption to be from renewable sources by 2020, with a target of 10% for the transport sector. Ireland aims to meet the 10% transport target through the increased use of sustainable biofuels, with electric vehicles also making a contribution. The deployment of biofuels through the biofuels obligation scheme will be the primary mechanism to ensure that Ireland's renewable energy target of 10% for transport will be met. Provisional figures for 2017 indicate that approximately 7% of our energy needs in the transport sector were met from renewable sources, mainly through biofuels.

The European Commission published the Clean Energy for All Europeans package in November 2016. The focus of this package of eight legislative proposals, which includes an amendment to the renewable energy directive, is on the period post-2020. The provisions of the proposed renewable energy directive build on the existing directive to provide a framework for the development of renewable energy out to 2030. Currently, the share of biofuels produced from crops grown on agricultural land that can be counted towards the 2020 renewable energy targets is capped at 7%. The level of these biofuels in Ireland is currently about 1%. The proposal put forward by the European Commission for the revised renewable energy directive is that the 7% limit would be reduced to 3.8% by 2030. The negotiating position agreed by the European Parliament is that the cap would be set at the level reached by member states in 2017, subject to a maximum of 7%.

The general approach agreed by Ireland and other member states at the European Council in December 2017 is that member states may maintain the 7% limit to 2030. Along with a number of member states, Ireland supports the maintenance of the 7% cap for crop-based biofuels as set out in the Council's general approach. The trilogue negotiations on the proposed renewable energy directive are currently under way. Agreement has yet to be reached on a number of issues, including the cap for crop-based biofuels and targets for advanced biofuels.

Ireland's biofuels obligation scheme is a crucial policy measure that increases the use of renewable energy and decreases emissions in the transport sector. It was introduced in 2010 and requires fuel suppliers to ensure that biofuels make up a certain proportion of the fuel used in the road transport sector. Biofuels must meet strict sustainability criteria to qualify under the scheme. We discussed this issue at length at the joint Oireachtas committee. Progressive increases in the obligation rate, which is currently set at 8%, have led to the increased use of biofuels.

In December 2017, my Department held a public consultation seeking views on the implementation of increases in the biofuel obligation rate in 2019 and 2020 and on how the scheme will be developed into the future. A key theme of the responses received was the need to provide certainly to industry and stakeholders to allow longer term planning. Taking this into consideration, last month, I published a policy statement setting out the proposed future development of the biofuels obligation scheme in this country. The statement set out the following six actions: continue the biofuels obligation scheme until at least 2030 with progressive increases in the level of obligation and to develop the scheme in line with EU energy policy; increase the biofuel obligation rate to 10% by volume from 1 January 2019; increase the biofuel obligation rate to 11% by volume from 1 January 2020; reduce the carryover of biofuel certificates from 25% to 15% from 1 January 2020; work with industry and stakeholders to further increase the use of biofuels post-2020; and carry out public consultations on future obligation rate increases every two years post-2020. The scheme currently contributes an estimated 450,000 tonnes in carbon emission reductions each year towards our national targets. The changes I announced last month will increase this contribution to over 600,000 tonnes annually.

The policy statement will provide clarity for stakeholders and facilitate the longer term planning required to increase the use of biofuels. Similarly, the general approach agreed by Council to maintain the existing 7% cap on crop-based biofuels, which Ireland continues to support, will provide certainty for the industry and other stakeholders.

I thank the Minister for the reply. We all know the issue here is funding. Despite many commitments to funding, we have seen little of it.

I welcome and note that the Minister has made waves on this proposal but we need to hear from him on a regular basis what line Ireland is following in this area. We also need to ensure that all biofuels comply with the sustainability provisions contained in the 2016 Paris Agreement.

I note the Minister is working on this matter. This is very important, particularly for my own area of Carlow, where it is hoped to revive the sugar factory. There are many farmers and other people interested in this happening. Carlow is the ideal location for a sugar factory and, going forward, I will be working to make this happen.

I have clearly set out Ireland's position at Council and in the trilogue process. Over the next ten years, we will spend €22 billion on climate-related activities, which is €1 in every €5 being spent under the national development plan and is not an insignificant amount. I defy anyone in this House or the other House to reference the sugar industry with me. I was the one who stood up at the public meetings and who took the abuse in this House and the other House for trying to defend the sugar industry. I recall being browbeaten by the Government and many farmers when I tried to defend the retention and development of a sugar industry in this country.

Shame on all of the organisations at the time. I was, sadly, proven right and now we are in a situation where we are trying to re-establish an industry because of the shortsightedness of the Government and the sugar industry at time. They preferred to take the quick shilling from the European Commission rather than look at the long-term future needs of this country.

That concludes this Commencement matter.

I was not part of that Government. I assure the Minister that I will be fighting hard for a sugar factory. We should have our sugar factory back.

Local Authority Members' Remuneration

I welcome the people who are here from Kilkenny to see their local Minister in action. I am sure the Minister of State, Deputy John Paul Phelan, will acknowledge these people with a greater depth of knowledge than I can. There is cross-party support. We have a couple of sons of Councillor Eamon Aylward in the audience. That is a strong political name in Kilkenny. Perhaps Senator Horkan might be interested.

I hope they enjoy their day out today. I request that the Minister for Housing, Planning and Local Government, Deputy Eoghan Murphy, address the Seanad and advise if his Department will pay any increase in the car insurance of county councillors. I have discussed this with the Minister. Some councillors have class 2 cover, which is business cover, on their car policies in respect of council work. It has come to light in two particular councils that I am aware of. The Minister might give some clarification. He has put a lot of work into the pay and conditions of county councillors. I believe that is going to bear fruit soon. He might explain and put some flesh on the bones of when he hopes to report back to the House with his recommendations to make councillors' pay and conditions better.

I thank the Senator for raising this issue. It is timely to have this discussion with the students from Scoil Aireagail in the Gallery. There are three Aylwards my sister tells me. That is my sister Catherine, who is with them along with other staff members. She was a councillor herself for six years on Kilkenny County Council. I acknowledge their presence.

It is important to ensure that councillors are provided with appropriate supports to allow them to carry out their important role as local authority members and as public representatives. A range of allowances is already in place. The role of my Department is to provide a statutory framework for such supports under the Local Government Act 2001. Those regulations are given effect with the consent of the Minister for Finance and Public Expenditure and Reform. My Department also issues direction to local authorities concerning the terms that apply to expenses claims and payments.

My Department does not provide direct remuneration to local authorities for the payment of such expenses. Local authorities are independent statutory bodies with their own management structures. Local authorities may provide direction, to councillors and employees alike, regarding the use of private vehicles for official council business provided that such direction is consistent with the appropriate statutory framework. I understand that some local authorities have advised their elected members that it is necessary to ensure that business usage is included as part of personal motor insurance policies in cases where private vehicles are being used for official business. It is understood that similar direction has also been issued by some local authorities to employees who use private vehicles for official business.

The cost of a private insurance premium is a personal matter for the individual concerned and the insurance provider. The terms and conditions that apply to the payment of motor travel expenses incurred by councillors are consistent with the terms and conditions that also apply to council employees.

They are based on directions issued centrally by the Department of Public Expenditure and Reform that apply to all public bodies. My Department has made inquiries with the Department of Public Expenditure and Reform and it was advised that a range of factors must be taken into account when formulating the motor travel rates for expenses payments, including overhead costs such as replacing the car insurance and motor tax, as well as running costs such as fuel, maintenance and service.

Senators will appreciate that, in the time available, it has not been possible to examine this matter in full detail. However, I assure the House that my Department will further engage with the Department of Public Expenditure and Reform and local authorities on the matter. It is timely to have the discussion today as it underlines the need for the intended upcoming review of local councillors' terms and conditions. The review will be an important exercise in scoping the role of a councillor, an exercise that has never been done properly in the past. Senators may recall that I have referred to this on previous visits to the Seanad and I hope it will aid local democracy in continuing to attract and retain candidates who can have confidence that they are performing a well-defined role at the coalface of our local political system, and that the supports available to them are appropriate and adequate.

I know that this has been discussed before and the Minister of State has been looking at it. There is a proposed model of tying councillors to a civil servant type of scale. The Minister of State mentioned his hope that it would be the way forward but is it still his opinion and does he still see it as the answer to satisfy councillors the way they should be satisfied? The Minister of State is aware, more than most, that there must be improvements in the system for councillors. There is no better man and he came from the ground up. His family is steeped in local and national politics.

It has been my intention for the past number of months to have this group established before the end of May. That is still the intention and I hope to finalise the terms of reference for the group this week. They have to be signed off by the Departments of Expenditure and Reform and Housing, Planning and Local Government. We can get that sorted this week and it is then a question of personnel, and that is being worked on currently. It is absolutely the intention to remove political decision making from the remuneration of councillors in the future and to establish, once and for all, a link between a public sector grade and the work of county and city councillors across the country. This will ensure that any benefits accruing to grades in the Civil Service will also accrue to councillors. That includes things such as pensions, health provision and other changes. This is particularly timely as we will have the review of the local electoral areas across the country published by the middle of next month. This group will produce its report before Hallowe'en and people throughout the country will have seven or eight months in advance of the next local elections to decide on whether to stand again or whether they wish to become new candidates in council elections.

I extend my welcome also to all the people from Kilkenny, including the Aylward family. Perhaps some of them will end up here. Ms Phelan is a former councillor. She was a councillor at the same time I was and I recall meeting her on a number of occasions.

Schools Building Projects

I thank the Minister for coming here today to deal with this matter, which relates to Scoil Cholmcille on Blarney Street in Cork. From 1 September, the school will have 216 students.

If the number of students increases to 220 the school will be entitled to an additional teacher.

Scoil Cholmcille currently has a difficulty due to changing demographics. A school was first built on the site in 1840 and a new school was built a number of years ago. The number of young people living in the area has increased so the school has grown at a very fast pace. I was invited to visit the school to see the conditions for myself. When I visited a few weeks ago I saw that one room that had previously been used as toilets had been converted into a classroom. The school is under severe pressure in terms of space. Engineers have advised the school that three classrooms could easily be built adjacent to the existing structure thus accommodating the current needs of the school. I understand that the school is not on the radar of the Department in terms of being granted consent to apply for planning. The school has drawn up initial plans and submitted them to the Department. Unfortunately, the school has not been given the go ahead to go through the planning process.

The school has another concern. A list of new schools has recently been announced and it is proposed to build an eight-classroom school in the Gurranabraher area of Cork city. I do not think a site has been identified. There would be a natural feed in from south of the Gurranabraher area into Scoil Cholmcille on Blarney Street. The Department has identified that the demographic has changed. It has acknowledged that there has been an increase in the young population or an increase in the number of people who will require primary school placements. Scoil Cholmcille feels that it will be unable to provide enough accommodation and, as a consequence, is under extreme pressure. I would like the Department to indicate that Scoil Cholmcille can move to the next stage and apply for planning.

I thank the Senator for raising this matter. I have received a briefing from my Department on the situation in Scoil Cholmcille. I gather that the school has a current staffing complement of one principal, 11 mainstream teaching posts, nine special education teaching posts and one shared home-school liaison post. The staffing level will remain unchanged for the next school year.

Last December, the school submitted an application for two mainstream classrooms and seven special education teaching rooms, which corresponds with the extension referred to by the Senator. The position is that the Department is assessing the application. At present, the school has 12 mainstream classroom places, two home-school liaison places and seven special education training spaces. The school appears to be deficient in special education training places but it does not immediately appear to be deficient in mainstream classroom spaces. The Department will consider the application in terms of whether the space applied for is needed. Unfortunately, we are under very severe constraints in terms of not building. I mean we must build in accordance with need, as identified, because there has been such a bulge in the population. On the other hand, the Department recognises that the layout of the school is particularly difficult.

The Department is assessing what has been proposed and will be in communication with the school.

In terms of new school identification, that is somewhat different. I mean the Department is then undertaking demographic exercises and considering whether there is an emerging demand that will exceed the capacity of the existing schools and, in that context, should it consider sanctioning a new school. Such a new school would start with junior infants and work its way up as the population emerged.

As the Senator knows, the Department is trying to take a longer-term planning view on this occasion, setting out its view of new schools from 2019 through to 2022. It is an attempt by the Department to take a long-term view of needs so it can start to plan for them well ahead. The fact that a new school has been identified as a need in the future does not mean there is an automatic search for new capacity in this particular school. They are not associated issues in the Department's view. The other is a longer-term plan which looks at population and housing developments in the area.

All I can say at this point is that the application, which was made just under six months ago, is being scrutinised and the Department will refer back to the school to respond to what has been put forward and to explore what might be possible.

I appreciate the Minister's reply. The school has an extremely dedicated principal, teachers and assistants who work there and there is huge support from the parents. The numbers in the school have increased much faster than a school would normally experience. That is why there is pressure.

There is also the issue of the site itself, but the school has clearly set out in its plan how it can build three rooms. It is a three-storey school and it could be put in place very quickly. That is what the school is seeking in the plans it submitted. It would certainly relieve some of the school's problems.

I accept the Minister's response, but the issue will not go away because the numbers will continue to increase. I also accept the demographic changes in the Gurranabraher area and the need for a new school there. However, I hope that will not prevent the other schools in the surrounding areas continuing to grow their numbers because the population is increasing and will continue to increase.

Clearly, if the population increases and the numbers attending this school increase and so forth, as more schools are allocated the Department will have to consider additional accommodation on that ground. However, on the basis of the current stable numbers in the application, the Department is probably looking at this against the background that it will have to deliver perhaps 18,000 extra places this year so it is confined to concentrating on schools that have a clearly identified need. That is the backdrop against which any application is assessed.

That said, the Department recognises that there are particular features in this school that make it difficult. I cannot anticipate what conclusion the Department will reach as it is assessing the application. However, it has given me that level of insight into how it is assessing it. Hopefully, it will be able to revert to the school and some progress can be made over time on what is recognised as a difficulty.

Sitting suspended at 3.15 p.m. and resumed at 3.30 p.m.