Nithe i dtosach suíonna - Commencement Matters

Energy Regulation

I welcome the Minister to the Chamber to discuss this very important issue. I am very concerned about the way the energy regulator is doing its business. It is not providing transparency in its decisions or reaching those decisions in a timely manner. A project which clearly illustrates the problems with the energy regulator is the proposed Mayo renewable energy project, a 45 MW high efficiency combined heat and power biomass fuelled plant to be built on the former Asahi site outside Ballina. The project lodged applications to the regulator for various consents and licences in June 2018. Previously, the project, under a different promoter, had been licensed in 2012 by the energy regulator. Unfortunately in 2016, even though the project was partially built, progress stalled due to financial difficulties. Progress stopped, but new promoters have now come on board.

The project is worth €255 million, of which €95 million has been invested to date by the new promoters who have taken an equity stake of €95 million in the project. The promoters have taken on the task of revitalising and reviving the project. The planning permission has been extended by Mayo County Council and the promoters have received renewed consent from the Environmental Protection Agency, EPA, in respect of emissions. The promoters have received confirmation from ESB Networks that the grid offer remains in place and will be offered to the new company. However, the promoters have tried to deal with the energy regulator, now known as the Commission for Regulation of Utilities, but have run into a stone wall. Initially the energy regulator appointed consultants and the consultant did not want to give the project a high efficiency certificate, as had previously been given and subsequent to that the energy regulator has retained new consultants.

International consultants retained by the new promoters have certified that no material change has been made to the project since it was initially certified in 2012. Equally to my knowledge, there has been no change in legislation. I am very concerned that there will be a repeat of what happened when Apple proposed to build a data centre in Athenry.

The project is a golden opportunity for north Mayo and key to developing our national policy objectives, such as renewable heat and energy, to which I know the Minister is very committed. It is also tied in with the development of a data centre on the same site, which requires a renewable energy project to be co-located with it. This critical project has been stalled.

I believe that under the process being pursued by the Commission for Regulation of Utilities, the promoters should be entitled to know what the problem is and the reason for such delays when there has been no material change in the projects and why a second set of consultants had to be retained.

Second, in respect of the legislation covering the Commission for Regulation of Utilities, I believe there should be a time limit placed in legislation upon the regulator wherein it must give a decision. As the Minister knows, time is of the essence for the development of projects, promoters and investors do not wait around and will go somewhere else. This project is commercially sensitive to time delays.

With all the resources available to the energy regulator, why is it outsourcing the evaluation of the project to another set of consultants? All this is taking time, when we have a project that is time sensitive. As I have said, we have seen what happened in Athenry. The whole community was devastated by the outcome of the delay in giving a decision of consent to Apple and ultimately because it took so long to do so, Apple pulled out.

There are commercial realities. There are climate change objectives and objectives for the development of the site. This site is in a peripheral area where it is hard to attract investment and growth. This project offers a golden opportunity and I do not believe the energy regulator has dealt with these investors in a fair way. I do not believe it is fair from all the view points I have set out to the Minister and believe it should be prescribed in legislation that the regulator should make a decision within a certain period. When Deputy Bruton was Minister for Jobs, Enterprise and Innovation, one of the directives that came from his Department and the Taoiseach of the day was that all Government agencies dealing with commercial projects should deal with them in a time-sensitive way and this clearly has not happened in this case. The other three agencies have given consent, but the regulator has not. Is this rocket science? Why is there no transparency? Why should I and any ordinary person not know what is happening in respect of a project which is of such critical importance in the area?

I look forward to the Minister's response.

I thank the Senator for raising this matter.

I should outline very clearly that the Commission for Regulation of Utilities is an independent regulator. The Commission for Regulation of Utilities is independent of me as Minister and sets its own processes for application forms, application fees, processes it will go through, guidance it provides for applicants and so on. It also is fair to state it is a body that engages in very substantial public consultation whenever it produces documentation that is for the guidance of applicants.

It published the documentation to which the Senator referred in March 2012. The latter remains the documentation to which applicants should refer.

Regarding the basis for the rulings of the regulator, it essentially interprets European legislation, as well as our national legislation. In this instance, it is establishing the heat efficiency of the particular plant. The European documentation sets out the issues that must be considered. I am sure the Senator and the applicant have already had regard to these issues. This is a complicated matter by any standard. The regulator must examine several issues in the context of an application, including electrical, thermal and overall efficiency, power-to-heat ratios, electricity from the high-efficiency combined heat and power and primary energy savings. It does so in accordance with formula set out in the original directive and its annexes. The regulator has been transparent about what are the requirements. I cannot second-guess its assessment of an application such as this, no more than the Minister for Housing, Planning and Local Government can second-guess An Bord Pleanála when it independently assesses an application made to it.

The legislation clearly sets out that the regulator is not accountable to the Minister, but it provides for accountability to the Committee on Communications, Climate Action and Environment. The independent regulator is accountable to the Oireachtas, as ought to be the case. I cannot shed light on why nothing has changed in the view of the promoters but they have not been granted the approval which was previously given. That is entirely a matter for the Commission for Regulation of Utilities to assess. Unfortunately, I am not in a position to provide an insight as to what difficulties this application may be encountering other than to point the Senator and the applicants to the very detailed guidance on what needs to be submitted, the calculations conducted by the regulator and how it weighs applications. The very detailed source document specifies the terms within which it operates.

I understand the Senator's enthusiasm to have the plant approved. However, in order to access state aid or aid through the various refit programmes it must, in addition to acquiring planning permission and EPA approval, fulfil certain criteria which are set independently, policed by the EU and administered by the Commission for Regulation of Utilities. Obviously, it is an important element in any project but there be an independent process to vet approval in any case where benefit is being conferred. It is not a political decision, nor should it be. That is the position as I understand it. The company must complete whatever requests have been made of it by the Commission for Regulation of Utilities in order to facilitate a decision being made in a timely way.

The fact is that if it were not for a financial difficulty encountered in 2016, the plant would be up and running. It had received all the necessary consents. The regulations which the Minister has to hand have not changed since 2012 and formed the basis upon which the regulator originally issued consents. There has been no material change in the application. Perhaps somebody made an error somewhere wrong along the way. There are serious questions to be answered by the regulator in respect of this matter. I will be bringing it to the attention of the Joint Committee on Communications, Climate Change and Environment in order to get some answers. There is a lot at stake.

We are talking about renewable heat and renewable electricity. This is a whole package and an awful lot of work has gone into it for the regulator to say it got it wrong in the first place. I do not accept that and common sense should prevail. There are clearly issues within the current process when the regulator had to get a second lot of consultants. Notwithstanding the complexities, things should be clear and transparent. They have to make sense to somebody, somewhere, and some empirical standard and test has to be applied. The consultants who previously dealt with this are now saying regulations have not changed and the general public will want to know why such a project, especially in north Mayo, cannot be got over the line. They will also want to know why a Government agency is delaying it in a way that is quite inexplicable.

If a clear explanation could be given by the Minister or the regulator, whose job it is to do so, I would at least have something to take back to people, but I have no answer at this point. The regulator appeared before the special climate action committee and he had nothing to offer on that occasion, but I will raise this issue again as it is very important for the north Mayo area.

The Senator knows as well as any of us that An Bord Pleanála makes decisions and does not engage in a process of toing and froing with public representatives or others. It has planning guidelines and seeks to implement them in the fairest way possible. I cannot shed any light on what difficulties are arising. The EU code states that each generational unit shall be compared with the best available and economically justifiable technology for the separate production of heat and electricity on the market in the year of construction of the cogeneration unit. That suggests a unit in construction in 2012, as against a unit in construction in 2018, will be compared to different economically justifiable and best available technology. A regulator continues to evolve against the rules which are set for it. It does not follow that if something was approved in 2012, it will be identical in 2013. In annexe 3, it states they are looking at a different test and at today's technology rather than that of 2012.

I do not know anything about the process, but it is not as clear cut as asking why the regulator is not repeating what it did before. It has to evaluate it because it would be giving out valuable public subsidies, supported by electricity users, and it is right that it be independently vetted. I have to defend the integrity of the CRU. It is a highly professional body and an OECD review in 2018 reported it as operating to the very highest standards. There is no question of doubt in the public mind about how the CRU does its work. It is accountable to the Oireachtas as set out in legislation.

Services for People with Disabilities

The Minister will be familiar with this issue which affects a number of organisations in County Donegal. iCare which is based on the Inishowen Peninsula and works with more than 100 families of children and young people with autism provides an absolutely vital service not just for the Inishowen Peninsula but for the wider area of north Donegal.

The Bluestack Special Needs Foundation based in Donegal town also provides a vital service for a large number of families in that area of south Donegal. They combined with the organisation Extern to apply for funding under the Ability programme last year. As the Minister of State will be aware, that programme has funding of €16 million and is co-financed by the Irish Government and the EU, delivering to 27 projects across the State. Major controversy arose last year when iCare, Bluestack Special Needs Foundation and Extern were refused funding. When we look at a map of the State, only one organisation north of the famous Galway to Dublin line, which was located in Roscommon, had received funding. Major controversy surrounded that because both iCare and the Bluestack Special Needs Foundation have existed for many years without any substantial State funding. iCare based in the Inishowen Peninsula, my home area, has been in existence for 18 years. It has raised a great deal of money. The organisation involves families who are taking care of their loved ones with intellectual special needs and trying to fundraise massive amounts of money every year. There was an intervention for both organisations last year, which I welcome. At last they got some funding. Both of them were on the verge of collapse, which would have been a disaster.

As we are now into 2019, we need confirmation - I hope the Minister of State will provide it today - that there will be a service level agreement between both organisations and the HSE and fixed annual funding will be provided in order that they will know where they stand and that the families will know that they have a service and will not have to cope, from year to year, faced with massive demands of fundraising. Both organisations have achieved a great deal. They have great support in the community but, frankly, they have been taken for granted for far too long. If funding is not confirmed by the Minister of State today, urgent intervention is needed to secure that funding as soon as possible.

As we are now into 2019, we need confirmation - I hope the Minister of State will provide it today - that there will be a service level agreement between both organisations and the HSE and that there will be fixed annual funding in order that they will know where they stand and that the families will know they have a service and will not have to cope, from year to year, with facing massive demands in terms of fundraising. Both organisations have achieved a great deak They have great support in the community but they have been taken for granted for far too long. If such funding is not confirmed by the Minister of State today, there needs to be urgent intervention to seucre that funding as soon as possible.

I thank the Senator for raising this very important issue. I am well aware of his work and support for families of children and adults with disabilities in the Donegal area.

I thank him for raising the issue of funding for the iCare autism support group and the Bluestack Special Needs Foundation. As Senators may be aware, iCare provides a range of activities for children and young adults with autism spectrum disorder in the Inishowen area. The organisation also provides supports and services for siblings and parents of children and young adults with autism spectrum disorder.

I would also like to acknowledge the Bluestack Special Needs Foundation's extraordinary achievements since it was established in 2006. The foundation operates a range of educational, practical and emotional support programmes using a family support model and provides evening and weekend activities, as well as summer camps and a diverse range of activities. Through its funding activities, the foundation has made very significant donations to charities in the area for a number of years.

I understand the Bluestack foundation has in the past received modest funding through the national lottery. Following a request for urgent funding last year, of which I am aware, the HSE met representatives of the Bluestack foundation and some funding was awarded to assist the organisation. That intervention was made last year.

I understand both organisations have submitted funding applications to the HSE for 2019 and I can appreciate they are anxious to learn the outcome. The HSE's national service planning process for 2019 has now been agreed and budgets are being assigned to each community healthcare organisation, CHO. Once CHO area 1 receives its allocation, it will be in a position to consider the funding arrangements for individual services and organisations, and this will include those raised by the Senator.

As Senators may be aware, a number of important developments are under way regarding disability services in general and this includes autism services. In December 2018 the Minister, Deputy Harris, announced the publication of two reports on autism services. They included a research report on prevalence and a review of HSE autism services. The HSE review includes a range of recommendations aimed at improving services for children and adults with autism. The Minister has asked the HSE to proceed with implementing the recommendations and an autism plan will be published later this year. The actions will build on the substantial work already under way in improving autism services and the assessment process, in particular.

The Government remains committed to providing service supports for people with disabilities which will empower them to live independent lives. These supports will provide greater independence for people in accessing the services they choose and enhance their ability to tailor the supports required to meet their needs and plan their lives. As part of this commitment, a radical programme of reform of disability services is under way. The implementation of the reforms will continue to have a practical and tangible impact on the lives of young people and their families. The work is ongoing, as is the investment and the reform. We need to focus on the organisations involved such as those to which Senator Mac Lochlainn refers.

I acknowledge the Minister of State's long campaign for families with loved ones with disabilities and persons with disabilities. As he has personal knowledge of being a carer, he will understand more than most just how frustrating the situation has been. I will again tell the story of iCare which I know so well because it is based in my home town of Buncrana. It has been in operation for 18 years and become bigger and bigger in terms of the services it delivers. Its work is groundbreaking in terms of autism support services. It works with the local school, Scoil Íosagáin, in Buncrana. iCare is a template for organisations across the State but, incredibly, it has achieved that with its own resources and those involved are weary. The HSE will announce its decision soon. I urge the Minister of State to ensure clarity is provided as soon as possible on the funding for 2019, with the Bluestack Special Needs Foundation. There is full, cross-party support in County Donegal for the services provided by the two organisations. We desperately want them to have State funding that will allow them to continue their important work. I urge the Minister of State to continue to monitor the position and to ensure funding is provided for this year. I thank the Minister of State for attending.

I thank the Senator for his comments on disability. I appreciate the work of iCare, the members of which I have met. I was involved with representatives of the Bluestack foundation last year when an issue arose at the time of the intervention. I recognise the dedication, commitment and autism support services in the Senator's community.

The HSE will continue to provide significant support services for children, young adults and their families in the north west. Alternative respite, in-home respite and community-based activity programmes are in place in the community healthcare organisation area benefitting 157 children and adults with some complex needs. I recognise the commitment of the groups raised by the Senator and firmly believe community and voluntary services such as those must be supported as much as possible. I accept the Senator's point that the services are essential. In this year's budget funding of €1.9 billion was allocated by the HSE for disability services in 2019. What that means essentially is that we will 8,600 people in residential care, 27,000 people in day services, respite residential support for 182,500, personal assistance services of 1.63 million hours and home support services of 3.08 million hours. The good news for people living in institutions is that we will move 160 more people out of institutions into smaller community settings. We must invest and reform and listen to the needs of groups such as iCare and the Bluestack foundation. I am listening carefully to what the Senator says and will push very hard on those issues.

There are two remaining matters. As a vote is being taken in the Dáil, however, we do not have Ministers available. I invite the Leader to speak.

I apologise to the Members. The first I was aware of this was when I received a telephone call from the Seanad Office. I have never seen it happen during the Commencement debate previously. Given that there is a division in the Lower House, I propose that we check if a Minister is available to respond to the remaining matters.

Legislative Reviews

I welcome the Minister of State, Deputy Stanton. I am delighted he is here to take this matter in which I know he has a strong interest. My Commencement matter is to ask the Minister for Justice and Equality to provide information on the progress made to date in conducting the three-year review of the operation of section 7A of the Criminal Law (Sexual Offences) Act 1993. In particular, I seek an outline of the progress made in providing the additional resources promised to support those seeking to exit prostitution and for research into the operation of section 7A.

The Minister of State is well aware of the context for this question. It is the passing into law in 2017 of Part 4 of the Criminal Law (Sexual Offences) Act, which created in section 7A of the 1993 Act a new offence of purchasing sexual services, thereby criminalising the buyers of sex, while also decriminalising individuals who sell sex. The primary objective, as the Minister of State is well aware, was to tackle the demand that led to sexual exploitation, predominantly of women and girls. The context was the 2013 recommendation of the justice committee, which was chaired at the time by the Minister of State and on which I served, that a law be introduced here in line with the approach taken in Sweden and an increasing number of other countries worldwide which seek to tackle demand by criminalising the purchase of sex. In Ireland, we had seen a long campaign by the civil society alliance, Turn Off the Red Light, TORL, to which more than 70 groups were affiliated. The work of TORL fed into the committee's review but, as the Minister of State is aware, we also conducted extensive hearings.

The legislation was commenced on 28 March 2017 and I understand the three-year review is thus due in March 2020. There is some concern among civil society groups that worked with the Turn Off the Red Light campaign and are very supportive of the legislation about how the review required by section 25 of the 2017 Act will be rolled out. My objective today is to get some clarification as to how it is proposed the review will be conducted and to ask the Minister of State to outline whether the promised additional resources will be provided to support those seeking to exit prostitution. A review of the debates on this matter would show that even those who opposed the legislation supported the provision of resources to assist those who wish to exit prostitution. There was an expectation that projects such as the Women's Health Project and groups working closely with those seeking to exit prostitution such as Ruhama would be given resources to assist them in their important work. The Minister of State travelled with other members of the committee to Sweden on a fact-finding trip in 2012 when we saw the resources that are put in place in that country to support the implementation of its law.

I am also keen to find out what progress has been made in resourcing research into the operation of section 7A. We need to ensure the review will be evidence based and research will be conducted to provide facts on which the review will be based.

I would also like resourcing to be provided for a public awareness programme on the legislation and its purpose. The first conviction under Part 4 was reported on 21 January last. One assumes the reporting of that conviction will have knock-on and deterrent effects. We know from other research that knowledge that people are likely to be prosecuted acts as a deterrent and has a very welcome effect of suppressing demand. We know also that implementing new criminal legislation creates challenges. While the reporting of cases such as the conviction secured in recent weeks will have an important chilling effect, we are all conscious that resourcing must be put in place for specialist Garda units assigned to the work of targeting sex buyers and the organisers of prostitution who feed on demand.

I have raised a number of issues. I know the Minister of State is personally concerned about this matter and welcome his attendance in the House to respond.

On behalf of the Minister for Justice and Equality, Deputy Charlie Flanagan, I thank the Senator for raising this important matter and offer the Minister's apologies for not being able to address it in person.

It is hard to believe it is so many years since we addressed this. It was in 2012.

I remind the House of the provisions of the Criminal Law (Sexual Offences) Act 2017 that related to prostitution-related offences. Part 4 of the Act provides for two new offences: paying for sexual activity with a prostitute and paying for sexual activity with a trafficked person, with the latter offence carrying a penalty of up to five years' imprisonment or an unlimited fine, or both. The Act removes those who offer their services as a prostitute from the existing offence of soliciting for the purpose of prostitution. A key objective of Part 4 of the Act is to reduce demand for sexual services, as the Senator said. As regards actions on the ground, I believe the message is getting out to those who purchase sex.

In recent months a number of files have been sent to the office of the Director of Public Prosecutions, resulting in the much published first conviction for the purchase of sex earlier this month. Furthermore, the Department of Justice and Equality has advanced plans to conduct an awareness raising initiative later this year relating to the offence of purchasing sex.

As regards supporting persons who wish to exit prostitution, comprehensive measures are in place. The Department of Justice and Equality provides annual funding to Ruhama to ensure women who wish to exit prostitution receive the necessary support to develop the confidence and capacity to rebuild their lives. This funding was increased in 2017 and again in 2018. With regard to State support, the HSE's women's health service provides sexual health and outreach support for women affected by prostitution and trafficking for sexual exploitation. The service comprises a free comprehensive sexual health service, including full sexual health testing, treatment and contraception.

The Act was passed on 22 February 2017 and much of it, including the provisions I have described, were commenced on 27 March 2017. Part 4 of the Act specifies that, not later than three years after its commencement, a report will be prepared on the number of arrests and convictions in respect of the new offences, as well as an assessment of the impact of the section on those who provide sexual services for payment. Inputs to the report will come from a number of sources. The first will be from the monitoring of investigations, arrests and convictions by the Garda National Protective Services Bureau. Additional information will be provided by the HSE's women's health service and civil society organisations working in this field. Furthermore, this year the Department is funding a number of research projects that will measure the impact of the new legislation on the welfare of women engaged in prostitution, the outcomes of which will inform the report. I hope that answers the Senator's points.

I thank the Minister of State for the very full response. I very much welcome the plans of the Department of Justice and Equality to conduct an awareness raising initiative. It will have a large role to play in supporting the suppression of demand, as sought through the legislation.

I welcome the announcement that the funding for Ruhama was increased in 2017 and 2018. I note the Minister of State does not refer to any additional resources being provided for the HSE women's health service. I wonder whether resources to that important service will be increased also because the service does a great deal of work in supporting women and others involved in prostitution.

I note the Minister of State's point about the report. Section 27 of the Act states it shall include information on arrests, convictions and the impact of operation. Is it possible, however, that other material might be in the report? Will the Minister of State comment on this? Will he give more detail of the research projects the Department of Justice and Equality will be funding to measure the impact of the new legislation on the welfare of women engaged in prostitution? I would be interested to know the basis on which those resources are being allocated.

I thank the Senator for raising this matter and making those points. The Department of Justice and Equality is actively engaged in co-ordinating measures to reduce demand for the purchase of sexual services and in developing support strategies for persons seeking to exit prostitution. I recognise the important role of An Garda Síochána, the HSE, State agencies and the NGO sector play in supporting our national objectives in that regard. These organisations also play a strong role in the national strategy against human trafficking which has a strong sexual exploitation dimension.

The Minister believes Part 4 of the Criminal Law (Sexual Offences) Act 2017 has played an important role in this process and he is committed to the delivery of a comprehensive review of its operation. On behalf of the Minister, I assure the House that his Department will continue to support this important area through research, awareness-raising, NGO funding and co-ordination measures. I do not have any information to hand on the HSE women's health service. It is possibly best obtained from the Department of Health, rather than the Department of Justice and Equality.

As the plans and research come to hand, I will arrange for them to be communicated to the Senator. There are other inputs. I am aware that the Senator has a personal interest in this matter and will ensure she is kept informed in the best possible way as this develops.

Human Rights

I welcome the Minister of State and thank him for attending to address this important topic. I am sure he will agree with me that the crisis unfolding in Venezuela in recent weeks has shocked many people with news reports of people rooting through bins to feed their children, a crisis in the availability, as well as a lack of, basic medical care and supplies, along with inflation of 1 million %. This is all in a country which has generated $320 billion in oil revenue in the past ten years.

Last year’s Venezuelan presidential election exposed and saw electoral fraud on a massive scale. This has been roundly condemned by the European Union and all international observers. We have seen serious human rights abuse reports, with 8,000 extrajudicial killings in the past three years by the state security services, while thousands more have been detained without charge, trial or any due process. Many Venezuelans have been stranded abroad during the crisis, including many in Ireland, because their worsening situation has meant that they are able unable to renew their travel documents.

I would be grateful if the Minister could outline what steps the Government is taking about this serious situation, particularly in conjunction with the European Union, to bring about an end to the crisis and an improvement in the lives of ordinary people in Venezuela. Is the Department of Foreign Affairs and Trade aware of Venezuelan citizens who may be stranded in Ireland and unable to return home?

Will the Minister of State agree with me that some political parties and Members of the Oireachtas have not covered themselves in glory on this issue? Many Members of this House spent much time raising human rights abuses in the context of the debate on the occupied territories Bill but have been curiously silent on this issue. The Minister of State will be aware that two senior members of Sinn Féin, including its general secretary, attended Mr. Maduro’s inauguration recently. It was Sinn Féin's connected organisation, the IRA, which committed 1,800 extrajudicial killings on this island that are still not condemned outright. In one way, we cannot be surprised that it has no objection to 8,000 extrajudicial killings committed by the Venezuelan regime.

It is not just Sinn Féin of course. Over the weekend, I heard Deputy Paul Murphy of the so-called Socialist Party say the economic crisis in Venezuela was due to the fact that Mr. Maduro was not left-wing enough. Even the President has joined this bandwagon in the past, I am sorry to say. He praised the former Venezuelan President, Hugo Chávez, for achieving "a great deal in his term in office, particularly in the area of social development and poverty reduction.” These policies are now the policies universally agreed to be the root cause of the current misery of the Venezuelan people. I do not say this to be nit-picking but because it is a serious subject. It highlights the bankrupt political ideology of many of the hard left. It does not seem to matter how many people suffer or die, so long as their left-wing experiment is protected at all costs.

I hope the Minister of State will agree with me that sentiments praising the Maduro regime do not represent the views of the Irish people. The Government has moved on this issue by recognising of the head of the Venezuelan National Assembly, Juan Guaidó. Will the Minister of State endorse what two Venezuelan nationals living in Ireland, Kley Salinas and Liliana Fernandez, who said in an interview at the weekend that “Your body is here in Ireland but your mind is in Venezuela”, living in fear for those back home? We have to have in mind these days and show concern for the hundreds of Venezuelan nationals who have come to Ireland to live happy and productive lives but who are in great pain about the plight of their home country.

The Government continues to be deeply concerned by the political, economic, social and humanitarian crisis in Venezuela. This crisis continues to have a grave impact on the Venezuelan people. It has resulted in mass migration, affecting countries in the region and overall regional stability.

Particularly distressing is the human impact of the crisis. The UN estimates over 3 million people, approximately one tenth of the entire Venezuelan population, have already left the country. The acute humanitarian needs in the country are well known, particularly shortages in access to medicines, significant increases in malaria, infant and maternal mortality, as well as acute malnutrition.

On 10 January President Nicolás Maduro started a new mandate on the basis of non-democratic elections held in May 2018.

Ireland was not represented at the inauguration and fully supported the related declaration by the EU High Representative and Vice-President of the Commission, Ms Federica Mogherini, which urged President Maduro to release all political prisoners, to uphold the rule of law, human rights and fundamental freedoms and to urgently address the needs of the population.

Ireland, alongside its EU partners, has repeatedly called on the Venezuelan Government to engage in dialogue with the opposition, respect the electoral calendar and fully restore the country's democratic institutions. It is regrettable that the Venezuelan Government has not heeded these calls for fresh presidential elections in accordance with internationally recognised democratic standards and the Venezuelan constitutional order.

Ireland fully supports the most recent EU 28 statement made by the High Representative and Vice President of the Commission, Ms Mogherini, on 26 January which reiterates that a peaceful and inclusive democratic solution is the only sustainable way out of the current crisis and reaffirms the full support of the EU to the democratically elected National Assembly. It stated that if no announcement regarding fresh elections were to be made in the intervening days, the EU would take further actions, including regarding the issue of recognition of the country's leadership. Ireland reaffirms its full support for the democratically elected National Assembly, the last remaining fully democratic institution in Venezuela, emphasising that its powers need to be restored and respected. Ireland supports the call made by the President of the National Assembly, Mr. Juan Guaidó, for free, fair and democratic elections.

Ireland is committed to finding ways to foster shared democratic solutions that can bring political stability and address the pressing needs of the Venezuelan people, including by increasing EU humanitarian support.

A credible, meaningful dialogue leading to an inclusive democratic solution is the most effective way of achieving a peaceful and sustainable resolution of the current crisis in Venezuela. Ireland also supports the remarks made by the High Representative and Vice-President of the Commission, Ms Mogherini, following the informal meeting of EU foreign Ministers in Bucharest on 31 January, including regarding further EU actions to increase humanitarian support and to consider additional targeted sanctions. Ms Mogherini also took the opportunity to announce the establishment by the EU of an international contact group for Venezuela. Ireland, while not seeking membership, welcomes its establishment and believes that the international contact group will be a useful vehicle for facilitating dialogue and working towards a democratic solution. I look forward to the report of the first meeting of that international contact group which is to be held in Montevideo this Thursday.

I welcome the high priority given to the issue by the EU and the regular consultations at the highest levels on developments on the ground. Ireland remains in close contact with our EU partners to consider our next steps for a co-ordinated EU action.

I thank the Minister of State for his reply. I reiterate something I said in this House last week. While I welcome the general thrust of the Government's approach to this issue, it would be good if we did not just wait for the EU line on these issues. It is important we give strong moral leadership as a small country that has been known to do that in the past and is recognised and respected for its neutrality. Other, larger countries have moved more quickly to make their positions on the matter clear and I would like to see Ireland taking a lead and not just waiting for the EU line.

I thank the Senator. I reiterate that Ireland has continuously voiced its support for the National Assembly, of which Mr. Guaidó was elected President earlier this month, as well as urging Mr. Nicolás Maduro to fully respect and restore the independence and powers of the National Assembly. Ireland is committed to finding ways to foster shared democratic solutions that can bring political stability and address the pressing needs of the Venezuelan people, including by increasing EU humanitarian support.

We have always made the case and continue to do so that a credible, meaningful dialogue leading to an inclusive democratic solution is the most effective way of achieving a peaceful and sustainable resolution of the current crisis in Venezuela. Ireland supports urgent measures to address the humanitarian crisis and reiterates calls for humanitarian actors to be allowed to operate without interference to ensure that the utmost is done to mitigate against the grave effects of the crisis and alleviate the suffering of the Venezuelan people to the greatest extent possible.

Ongoing engagement with our EU partners is critical in trying to effect the kind of change necessary within Venezuela in the most sustainable manner. Our voice is amplified significantly by working in close concert with our EU partners and at the highest level on the issue. The days and weeks ahead are crucial for the people of Venezuela and Ireland will continue to maintain that very close and ongoing contact with our EU partners to repeatedly emphasise the right of the Venezuelan people to choose their future.

Sitting suspended at 3.25 p.m. and resumed at 3.30 p.m.