Nithe i dtosach suíonna - Commencement Matters

National Carers' Strategy Funding

The Minister of State at the Department of Health is very welcome, as ever. Just before he came in we decided to switch the order of Commencement matters 1 and 2. I propose that we take Senator Boyhan's Commencement matter first because some of our Senators are having trouble getting here. Is that all right with the Minister of State?

I welcome the Minister of State to the House. I did expect the Minister for Employment Affairs and Social Protection to attend but I know she is busy and there is a Cabinet meeting. One of the reasons I want to single her out is that I want to acknowledge her. I know that she is not here but I want to put on the public record her outstanding service and that of her Department. I can honestly tell Members that of all of my time in my three years here there is no Minister who has followed up more diligently on every piece of correspondence or representation that I have made and I have personally received a response from her. Not only have I had a response but it has been personally signed off by her. Her attention to detail is extraordinary, which is worth putting on the record of the House.

In many ways that goes back to the team she leads. I do not know if she is a hard taskmaster, but she is a good one. From my knowledge, from feedback from the Minister, her staff and her officials and from the many representations that I make on behalf of city and county councillors across this country, I have found her to be excellent. I wanted to say that to her today but she is not here, so perhaps the Minister of State, Deputy Jim Daly, might convey that to her. I genuinely believe that we should acknowledge people who excel in their work in public service, and she does.

I thank the Department, in particular for the level of public engagement. I am mindful of the social welfare Christmas and new year payments as well as publications. It is constant and it is important to acknowledge the quality of the work and the information that goes out. This was in our paper today. I want to thank the Minister in the Minister of State's Department for the increase in the number of carers who will have the opportunity to train from 1 January 2020. It is a few additional hours. It is not a lot but it is going in the right direction. I understand that there are always demands on public finances, public funds and public support.

I raise the issue of carers in crisis - the carers in our community. They are mothers, fathers, brothers, sisters and loved ones who support close family members with a disability in the home place or in the community or elderly parents and friends. The Minister of State has spoken time and again in this House about the importance of keeping people in their homes and in their communities, where practical and possible. What better place, what nicer place and what more comfortable place to be supported when one is ill, has a disability or is in need of support than in one's community. I hope that focus is not lost. I accept that funding is always a difficulty, but the priority has to be on how we can put and increase resources in homes and in our communities to support vulnerable people.

The real purpose of raising this today was to thank the Minister, Deputy Doherty, on doing a difficult job well but, more importantly, to ask her to keep the focus on what she intends to do to increase support. I do not necessarily expect the Minister of State to read the reply into the record but I would be very happy if he passed on this message.

I call the Minister of State, Deputy Daly.

I would like to thank Senator Boyhan for raising the matter. Family carers play a crucial role in the provision of care at home to elderly, disabled, and ill loved ones. The Government is committed to support carers in their caring role, and alleviate the financial burden of caring through a range of healthcare and income supports. The National Carers' Strategy represents a whole-of-Government response to the challenges faced by family carers, and sets out the strategic direction for future policies, services, and supports provided by Government Departments and agencies for carers. The strategy is designed around a core vision which recognises and respects carers as key care partners who are supported to maintain their own health and well-being, care with confidence, and empowered to participate as fully as possible in economic and social life.

The Government has increased expenditure on carer's allowance, carer's benefit, carer's support grant, and all ancillary care allowances by 20% since 2016. These payments offer an important source of income support for those caring for a family member due to old age or disability. The Department of Employment Affairs and Social Protection expects that spending on these payments in 2019 will amount to more than €1.2 billion.

In budget 2020 an increase in home carer credit was announced, raising the credit from €100 to €1,600. In addition, the number of hours that carers can work or study outside the home is being increased from 15 hours to 18.5 hours per week with effect from January 2020. More than 1,200 carers are expected to benefit from this change at a cost of €11.6 million.

Identifying carers and their needs as early as possible is of critical importance if they are to be supported in their caring role. The Department of Health has secured funding from the Dormant Accounts Fund for a pilot of the carer's needs assessment tool, which will be progressed next year. The tool will be a key step in helping to identify carers at all stages and will also play a role in identifying the supports required. Funding from the Dormant Accounts Fund has also been secured for information and training support for family carers, which assists carers to provide the best care possible to the care recipient, reduce the risk of injury to the carer and care recipient, and help family carers cope with the emotional and psychological aspects of their role. Funding has also been made available to provide for the dissemination of resource information for family carers, the development of support networks, and support groups to assist with the transition back into social and economic life at the end of the caring role and measures that assist in promoting carer self-identification.

Supports for the cared-for person are also vital in many ways. The needs of the carer are interlinked with the cared-for person. Budget 2020 allocated additional funding for disability services, including supports for school leavers, autism services, emergency residency protocols and respite. The total disability service budget will exceed €2 billion in 2020.

The Department of Health has committed to an additional investment of €52 million in budget 2020 for older persons to bring the total funding for home supports to €487 million, providing 777,000 more home support hours than the 2019 target.

The increased investment in the benefits and supports for family carers I have outlined reflects the Government's serious commitment to looking after people who spend their time caring for others and maintaining the level of supports available.

I assure the Senator that I will do justice to his sincere and genuine comments by conveying them back to the Minister. I know she will appreciate them. I agree with the Senator; any positive examples of good practice should always be acknowledged, highlighted and recognised as such as a reminder to everybody else.

I thank the Minister and it would be remiss of me not to thank the Minister of State as well. He constantly comes before this House to address the issue. It is not easy to be here all the time, but if we were to carry out an assessment, perhaps he would be the Minister in here most often. I thank him and wish him well.

Hospital Overcrowding

I thank the Minister of State, Deputy Daly, for coming before the House. This Commencement matter follows on from an issue I raised last week in the health committee with the Minister for Health and the HSE. It came to my notice that 15 beds in St. John's Hospital in Limerick were not in use for the past three months, which is unacceptable. I will qualify that by saying I fully understand the considerable difficulties faced by staff, including consultants, other medical staff and administrative staff, throughout the hospital but more particularly in University Hospital Limerick, UHL, in managing a situation whereby we are playing catch-up with reconfiguration. The 24-hour emergency departments, EDs, at Ennis Hospital, Nenagh Hospital and St. John's Hospital were closed, and 138 co-location beds were supposed to be built on the grounds of UHL before the reconfiguration went through. It should not have gone through. We are playing catch-up. What we now need is the 60-bed block under construction on the site of UHL. A 96-bed block will go into the planning phase early in the new year. This will provide more than 150 beds. That will take time. The 60 beds will be in place by next September, but we must all work together. No one, management or anyone else, told me these 15 beds were idle and not in use. Two long-standing consultants retired in St. John's Hospital over the past year. If we are operating in the dark and we do not know what is happening within the hospital group, it is impossible for someone like me, a public representative in Limerick, to assist fully at national level. If I were aware that 15 beds, for whatever lack of resources, could not be opened, I would have been at the desks of the Minister and the Minister of State and would have beaten down the door to get the funding in place. I will put Limerick ahead of everything else but I did not know about this.

I am glad funding is being provided under the National Treatment Purchase Fund, NTPF, to open the beds in St. John's. I want them open quickly. Furthermore, I want a comprehensive bed management plan put in place to ensure the beds are put to maximum use in UHL, St. John's, Ennis, Nenagh and Croom. It is important that everyone works together on this. This is not in any way a criticism on my part of anything to do with the medical profession - the consultants, the nurses or anyone else. I want to help but I do not know what the position in the hospitals is. There are 15 beds not in use. Why was this the case? How can I assist? I want to know now whether a comprehensive bed management plan is in place to provide the resources. If the university hospital group needs resources, the Department should ask for them and tell us it has done so. Funding for the second MRI scanner was provided when asked for, but when I asked for it at the health committee, there were 15 beds at the same time not in use in St. John's. I did not know that at the time. If I had, I would have looked for funding there as well.

The situation with the 15 beds does not concern me if they are not open but the Minister of State should tell me what is required to be done in terms of resources. I will go to the appropriate Minister and the Government to fight for those resources for Limerick. There has been a major capacity crisis in Limerick for a number of years.

I would like to see an audit of the nursing home beds in Limerick and its regions to ensure they are put to most efficient use. If funding is required, it should be provided. Funding will come through the NTPF for an additional ten nursing beds. That has been approved. The minor injury clinics in Ennis, Nenagh and St. John's hospitals must have longer opening hours and we need to see the second MRI scanner for Limerick hospital in operation straight away. We all need to work together to ensure we deal with the crisis facing patients in Limerick. That includes Ministers, management in the hospital group, consultants, nurses and administrators. I will take whatever criticism put at our door but I am there to help. If I do not know beds are unoccupied, how in the name of God can I help?

Have detailed discussions taken place to ensure there is a comprehensive bed management strategy in place and we can all work together, including medical, ministerial, administrative and management staff? We must ensure we can get through this crisis and get the 150 extra beds that should have been put in place.

I welcome the opportunity to address the House on the matters raised by Senators Kieran O'Donnell and Maria Byrne, although she was not able to be here.

The Minister for Health wishes to acknowledge the distress overcrowded EDs cause to patients, their families, and front-line staff working in very challenging conditions in hospitals throughout the country. The number of patients attending EDs continues to increase year on year. For the first 11 months of 2019, the number of patients attending hospital EDs increased by 2.5%, and the number of admissions increased by 0.7% when compared with the same period last year.

According to HSE TrolleyGAR data, there was a 14.5% increase in the number of patients waiting on trolleys in UHL emergency department this year up to the end of November 2019 when compared to the same period last year. It is acknowledged that this is exceptionally high and the HSE is actively working with the University of Limerick Hospitals Group to ease congestion in the hospital, with a focus on facilitating transfers to level 2 hospitals, assistance from rehabilitation units and community health organisation services, as well as prioritisation of diagnostics to aid inpatient discharges.

The HSE winter plan was launched on Thursday, 14 November, in preparation for the anticipated increase in demand over the winter period. The Government allocated an additional €26 million to fund the implementation of the winter plan. Each winter action team has set out a range of initiatives it will undertake within its area to implement the plan. The integrated winter plan for University Hospital Limerick will be delivered by winter action team, WAT, 3. The initiatives for WAT 3 include additional home support hours to facilitate early hospital to community transfers; additional aids and appliances to facilitate early hospital discharges and ED avoidance; mobile doctor service units to manage increased demand for home visits and facilitate ED avoidance; a low-level domiciliary rehab team in Limerick city to facilitate early discharge and ED avoidance; added triage nursing support in Shannondoc to support ED avoidance; an added registrar in UHL to assist in addressing workflow and improve patient experience times; and added healthcare assistants support in the hospital to provide staffing at ward level to support additional surge patients.

The NTPF has agreed at my request to support the marginal costs of funding additional beds for three months to the end of March 2020. This initiative will support the commitment by the HSE and my Department to alleviate winter pressures in our hospital system. Hospitals have been invited to make submissions to the fund to utilise this funding. To date, the NTPF has approved in principle and subject to appropriate governance and oversight 172 additional beds. These beds will be funded from the fund's budget at a cost of approximately €4.6 million. This includes an additional 15 beds in St. John's Hospital and ten additional nursing home beds to facilitate egress and alleviate overcrowding in UHL emergency department.

The NTPF is currently assessing further proposals that are still being received. In this regard, given the challenges facing the EDs with the exceptionally high use of trolleys for patients, I urge all hospital groups and individual hospitals that have not done so to engage with the NTPF to identify proposals to provide additional bed capacity for the winter period. Furthermore, a capital budget of €19.5 million has been approved for the provision of a modular 60-bed inpatient ward block at UHL, with funding of €10 million allocated in 2019. The HSE has advised that the enabling works are complete, the main contractor has commenced work and it is anticipated that the construction will be completed in mid 2020.

This important project will go some way towards addressing the acknowledged lack of bed capacity in the region.

I thank the Minister of State. I welcome the fact that 15 beds are coming into use in St. John's Hospital. They need to be up and running as quickly as possible, along with the additional nursing home beds. If management and consultants in Limerick and the mid-west region feel there are areas where there is a need for additional funding and resources, they should let us know. We are here to assist and work collectively as a group. I am aware of the difficulties of working in the hospital group for consultants, the medical team and nurses in Limerick and the mid-west. They work throughout the hospital group in UHL, Ennis, Nenagh, St. John's Hospital, Croom and the maternity hospital.

We all must work together to ensure we do not have a situation where there are 62 people on trolleys in UHL, as happened yesterday. It was the highest number in the country. There were 54 on trolleys in Cork. There is a continuing crisis because of the lack of bed capacity. The focus must be on addressing the short-term needs over the next number of months so everything is done to alleviate pressure in the ED. I admire the work the medical and nursing teams do with consultants in the University of Limerick hospital group. The key issue is that people are made aware on time of whatever resources are required because my role as a public representative for Limerick is to go to the Government to ensure the resources are put in place.

As the Senator knows, I was in UHL last week. I acknowledge and commend the work of the team there, led by Professor Colette Cowan, and the community healthcare side as well. It is working with UHL on driving innovation in healthcare. That is an important aspect because it cannot always be about more beds and money.

There is a bed crisis in Limerick.

We have to look at new ways of doing old things. That must be acknowledged and it must be referenced in any conversation about healthcare and its future. We must recognise the good work that is being done in the clinical education and research centre, CERC, building and the many innovations. Most of them are led by clinicians. Many of these are superb initiatives. We were shown presentations on them. They are essentially about building capacity but by having better innovation and efficiencies driving through the system, as well as lessening people's reliance on hospital beds by being more creative in how we deal with them. That is an important part of this debate. I acknowledge the good work being done on that front by the UL hospital group. I was particularly impressed and it would be remiss of me not to point to that.

While we struggle to build the 60-bed modular unit, it is not all about funding. Sometimes staffing can be the difficulty in terms of trying to get the appropriately skilled staff. UHL has advised the NTPF that it expects to open the ten beds in the nursing home this Wednesday. The opening of the beds will be staggered for clinical safety reasons but they should all be fully operational by the end of the year, which is effectively two weeks away. It is usual practice to stagger the opening. One would not just open ten new beds on the day. Regarding the 15 beds in St. John's Hospital, UHL will revert later in the week with further information, as these beds require a consultant. That appears to be the difficulty. It is not funding alone, but the availability of a consultant.

My understanding from University of Limerick hospital group is that it was being arranged.

The NTPF informed the unit that the ambulance initiative funded by the NTPF in Limerick is up and running, as is the extension of the medical assessment unit, MAU, opening hours in Ennis.

National Parks

Cuirim fáilte roimh an Aire go dtí an Teach. I thank the Minister, Deputy Ring, for taking time from his schedule to be here. Rossmore Forest Park is a national park located on the outskirts of Monaghan town. It is a huge, fantastic facility. It stretches across more than 320 ha of forest.

It has been used primarily for recreation purposes as there are many beautiful trails and walks through it. There is also a lake there. Recently a new play park and a giant trail were developed, which have proven very attractive to locals and visitors alike. This park has serious potential to become not just an attraction in County Monaghan but a regional attraction but it needs to be developed further. With that in mind, Cycling Ireland and Emyvale Cycling Club have approached Monaghan County Council with a view to providing cycling infrastructure within the confines of Rossmore Forest Park. The project they have in mind is the creation of a 2.5 km family cycle route which is completely off-road. Cycling on the open road is not a very attractive option for beginners or children. The proposal is for a completely off-road track that would be very safe.

As the Minister knows, cycling has become very popular in this country. Many more people are cycling now, which is great to see, particularly given the health benefits of physical exercise. The problem in Monaghan is that we do not have proper facilities for cyclists to learn how to cycle safely. Therefore, an application has been forwarded by Monaghan County Council to the Minister's Department for funding under the outdoor recreation infrastructure scheme. This project in Monaghan town is very much needed and I hope the Minister will look upon the application in a favourable light. Monaghan has many fine attractions apart from the forest park to which I have referred. We also have the Castle Leslie estate in Glaslough, Lough Muckno in Castleblayney and the Patrick Kavanagh Centre in Inniskeen. Most people would agree that Monaghan, like other parts of the country, needs to see an economic benefit from tourism which it has not enjoyed to date. We have many fine attractions and we need to build on them. This project involving Cycling Ireland and Emyvale Cycling Club represents a first step in the development of a cycling attraction within Rossmore Forest Park. Cycling Ireland has ambitions to develop further cycling attractions within the park. I urge the Minister to provide funding for the first step in the development of a facility that would be both a local and regional attraction, something that is very much needed in County Monaghan.

I thank Senator Gallagher for raising this issue today. I can confirm that my Department has received an application for funding from Monaghan County Council to support a 2.5 km off-road family cycling route at Rossmore Forest Park under this year's outdoor recreation infrastructure scheme. I understand that the proposed project is part of a larger series of works set out in the Rossmore Forest Park master plan, which was developed by Monaghan County Council in partnership with Coillte. This is an ambitious plan with a number of different elements designed to realise the significant potential of the park while managing it in a sustainable way. It is expected that the plan will be implemented by Monaghan County Council on a phased basis. The council has already been successful in securing funding from my Department under the outdoor recreation infrastructure scheme. Rossmore Forest Park received funding of over €420,000 under the scheme in 2018. This funding has not yet been drawn down, although it is expected that works will be completed early next year. This is in addition to funding of €115,000 provided to the park in 2016. The type of work being funded includes the upgrading of paths and signage and new footbridges, as well as improved access and recreation points. I understand that funding was also provided through the PEACE programme for the development of an adventure play park.

The commencement of the outdoor recreation infrastructure scheme in 2016 marked the first time in recent years that a dedicated funding stream was available for bodies involved in the provision of this type of infrastructure. Demand for funding remains high and there is enormous potential to further develop the outdoor recreation sector. I intend to continue to support projects of this type through measures such as the rural regeneration development fund, LEADER and the outdoor recreation infrastructure scheme.

This year, my Department sought applications under the outdoor recreation infrastructure scheme for three measures ranging from small-sized projects costing less than €20,000 to large projects requiring investment of up to €500,000. My Department has received 284 applications under the three measures this year, representing a total request for funding of approximately €24 million. My officials must assess each application carefully on its own merits to ensure that good value for public moneys is received from any funding committed under the scheme. Last month, I announced funding of €1.8 million for 109 projects under measure 1 of the 2019 scheme. This includes five projects in County Monaghan. The assessment of the applications received under the larger measures is still ongoing. These include the new application received in respect of Rossmore Forest Park. I hope to make announcements in this regard in the near future.

Gabhaim buíochas leis an Aire as sin. I thank the Minister very much for his response. Like myself, he comes from rural Ireland and knows the importance of our responsibility to develop the potential of rural Ireland to its maximum. This is an opportunity for the Government to put Monaghan on the map as a tourist attraction. I sincerely hope that when the Minister goes to write that cheque, as he intends to do in the new year, he will have Monaghan County Council in mind. I hope that he will see his way to providing much-needed funding for this facility.

For the Senator's information, from 2017 to 2019, my Department allocated €21,235,551 to Monaghan. The outdoor recreation scheme is a fantastic scheme, which works well. I know the particular part of the county about which the Senator is talking. I am under a lot of political pressure from the Minister based in the constituency, as the Senator will understand. She puts a lot of pressure on me because she believes there is no other county than Monaghan. I like the outdoor recreation scheme and I want it to continue but I want to send a message to every single county council, including Monaghan County Council. I appreciate the Senator's very respectful approach today. The local authorities have had this money since last year and should have it spent. I have written to every local authority and I am starting to withdraw funding from them. They will be getting letters. Any authority that has not spent money it received in 2017 will have it withdrawn. There is no point in putting €110 million into the rural regeneration scheme, €25 million into the LEADER scheme, €68 million into the town and village scheme to carry out 830 projects, €43 million into the outdoor recreation scheme, and €32 million into the CLÁR programme if the authorities are not going to spend the money. I know the funding was not there for a number of years but it has been provided continuously in recent years. I want to send a message to Monaghan County Council and every other local authority. I will be looking at projects on which money has not been spent. I cannot allocate funding to councils that have not spent the money they have received.

I thank the Minister. Senator Gallagher has heard that message.

Loud and clear. I will bring that message home.

Forestry Sector

The next item is in the name of Senator Paddy Burke but he told me on the phone earlier that he would be delayed and that he may share time with Senator Mulherin. Is Senator Mulherin making an application to move this item?

Yes, if the Leas-Chathaoirleach is disposed to allow me.

Okay. I will grant that.

I welcome the Minister of State and thank him for coming in to take this issue. As he knows, we have great plans for afforestation, planting more trees, as part of our battle to reduce greenhouse gas emissions. Without a doubt, forestry plays a very important part in carbon sequestration but all the evidence points to the fact that our system for licensing or planning forestry is not fit for purpose. The matter I bring before the Minister of State today arises out of complaints from people involved in the industry, particularly the Forestry Company in Cork. These companies are given licences to plant and to fell mature forests but there is a major problem. As the Minister of State knows, the planning process does not involve a planning application to the local authority.

The planning process is not just a planning application to the local authority. It involves an initial application to the Department of Agriculture, Food and the Marine for a licence. The forestry appeals committee hears objections or appeals against decisions made. However, it would seem according to those involved in the industry that very few, if any, licences are being issued from the Department and that there are major blockages in the forestry appeals committee system, which means that they cannot do any business. That might point to an issue with resources but, more worrying, the substantive issue that the decisions made by the forestry appeals committee decisions appear to be ad hoc. It does not appear to operate a system of precedent, case law or something akin to that whereby people objecting and those defending their case can be properly guided as to how the committee interprets the legislation. That is one aspect.

The other aspect is that these forests have a major impact on communities. Communities are complaining that they are not being consulted properly. There is a recommendation in the forestry guidelines that they should be consulted but that is not happening in many cases. Under the current system, if one wants to build a road going into a forest, one has to get planning permission and go through the rigours of the local authority. However, if one wants to plant a vast forest that might have the same impact as building a warehouse in the middle of the countryside, one does not need planning permission.

There must be a more integrated approach in county development plans to ensure there can be a proper and robust teasing out of the balancing of land use and desirable forestry because we need forestry in the right place and with the right mix to avoid monoculture. Equally, we have to have consideration for communities and ensure that these forests are not overbearing and that they are a fair imposition on communities. One only has to look to the likes of Leitrim where there is vast afforestation and people are up in arms about it. We need to get the balance right but this cries of a system, in terms of the Department of Agriculture, Food and the Marine and the forestry appeals committee, that is not fit for purpose. It needs to be reviewed in respect of the county development plan and the local authorities, but that is not happening. People are aggrieved. They believe they are not being listened to and that there is not a proper process in place to allow their concerns to be aired. There are also the people involved in the industry. This does not seem to suit anybody and the result is that it will not suit our objective to plant more forests. We have to go back to the drawing board and get this right. I hope we can begin that process here today. I acknowledge Senator Paddy Burke, who tabled this Commencement matter but who cannot be here owing to-----

He was on the phone to me and apologised.

-----blockages in Kevin Street. Senators, and not just Senator Burke, cannot get into Leinster House at the moment.

I understand that. It happened to Senator Byrne earlier.

I thank Senator Mulherin for taking the question on behalf of Senator Paddy Burke, who is delayed. I can see it is an issue the Senator is very interested in as well. I thank her for raising it.

I apologise to the Senators for the absence of the Minister, Deputy Creed, and the Minister of State, Deputy Doyle, both of whom are in Brussels. As Senator Mulherin will be aware, the Minister is dealing with fisheries at an important meeting that is pertinent to her county. The Ministers are keenly aware of the current delays being incurred by applicants and have asked me to give some background to the issues to both Senators.

All forestry licences issued by the Department of Agriculture, Food and the Marine are subject to public notification and consultation and third party appeal. As the planning body for forestry applications, it has an obligation to ensure that all licences are issued in accordance with relevant environmental legislation. The relevant legislation is continuously subject to change as a result of case law interpretation and so the Department's procedures must change in tandem.

Furthermore, decisions are subject to appeal to the independent forestry appeals committee. Some of the submitted appeals have been won by appellants through challenging the Department's procedures. These cases have required the Department to change procedures involved in assessing forestry licence applications.

The appeals are connected to the appropriate assessment, AA, procedure. Article 6.3 of the habitats directive requires that where a plan or project is likely to have a significant effect on a Natura site, either individually or in combination with other plans or projects, it must undergo an appropriate assessment of its implications for that Natura site. The forestry inspectorate has been implementing an AA procedure established in 2013. However, as the FAC has identified issues with the procedure, and as recent European case law is interpreted within Irish courts, changes to the procedure have been made. The Department has taken several steps to help deal with these changes including engaging the services of external environmental consultants to assist with the necessary revision of the AA and the delivery of training for forestry inspectors. It is also currently recruiting additional ecologists to join the forestry inspectorate.

A major triage operation is also ongoing to categorise the large number of files currently on hand for consideration by the in-house ecology team. The purpose of this process is to categorise files for further action and to advance each to AA determination stage using external ecological consultants. Forestry licences continue to be issued, albeit at a slower rate than would be expected. However, it has been a good year overall for felling licences and to the end of November the Department has issued just over 4,000 tree felling licences which is still higher than any previous year and is 10% higher than the total for all of last year.

Forest roads payments are up by 35% in 2019 with 87.4 km built to date as opposed to 64.6 km in the same period in 2018. The FAC is an independent body but I understand that it is now starting to hear appeals on cases on the Department's new procedures. Three additional administrative staff have been assigned to the agriculture appeals office to give extra secretarial and administrative support to the FAC. The Department will keep the resources of the FAC under review in the event that additional resources are needed.

The Minister for Agriculture, Food and the Marine, Deputy Creed, and the Minister of State, Deputy Doyle, are fully aware that this situation is causing difficulties, especially for landowners and forestry contractors. I wish to assure the House that departmental officials are actively working towards alleviating the current temporary disruption. I believe the robust and workable system now being put in place will result in an improved licensing system of benefit to all stakeholders.

The people involved in the forestry industry have raised the issue of the AA. They are concerned that the protocols and rules being designed for the new AA would be fit for purpose and compatible with appropriate and efficient regulation of the sector. There is the objective that it is done in an environmentally appropriate way but also that it complies with regulations. I am sad to see that once again we have issues around environmental obligations placed on the State arising out of the habitats directive. It has been the undoing of many of the planning permits granted for a road or a bridge and now there are problems in respect of forestry.

I would like to maintain my position. I do not feel that the system there at the moment for communities, adjoining landowners and the industry is fit and proper for purpose. The approach needs to be better integrated with the planning system operated by the local authorities because this is all to do with land use and getting the balance right. Even though there are some references to the planning authorities in the forestry regulations it is a box ticking exercise. It is not robust enough to put in place the ambitious plans we have for forestry and to do that fairly.

I have noted all Senator Mulherin's comments, particularly her additional ones, and I will convey those to the Minister and the Minister of State. Additional measures have been put in place, with additional staff and resources to deal with the issuing of licences, felling of trees and forest road construction. Forestry road payments are up 35% on last with 87.4 km built to date as opposed to 64.6 km in the same period in 2018.

There have been improvements in this area. I note the Senator's concern for those who have experienced delays, particularly the contractors and farmers. Forestry is a popular type of farming in many areas, especially in the west, as I am sure the Senator knows. I assure her that the Department and its officials are actively working towards alleviating the current temporary disruption. It is important that the Department monitors this in the coming months to see whether we are getting the results needed, particularly in improving the licensing system. This is for the benefit of all stakeholders. We know how important that income is for farmers and so we must get that work done as quickly as possible, especially given the current environmental challenges in the industry, which the Senator noted.

I thank the Minister of State.