Nithe i dtosach suíonna - Commencement Matters

National Smart Metering Programme

I welcome the Minister of State at the Department of Department of Agriculture, Food and the Marine.

I thank the Minister of State for coming to the House.

Since 2019 and throughout 2020, ESB Networks has rolled out new electricity smart metering technology in homes across Ireland. If and when this roll-out is completed, domestic and business premises in Ireland will have a smart meter installed. Customers have been told that there is no additional charge for smart meters but that is not the case. The Commission for Regulation of Utilities, CRU, has already announced that household bills will increase by between €30 and €70 from 1 October 2020, partially to pay for this. Many countries, like Germany, chose not to deploy a mass roll out of smart meters because of costs. There are many cautionary tales where the roll-out costs have escalated very significantly from initial estimates like in the UK. All of this for a programme with no clear consumer or environmental benefits. Many countries have deployed smart meters ahead of Ireland and there is no case showing material positive improvements in energy use or other consumer benefits.

We know that under EU regulations Ireland is obliged to roll out smart meters as long as a positive business case for it can be made. The CRU commissioned a cost-benefit analysis, published in 2017, that found the project would cost €1.2 billion and have a €36 million negative net present value, which it deemed broadly neutral. The national smart meter programme, NSMP, has undergone little public scrutiny in contrast with other Government spending. I believe that if the savings that have been promised with this programme are clear and tangible then there should be no issue with having a full scrutiny of the costs, particularly at a time when the economic consequences of the pandemic are becoming clear, and the impact of Brexit looms for both Irish businesses and citizens.

The biggest assumed benefit underpinning the cost-benefit analysis is an assumption that customers will shift their consumption from peak times through the imposition of a time-of-use tariff. The ESRI's behavioural research unit conducted a study, in collaboration with the CRU, that found customers are reluctant to use the new time-of-use tariff. Does this now render the cost-benefit analysis assumption false?

Despite this evidence, the CRU continues to mandate that all electricity suppliers provide customers with at least one time-of-use tariff and must take "reasonable and effective steps to migrate all relevant residential and smaller business customers to an appropriate time-of-use tariff in a timely manner" ultimately removing customer choice in terms of flat-rate tariffs. As the spokesperson for enterprise and trade in this House, I am very concerned at this. Why are we insisting that small businesses must pay more for peak electricity usage during this pandemic?

I have a number of questions that I hope the Minister of State might be able to answer. What exact benefits are customers and businesses paying for? Why has an updated CRU cost-benefit analysis not been published? How can paying for smart meters that will push businesses to a higher tariff be justified during a crippling economic time? Why have so many other countries opted out of a smart meter roll out while Ireland has not, despite limited evidence of the benefit and the likelihood of escalated costs? Why are there no smart meter success stories internationally?

Is the Minister of State happy that the CRU has this month implemented a 11.6% increase in the regulated distribution charge payable by electricity customers, partially to pay for the smart meter programme at a time when there is no inflation and the country is reeling from the economic effects of Covid-19? Is she aware that the recent Electric Ireland price rise of €35 per home is an almost exact pass through of these increased regulated costs? Can she confirm that consumers are paying the price for smart meters? What is the position for businesses that are currently closed or partially open? They are not going to want, under any circumstances, to be charged for a smart meter that is of no use to their businesses at this time.

I thank Senator Ahearn for raising this issue and providing the opportunity to update the House on this important project. I extend apologies from the Minister for Environment, Climate and Communications, Deputy Eamon Ryan, who cannot be here in person as he is in the other Chamber.

The programme for Government commits to ensuring that the energy efficiency potential of smart meters starts to be deployed in 2021 and that all mechanical electrical meters are replaced by 2024. The smart meter upgrade is a meter replacement programme to modern smart-ready technology. New general electricity meters are being rolled out across Europe and internationally. When the programme completes in Ireland in 2024, all domestic and business premises will have a new, modern meter installed. The programme is being co-ordinated by the Commission for Regulation of Utilities, CRU, with ESB Networks, for the rolling out of the smart-ready electricity meters nationwide.

Since September 2019, when ESB Networks commenced the replacement of over 2 million electricity meters, over 180,000 meters have been installed to the end of October 2020. Owing to Covid restrictions progress in 2020 has been challenging. However, ESB Networks is to be congratulated for managing to safely comply with all national public health guidelines while managing to maintain a productive deployment programme.

Meter installation continues under the current level 5 restrictions, including indoor installations. ESB Networks has implemented additional Covid-related safety precautions such as additional personal protective equipment, PPE, full sanitisation at the meter location and minimal contact with customers. I can also confirm that all indoor exchanges are only taking place by appointment with the customer. We expect 500,000 meters to be installed in each of the next four years in order to reach our 2024 target.

The installation of smart meters is a key enabler for the energy transition to a decarbonised system, as outlined in the climate action plan. In addition, the move to upgrade to digital meters will bring many benefits for energy customers by enhancing competition, making bills more accurate, providing customers with better information on their consumption and empowering them with new tools to make more informed choices about their energy needs. The better information provided by smart meters will enable customers to reduce consumption and utilise higher amounts of electricity, increasingly from renewable sources, at off-peak times. Smart meters will also facilitate the development of micro-generation smart grids, and the increasing electrification of transport and heating. Smart meters are configured to record consumption in day, night and peak time periods, as well as in shorter half hour intervals. Smart meters are also configured to record any electricity feeding into the grid. Customers with a smart meter will be able to avail of new tariffs and services, which will be available from electricity supply companies from 2021. These tariffs and services will include the ability for energy companies to offer micro-generation tariffs so customers can get paid for producing electricity that is fed into the grid. The climate action plan commits to having a micro-generation framework in place by June 2021.

On an EU level, the new green deal calls for much more citizen engagement with the clean energy transition to empower them to take action. Smart meters will enable customers to become much more involved and aware of their own energy usage and, potential, production. This citizen knowledge is a key enabler to help meet our own ambitious targets to 2023 and beyond. ESB Networks has begun the installation of smart meters in parts of Dublin, Cork, Laois, Kildare, Meath and Wicklow. This roll-out will continue on a phased area-by-area basis and a detailed roll-out plan is currently being developed.

Officials in the Department of Environment, Climate and Communications participate in a smart meter steering group that is chaired by the Commission for Regulation of Utilities, which also has representatives from ESB Networks, retail energy suppliers and other stakeholders. The steering group is working on all aspects of the smart meter roll-out and aims to ensure that communication between all of the relevant parties is effective and that targets set out for the roll out will be delivered.

I thank the Minister of State for her reply. I note that she said that during 2020 it is quite difficult to have the same pace of roll out as 2019, so I hope the situation will be better next year.

However, if the roll-out has slowed down, it is the perfect time to re-assess and re-evaluate whether it is the right approach from both the cost and environmental perspectives. I have been speaking to businesses in Tipperary and around the country that have concerns, especially about costs. Every decision the Government makes and certainly every decision that is made in the Department of Business, Enterprise and Innovation is related to reducing costs for customers during this time. There is a certain level of concern, and it is factual, that introducing this is going to increase costs.

I set out a number of questions earlier and I would appreciate if the Minister of State would get the Minister, Deputy Eamon Ryan, to refer back to me in detail on them. It is a very important issue for households and especially for businesses that are struggling.

I acknowledge that the cost-benefit of this is crucial. If we want to incentivise people to be more cognisant of the electricity they are using and their energy consumption, it has to be simple for them to do that. The Senator asked a number of questions and I have noted them. I am sure somebody can look over the Official Report as well. I will bring them to the Minister, Deputy Ryan, and ask him to refer back to the Senator in a timely manner.

Urban Regeneration and Development Fund

At the outset, I wish to express my sympathy and the sympathy of the House to you, Senator McGahon, on your family bereavement in recent days.

Thank you for your condolences, a Leas-Chathaoirligh. My cousin Niall McGahon famously won an FAI Cup medal in 1958 with Dundalk FC at the age of 18 years, so I appreciate that.

I submitted this Commencement matter today on urban regeneration funding because it is such an important issue for the north end of Dundalk town. The Bridge Street and Linenhall Street area has essentially been a neglected part of Dundalk for the past 40 years for various reasons. I live only a few minutes away from this part of the town and it has one of the most sincere and genuine communities that Dundalk town has to offer. The residents and traders in that area back and support each other continuously, but I am here today to state that they need extra support in the form of substantial Government funding under urban regeneration for the Bridge Street and Linenhall Street area.

During the past year Louth County Council has embarked on an extremely ambitious project, worth in excess of €5 million, which has totally transformed the Clanbrassil Street area, the main street in Dundalk. If the Minister of State can imagine Dundalk at present, we have transformed The Square and it extends up Clanbrassil Street. It is worth €5 million. It goes up into Church Street and stops dead on Clanbrassil Street. Stepping between the two streets is like stepping into a different town.

That has not stopped local residents and businesses doing their best to make the area thrive as a bustling community. We have people like Martin McElligott who is in charge of the business improvement district scheme, Dundalk BIDS. They have embarked on a really ambitious programme, including an art mural programme, that constantly strives to help businesses in the area to improve. We have people like Joan Martin, our chief executive in Louth County Council, Frank Pentony and Catherine Duff, director of services, who, along with staff members, have put months of work into this application to make it an attractive one for the Department to consider. I consider it so good that I would find it hard to believe it would not be approved. Indeed, they have submitted further information that was requested this year to strengthen the basis of the application.

This funding will have to be in the millions, make no doubt about it, and it will have to be done over two projects. If we can get the funding approved by the Department, it will really transform this part of Dundalk town. It can become a thriving hub for business, residents and the wider community. It can also be a flagship project for the Minister and the urban regeneration fund and can be shown to other towns as an example of how to apply for funding and how it is done. I believe Dundalk can be a leading example for other towns to follow.

Approving the application for this project will provide previously unimagined potential for the north end of Dundalk. If it can be imagined, there could be residential units above shops, enticing younger people to come there and live above the shop again, pedestrian space unlocked, a thriving community space created in the heart of Dundalk, the streetscape improved to make it more accessible for elderly people and people with disabilities, and vacant and derelict buildings having disappeared and been replaced with brand new retail units in which young entrepreneurs can get their first chance or start. It will redefine the north end of Dundalk town.

I cannot emphasise enough how important this funding is for Dundalk. It is an area that is crying out for support. It has had massive local support and received great support from the county council, but we need Government intervention in the form of substantial funding that will allow us to revolutionise the street space for residents and business alike. I believe we have one chance to make that happen, and that chance is with this funding. I am here in our national Parliament to emphasise how important it is for the town of Dundalk.

I thank Senator McGahon for raising this important matter.

Project Ireland 2040, which was launched by the Government on 16 February 2018, is the overarching policy and planning framework for the social, economic and cultural development of Ireland. It includes a detailed capital investment plan for the period 2018 to 2027, the National Development Plan, NDP, 2018-2027 and the 20-year national planning framework, NPF. The principles of the NPF are underpinned by the national development plan, a ten-year, €116 billion capital investment programme. The National Development Plan 2018-2027 established four new funds, with a combined allocation of €4 billion to 2027. The urban regeneration and development fund, URDF, has an allocation of €2 billion to 2027, primarily to support the NPF’s growth enablers for the five cities and other large urban centres.

The URDF, which was launched in 2018, is providing part-funding for local authority-led projects that will enable a greater proportion of residential and mixed-use development to be delivered within the existing built-up footprints of our cities and large towns, while also ensuring that more parts of our urban areas can become attractive and vibrant places in which people can choose to live and work, as well as to invest and visit. The URDF programme has been very well received and already it is providing assistance for a pipeline of major projects that will contribute to the regeneration and rejuvenation of our five cities and other large towns, in line with the objectives of the national planning framework and national development plan.

In mid-2019 approval in principle and provisional funding allocations issued in respect of 87 major projects throughout the country. This significant pipeline of projects, approved under call 1 of the URDF, is set to have a transformational impact in urban areas throughout the country. Under call 2 of the URDF, which was launched earlier this year, Louth County Council submitted an application seeking support for the project the Senator mentioned. A large number of proposals were received under call 2, with every local authority submitting at least one application. The nature of the URDF programme means that the proposals are very complex, and each requires detailed assessment. The assessment process for applications received under call 2 is in train at present, and it is intended that a new tranche of approved projects will be announced later in the year, which will augment the existing pipeline of projects from call 1 and contribute to the achievement of programme for Government commitments and the objectives of the national planning framework.

I listened to the case made by the Senator regarding the Bridge Street and Linenhall areas of Dundalk. He made his points very well. I met Senator McGahon previously regarding this project and he outlined its merits. It is a key project for Dundalk and I assure the Senator that his representations have been well made and they will be listened to in my Department. It is important that we unlock the potential of our large towns and cities, and that is exactly what URDF funding is for. It is the cornerstone to enable our citizens and our investors to realise their potential and to ensure we have a strong, mixed use regenerated area in our towns and cities. I look forward to working with the Senator during my term to deliver projects such as this one, which is important for the area and Dundalk itself.

I thank the Minister of State for all his support for this application in recent weeks. While Dundalk is the largest town in Ireland, the Minister of State's home town of Mullingar has similar issues. He knows the issues at stake here, therefore. He is right to state that this is transformative funding. It has the potential to unlock previously unimagined ideas. Much urban regeneration funding has come into Dundalk in the past two years. The Bridge Street area is the final piece in the jigsaw. The application and substantial funding I seek today, which must be millions of euro, is the first part of the jigsaw that will benefit the rest of the Bridge Street area. If this application for funding is successful, we will sit back down with Louth County Council to consider which application we will submit next to progress regeneration even more. We will be bringing that issue back to the attention of the Minister of State. I cannot stress enough how vital this funding is for Dundalk. It really needs to be approved, and we must do everything we can to get this funding application across the line.

I thank Senator McGahon for his very elegant timing. I call the Minister of State.

I again thank Senator McGahon for raising this issue. I will take on board all the merits he has put forward regarding this project, and he has discussed them at length with me in the past as well. It is important that projects such as this are supported. They are the core regeneration projects that will unlock the potential of our towns and that is the key aspect of what the URDF seeks to do under the national planning framework. I hear the case the Senator has made; it is a strong case for Dundalk and I will bring that message back to my Department. It is important that we advocate for genuine projects, such as this one, which are able to stand on their own merits. I believe that is what this project does.

Homelessness Strategy

I submitted this matter for debate because the week before last five homeless people died. We already had a spike in the number of homeless people during the summer. That could have been due to Covid-19, or people may not have been comfortable within homeless services because of a lack of social distancing and therefore opted to live in tents. There was a tragic death in my area of a homeless man who was attacked for his mobile phone. He was living in a tent down a lane in a residential area.

As we head into the winter months, it is important we put a strategy in place to deal with this situation. This is our first experience of the pandemic in deep winter. People in the homeless services area already have many challenges because of the cold weather. We do not have figures for the rest of the country, and Councillor Anthony Flynn, who does a great deal of work with the Inner City Helping Homeless charity, has called for those to be provided. There has been a spike in Dublin and we think the number of deaths is more than that, and that is backed up by figures from the Dublin Region Homeless Executive, DRHE. We do not know the exact figure for the rest of the country, however. Councillor Flynn is hearing reports from some of his colleagues regarding the situation in Galway, Cork and Limerick.

It is important that we prioritise this issue, especially during a winter in the middle of a pandemic. I also emphasise the need for more funding for the Housing First approach and wraparound services. We have an issue with homelessness and the lack of housing supply, but there is also an issue regarding addiction and the associated wraparound services required for the more vulnerable in our homeless population. Before we get into the very dark winter months, it is important the Minister of State gives this House details of the strategy for preventing deaths of homeless people on the streets. I would also like him to elaborate on the Housing First strategy and if there is going to be a prioritisation of wraparound and addiction services for people who are homeless and who are our most vulnerable population in that situation.

My Department has been made aware of the recent deaths of several individuals who had been rough sleeping or accessing homelessness services. Each of those deaths is a tragedy for those involved and their loved ones to whom I extend my sympathies. Out of consideration for the families of the deceased, we should respect their privacy and not be drawn into speculation regarding the individual circumstances of the deceased or the causes of those deaths. I know that all the Members will be mindful of such sensitivities.

The Senator has, however, raised important issues. It is vital that we continue to deliver the appropriate measures to ensure all individuals experiencing homelessness are supported to exit homelessness into a permanent housing solution and that those with complex health and mental health needs are supported. While all homeless people have a need for stable housing, homelessness is a complex issue and a variety of other supports and interventions can be required to meet individual needs. Indeed, many homeless people, particularly those engaged in rough sleeping, have complex health and social care needs, including in connection with addiction and mental health issues which require care and supports beyond the simple provision of accommodation through the housing authorities.

Consequently, a multi-agency approach is considered necessary to successfully address homelessness. Addressing homelessness is a key priority for the Government and for the Minister for Housing, Local Government and Heritage, Deputy Darragh O'Brien. The Government and my Department are committed to supporting all households experiencing homelessness to obtain a home utilising the various social housing supports available. The number of people accessing homeless services has been reducing in the last year. There were 1,741 fewer individuals in emergency accommodation in September this year compared with September 2019. I take this opportunity to place on the record my gratitude to the staff of all our local authorities and service delivery partners in the NGO sector, whose tireless efforts in what has been a difficult operational year have allowed this to happen. Of particular note is the 35% reduction in families in homelessness in that time.

While we welcome these reductions, we of course recognise the size of the task that we still face ahead of us. The programme for Government commits to the increased supply of public, social and affordable homes. The Government will increase social housing stock by more than 50,000 units, with the emphasis on new builds. The Minister, Deputy O'Brien, has established a high-level task force to address homelessness and to have an input into the implementation of the commitments in the programme for Government. Budget 2021 also makes provision for €218 million in funding for homelessness services next year, which is an increase of €22 million on the provision for 2020. The increased funding will allow for a greater focus on preventing homelessness, in the first instance, while also ensuring that pathways out of homelessness for those individuals and families in emergency accommodation are secured as quickly as possible.

I am particularly mindful of the challenges faced by rough sleepers during the winter. Cold weather arrangements are in place nationally for the winter period. My Department is working closely with local authorities in putting in place the necessary measures, including additional accommodation and increased outreach. The DRHE, which has responsibility for more than 70% of all homeless people nationally, activated its cold weather initiative on Thursday, 29 October. That includes an increase in overall bed capacity, a 24-hour service and facilities with meals included, enhanced rough sleeper outreach and increased contingency placements for families.

Allied with this, the HSE winter plan also includes measures to support individuals experiencing homelessness. This includes service provision enhancements, such as expanded GP supports to homeless households and the extension of Covid-19 measures. Safeguarding the health of people accessing homeless services during the Covid-19 pandemic is of paramount importance.

My Department is working closely with local authorities and the HSE to ensure that appropriate arrangements are in place to mitigate the risk of Covid-19 in homeless services. Additional accommodation is in place to allow for necessary social distancing and capacity for self-isolation of suspected confirmed cases of infection. I want to assure Senator Moynihan and others in the House that work is continuing to be done to address homelessness.

I thank the Minister of State. It is good to hear that he intends to establish a task force and that additional resources will go into homeless services.

Like the Minister of State, I want to express my gratitude to all of the people who have worked in homeless services from March onwards. It was quite a remarkable feat in terms of the outbreak within homeless services. Everybody pulled together. It is important we ensure that no more homeless families enter homelessness. While it is good to see the figure stabilising this year, that is in large part due to the eviction ban. We know that most people coming into homeless services come from the private rented sector. In the new year we should consider extending the eviction ban beyond the restrictions in level 5. I thank the Minister of State for his response and look forward to working with him over the winter to ensure there is no repeat of the very tragic number of deaths over the past couple of weeks.

I thank Senator Moynihan for raising this very important issue and her constructive comments. Homelessness is a major challenge and as a Government we have to work with might and main to secure the commitments contained within the programme for Government and ensure we respond to this issue with all of the armoury of the State.

Youth Services

Cuirim fáilte roimh an Aire, an Teachta O'Gorman.

I thank the Minister for coming to the House to answer this question. I raised it with him at the Joint Committee on Children, Disability, Equality and Integration last week. It is very important that we acknowledge the sacrifices the youth have made at this time. The Minister has allocated moneys for youth services, but that does not deal with the many young people who have suffered as a result of the Covid restrictions on their lives. It stands in contrast to other areas that the Government has allocated moneys to. Students were allocated €250. Working people got stay and spend vouchers worth €250. A small token for the youth would allow them to invest in going to the gym, taking up music or the arts or learning a new skill. I am a little disappointed that the Government has left the youth out of supports at this time. I would like the Minister to give me some confidence that he will do something for them.

I thank the Senator for raising this matter. We have not left young people out in our response to Covid. Young people have been central in the response not just of the Government but also of my Department. We are aware that Covid has disrupted all elements of life across the country and has had a particular impact on the well-being of young people. Their educational progress has been interrupted and, as the Senator said, their wider social and community life has been affected. Those who are early in their careers have had their lives disrupted over the past number of months.

In order to have a full understanding of this matter, my Department has commissioned research on the impact of Covid-19 on young people. That research aligns with research done internationally showing that lockdown has had an impact on people's mental health and well-being. That impact has been particularly acute in marginalised groups. It is also worth noting that while there has been an impact on young people, they have rallied in response to Covid. This was recognised by the acting CMO recently, and it is important to put that on the record.

Youth organisations around the country have been leading the community response to Covid and I want to express my thanks to them. We should never underestimate the potential for young people in Ireland to show leadership at a time of crisis.

My Department funds a range of organisations in the youth sector, and we have continued funding them. Even during the lockdown, the vast majority of youth organisations continued to stay open and support the young people who are part of their cohort. That has been particularly important in maintaining the mental well-being of young people. That issue arose in the research we undertook. The young people who engaged with youth services during the lockdown had better outcomes than those who did not. I want to recognise those involved in the youth sector and the national organisations which support them.

We supported the youth sector through a number of small grants that were spread across the country, comprising capital and current grants, to help organisations to meet the costs of Covid. More recently, we also provided a grant scheme to allow them to upgrade their ICT, which is particularly important because many other organisations have had to move online in order to facilitate their ongoing engagement with young people.

In 2020, we spent €61.79 million on current funding and €3 million on capital funding. Following my engagement with the youth sector, in particular recognising the great work it did, we added an additional €5 million in current spending in the budget for next year. That is a significant increase in the budget and was more than the sector had lobbied for. I wanted to recognise the significant work the sector does and the tens of thousands of young people across the country it supports.

Broad supports across the sector are the best way for the State to invest money. The Senator has put forward the idea of the voucher scheme. It is difficult to see how that will bring about broad supports, in particular given that many of the sectors she mentioned, such as gyms, the arts and leisure centres, are closed at level 5. At a time when young people most need supports, I do not feel such a scheme would deliver for them. In contrast, youth services are open at level 5. That is why it is the view of my Department that we should provide supports to wider youth services. We look forward to continuing to do so. I thank the Senator for raising this issue and I am happy to hear her comments on what I have said.

I thank the Minister. I am not aware of any youth services that are open at level 5, certainly not in my area. I think the voucher scheme is a really good idea. I honestly believe it is achievable. If the stay and spend initiative is achievable, so too is investment in youth services or recreational vouchers that can be used with certain providers. I am a little bit disappointed to hear that the Minister may not have considered this as being a good investment.

It is really important to invest in our youth, encourage them to get involved in things, keep their minds active and keep their mental health and well-being at their best. If we let that slip, a number of years will be lost in terms of their development in life. A voucher scheme would have been a good idea.

The Department of Transport ran a good scheme for a number of years, the "kids go free" scheme. This year, unfortunately, it did not happen because of Covid. I mentioned this to the Minister for Transport, Deputy Eamon Ryan, who indicated that he might consider it for the month of December.

The Minister, Deputy O'Gorman, might have a chat with him, given that I have sent him an email on it. It might be something that could be done for the youth. The larger cities would get free transport for children between the ages of 12 and 18. He might consider supporting that and asking the Minister, Deputy Eamon Ryan, to support it too.

I ask the Minister, Deputy O'Gorman, to reconsider what I outlined, although I do not know where he will find the money for it. Not everybody goes to a youth club, plays football or is involved in sport. Those youths who are marginalised, and whom we really want to help, may avail of this voucher. It could be considered on a yearly basis, that is, not just this year but down the line. It may prevent other anti-social behaviour manifesting later in life.

I fully agree that investing in our youth is fundamentally important. I have outlined how my Department has done that and will continue to do that. I am always open to considering all avenues. We changed the public health guidelines to ensure that youth services could open even in level 5, albeit in small groups. I talked to a scout leader yesterday whose cubs had met for the first time in level 5, and that was because my Department had examined the matter and is aware that it is really tough for young people. We want to make it is as easy as possible for them.

The Senator is correct that not everyone goes to youth groups or plays sport - it might shock Senators that I was not sporty at that age - and we are trying to target those services that give the most widespread benefit. Tens of thousands of young people throughout the country use youth services and we have demonstrated that those who use them get better health outcomes. We are happy to engage with the Senator on ideas and I am always open to considering new solutions.

Fishing Industry

Cuirim fáilte roimh an Aire ar maidin. Gabhaim mo chomhghairdeas leis as ucht a bheith tofa mar Aire Talmhaíochta, Bia agus Mara agus guím ádh air sa jab sin.

It is not an exaggeration to say there is a crisis in fishing. This week, as expected, saw an increase in overfishing for sprat at Rossaveal. I have been contacted by local fishers in Galway and environmental organisations in recent days, asking me to call on the Minister to act urgently on the hollowing out of marine life along the west coast, and I thank him for coming to the House to address it.

The step taken to ban trawlers of more than 18 m in length from fishing within six nautical miles of the coast has been called one of the most important fisheries policy shifts in the history of the State. It was very much welcomed in a letter sent 13 days ago to the Minister from BirdWatch Ireland, the National Inshore Fishermen's Association, An Taisce, the Cork Environmental Forum, the Cork Nature Network, the Coomhola Salmon Trust, Environmental Pillar, Friends of the Irish Environment, the Irish Seal Sanctuary, the Irish Whale and Dolphin Trust, Irish Wildlife Trust, Oceana, Seas at Risk, the Sustainable Water Network and Our Fish. I name all these groups to emphasise the importance of the ban to the public we represent. As the Minister will be aware, it was, devastatingly, overturned on a technicality last summer.

The impact of this has been felt particularly in respect of sprat. Sprat is a keystone species in our bays, vital to the ocean food chain. It is intrinsic to the very ecosystem of the seas around us, feeding fish from herring, mackerel and whitefish to dolphin and porpoise. When pods of dolphins are in the bay, one can be sure they are feeding on sprat. Now, the future of all these species hangs in the balance due to intensive overfishing of their prey. Fishing communities have been left devastated by this intensive trawling, as their stock dries up with nothing to feed on. While it has been found to be legal, that is the issue. It is up to the Minister to legislate and issue policy directives to protect fishing communities and marine life, and to reimplement the ban. Bays act as nurseries for juvenile fish, and with sprat now being used for meal and not for human consumption, there is nothing to stop the very youngest being fished, ground up and sold to farms, including fish, mink and pig farms.

The additional difficulty is that no quotas or total allowable catch exist for sprat fishing, unlike for other pelagic fish such as herring and mackerel. I have heard reports of up to 200 tonnes coming from an area in a single day per fishing pier, the equivalent of 52 million fish. We must act now, when fishing and nature hang in the balance. What is new is that it has reached fever pitch at Rossaveal in Galway over the past week, with more boats arriving than ever before as the season gets going. It is simply not fair or just that our local fishing communities have quotas when there are no quotas or jobs in respect of sprat. Fishers and environmental NGOs have joined together to call for action on this important issue for marine biodiversity, a sustainable industry and the social benefits for life along the west coast, from west Cork to Donegal.

What emergency action can the Minister take to address this urgent issue? The ban is a commitment in the programme for Government. It appears that the justification in the courts for overruling it was based on issues with the public consultation and not with the ban itself. Will the Minister commit to addressing this to reinstate the ban? In the long term, what actions is he taking to stabilise sustainable stocks for our fishing community and nature itself?

I thank the Senator for bringing this matter to the notice of the House and for ensuring it would be addressed. I welcome the opportunity to come to the House to respond to her and to outline the circumstances as they stand. Sprat, as she will be aware, is a short-lived species that occurs in shore and is an important prey fish for many marine species. It is vital to the ocean food chain, as well as an important source of income for inshore fishermen. The four main fishing grounds for sprat in Ireland are Donegal bay, the Shannon estuary, Kerry bays and Dunmore East. Available scientific information suggests that sprat in Ireland spawn from January to June, with fishing normally taking place from October to Christmas. Sprat is fished mainly for human consumption but the catch may also go into fishmeal. The data available indicate that the percentage of the landings that went into fishmeal was 40% in 2019 and 36% in 2020.

Sprat in Irish waters is not a species subject to fishing quotas or total allowable catches established under EU regulation. Scientifically, relatively little is known about the species. The International Council for Exploration of the Sea, ICES, considers sprat a data-limited stock, which means more detailed data are required to form a full understanding of the nature of the stock. The central objective of the Common Fisheries Policy is to ensure that fishing and aquaculture activities are environmentally sustainable long term through the conservation and sustainable exploration of marine biological resources and the management of fisheries and fleets exploiting such resources. In addition, Ireland is committed to the conservation of our marine ecosystems, including the seaboards and marine life around our coasts through the birds and habitats directive, among other instruments.

In December 2018, following a public consultation process in which more than 900 submissions were received, the then Minister announced that vessels of more than 18 m would be excluded from trawling in inshore waters inside the six nautical mile zone and baselines from 1 January 2020. A transition period of three years for vessels of more than 18 m targeting sprat was allowed in order to enable adjustment for these vessels, as the sprat fishery is concentrated within the six nautical mile zone. A policy directive was issued by the then Minister, Deputy Creed, to the independent licensing authority for sea-fishing boats under statute and was intended to give effect to the measures announced by the Minister at that time.

As stated, this policy directive provided that vessels over 18 m will be excluded from trawling activity inside six nautical miles, including inside the baselines, from 1 January 2020. The policy directive directed the licensing authority to insert a condition to this effect into the licences of affected vessels.

Two applicant fishermen took a judicial review challenging the validity of the policy. On 6 October 2020, the judge held in summary that the court's final order should be, among other matters, a declaration that policy directive 1 of 2019 was made in breach of fair procedures and is void and-or of no legal effect. The breach of fair procedures as referenced above related to a failure with obligations to consult with the applicants in accordance with, and to the extent required by, the consultation process and in particular by failing to consult with them once a preferred option had been identified.

In the past week the High Court's ruling of judicial review proceedings which relate to policy directive 1 of 2019 has been appealed by the State to the Court of Appeal and a stay is being sought on the orders granted therein. As this matter is sub judice, I am not in a position to comment on the policy until the matter can be resolved before the courts.

I am committed to the sustainability of fishing in Irish waters and the commitment made in our programme for Government that inshore waters continue to be protected for smaller fishing vessels and pair trawling be prohibited inside the six-mile limit.

I thank the Minister for the update. I welcome that he has sought a stay. We know that more data are required on sprat. From a local perspective, we have seen fishing closed down along Galway Bay and industry lost there as a result of this overfishing. Even though the Minister's reply does not mention Galway, it very much impacts on our communities in Galway, particularly around Rossaveal. What is the Minister doing to collect more data so that we can ascertain the importance of sprat to our local fishing? What steps is he taking for the long-term sustainability of fishing stock? I welcome his actions on the case itself.

As I outlined in my initial reply, a key measure I am taking is to appeal the ruling to give the courts the opportunity to reflect on the appeal. I am closely monitoring the situation regarding fishing activity. I am working with the Department to ensure that further efforts are made on gathering data. We need to avail of all the resources and capabilities at our disposal to ensure we fully assess and get a better understanding of the sprat fishery and their life cycle. That will inform how we approach the matter and future policy.

I thank the Senator for bringing this to the attention of the Seanad and I look forward to continuing to engage with her and the Oireachtas on the matter.

Sitting suspended at 11.34 a.m. and resumed at 11.45 a.m.