Nithe i dtosach suíonna - Commencement Matters

Nursing Homes Support Scheme

The Minister of State is very welcome. I thank her for taking time out of her busy schedule to be here this morning to discuss the nursing homes support scheme. Calls for the overhaul of the fair deal scheme have been made for a long time. Many people have been calling for a new scheme which would ease the crippling burden that is currently on small farm families and small businesses. As the Minister of State is aware, there is a 7.5% deduction of assets year on year, capped at three years, when it comes to a family home but, unfortunately, when it comes to a small farm or small business, no such cap exists. That is causing serious problems for many people. In effect, if someone were to spend ten years in a nursing home, 75% of the asset would have to be paid to the State at the relevant time. That is causing serious problems for many small farm families and many small businesses. Many family members may work on the farm or in the small business.

If, as is the case in some instances, the asset has to be sold to defray the costs, then those people have to move on, their livelihoods are gone and a farm or business that may have been in the family for years is lost. I know from the Minister of State's time in opposition that this issue was close to her heart and she was keen to see movement on it. I hope she will be the Minister of State who finally adjusts the scheme to make it fairer for small farm holdings and small business so that a similar three-year cap could be applied to those assets as is applied to the family home, which would make it more workable for those people.

This issue has been around for a long time and many people have campaigned to get the fair deal scheme adjusted to accommodate this, no more so than the farm organisations, who have done great work over the years. I would welcome the Minister of State's thoughts on that.

I also ask for her thoughts on a fair deal-type scheme for home support and home care packages for elderly people. Most people, if they had their wish, would like to live their days behind their own front door. That is not possible in some cases but if we had a properly beefed-up home care package, funded by way of a fair deal-type scheme, more people would be in a position to stay in their homes, with their families and in the communities they know and love so well for longer. I would welcome the Minister of State's thoughts on that issue as well.

I thank the Senator for raising this important issue. He is correct that it is something I have spoken about and worked on very hard over the past few years. Since I entered office, we have been working hard on this.

The nursing homes support scheme, NHSS, commonly referred to as fair deal, is a system of financial support for people who require long-term residential care. Participants contribute to the cost of their care according to their means while the State pays the balance of the cost. The scheme aims to ensure that long-term nursing home care is accessible and affordable for everyone and that people are cared for in the most appropriate settings. The fair deal scheme has been in operation for more than ten years and has supported many thousands of older people through what can be a particularly vulnerable time in their lives. The current average wait time on the placement list is four weeks. This is in line with the commitment made in the HSE's national service plan and has been maintained throughout the year. The funding allocated to the NHSS of €1.07 billion for 2020 is considered to be sufficient to maintain the waiting list at target levels until the end of the year.

While recognising that there will still be a need for nursing home care, the Government is making significant efforts to reduce the number of NHSS users through increased investment in community rehabilitation beds and home care, including an additional 5 million hours in budget 2021. The scheme works on the basis that the State will support people who need financial assistance to enter residential care when they need to and that those who have more, pay more, and those who have less, pay less. The Government believes that the principles of affordability and accessibility that underpin the scheme continue to be valid and may be even more so in these extremely challenging times.

The scheme has been reviewed by many different interested parties, including, most recently, the Comptroller and Auditor General. While many recommendations have been made both about the operation and the administration of the scheme, there is broad agreement that the scheme operates well and continues to be subject to appropriate financial assessment where it is required.

However, it is recognised that the Act in its current form does not place caps on the financial assessment of family farms or family businesses. As the Senator pointed out, this has proven difficult for farm families and small businesses. The 7.5% cap that applies for three years if somebody has a residential home does not apply in the case of small businesses and farmers and it has proven difficult. This places an onerous burden on successors and could challenge the future viability of the family farm. The Department of Health has proposed, therefore, a policy change to the scheme, to cap contributions based on farm and business assets at three years where a family successor commits to working the productive asset. This change has been approved by Government. The Department of Health developed draft heads of the Bill while considering a number of complex ancillary policy and operational matters that may need to be addressed in the proposed legislation. The stated policy objective of the general scheme is to introduce further safeguards in the scheme to protect the viability and sustainability of family farms and businesses that will be passed down to the next generation of the family to continue to work them as productive assets to provide for them their livelihood.

We come to the crux of the matter. The general scheme was sent to the relevant joint committee and the Department participated in pre-legislative scrutiny on 13 November 2019. Unfortunately, a report was not published before the dissolution of the previous Dáil. In the interim, of course, it was necessary to divert resources towards the immediate and pressing challenges of Covid-19. I had a meeting last week with departmental officials and the Department has been in touch with the clerk to the Business Committee on the procedural issues relating to pre-legislative scrutiny. I have also written to the Ceann Comhairle on this matter so that the legislation can progress as quickly as possible. There has been ongoing and active engagement with the Office of the Attorney General on the legislative development process and progress is advancing. The Government intends to bring forward legislation to the Houses as soon as possible. This legislation will seek to safeguard the sustainability of family farms and businesses for future generations.

To recap briefly, the pre-legislative scrutiny was being conducted last year. The report had not been finalised before the Dáil fell. Oireachtas committees have been back up and running for the past two months but there are various pressures on different committees. I have written to the Ceann Comhairle to see if we can waive the need for the pre-legislative scrutiny report in order I can move the legislation through the Dáil and the Seanad. The scrutiny can then be done at Committee Stage. That is where we are at the moment but I am hopeful of moving it in the first quarter of 2021.

I thank the Minister of State for that. That is positive and I do not doubt her sincerity and commitment to sorting this issue out as soon as practically possible. Did she hope to have this invoked by the second quarter of 2021?

I hope to move it in the first quarter.

That is great news. Will the Minister of State make a brief comment on the fair deal-type scheme for home care packages going forward?

I hope to introduce the legislation in the first quarter of 2021 and I believe it will be well-received across both Houses and by all Members.

Our plan is to deliver a statutory home care scheme by 2022. A couple of key enablers have to be put in place first. The first is the single assessment tool, interRAI, which provides an assessment of the person that needs to enter home care or nursing home care. Currently, the assessments vary from county to county. We will roll out a pilot programme early next year across four different areas in the country. By the end of 2021, we will have a statutory assessment of need for everybody throughout the country. I have secured funding for 128 assessors and that will be rolled out by the end of next year. We have also received funding to put in place an IT system to support this. Those are the two key enablers and I hope the scheme will be up and running by 2022.

Broadcasting Sector

The next Commencement matter is from Senator Ollie Crowe. I welcome the Minister of State, Deputy O'Brien, to the Chamber.

I thank the Minister of State for coming to the House. Following a weekend that had two great All-Ireland hurling semi-finals, I wish to raise GAA coverage. The deal that allows Sky Sports exclusive rights over some championship matches expires at the end of next year. It is time all inter-county championship matches returned to free-to-air television. Certainly, they can be on Sky Sports, but they should also be on the terrestrial channels - RTÉ2, TV3 or TG4. The GAA belongs to the Irish people, including the small minority who have no interest in it, given the amount of taxpayer funds that have always gone to the GAA, far exceeding any other sport. The Covid-19 package this year and the 2019 sports capital programmes are recent examples, with the GAA receiving €28 million, more than any other sport, from those programmes. To be clear, I fully support the funding, believe in the good work and ethos of the GAA and have been involved in the GAA all my adult and juvenile life.

In 2014, the GAA officials stated that the Sky coverage would allow the diaspora to see matches and expand its games to an international audience. Let me put on the record of the House that that information was incorrect. The deal harmed the ability of emigrants to see games. For example, in the UK currently, one needs to purchase a Sky subscription and a GAAGO subscription to see all the games. The new international audience has proved to be fiction. It is false, with figures as low as fewer than 1,000 people throughout Britain watching the games. It is clear to me that Sky was only concerned with the Irish market, which is worth more than €500 million per year. However, as a councillor at the time, what I said about those who opposed the deal remains true now. In April 2014, when this deal commenced, I wrote that the GAA was founded with the stated goal of promoting, as all Members of this House are aware, Irish culture and that I failed to see how it was doing that by depriving hundreds of thousands of people across the country the opportunity of watching our national games. That has since proven to be correct.

I am aware of many people who have given countless hours on a voluntary basis to GAA clubs and the development of the GAA. They dedicated their lives to the GAA but missed out watching their counties play throughout Ireland, the reason being that they cannot afford Sky. That is the reality. They are facing a cost of three figures every month. That is wrong, whether they are in nursing homes or hospitals. These are the people who served the GAA well. They brought the juveniles to games the length and breadth of this country. I am well aware of that being from Galway city and proudly involved in my local GAA club.

When this deal was signed in 2014, it was wrong. It remains wrong today. This Government should make clear its opposition to any further renewal in the strongest possible terms. I am delighted to raise the issue with the Minister of State and I await his response.

I thank the Senator for raising this matter. The GAA is an independent, autonomous sporting organisation. The Minister for Tourism, Culture, Arts, Gaeltacht, Sport and Media, Deputy Catherine Martin, has no role in commercial arrangements between the GAA and broadcasters. While the Minister, Deputy Martin, would be in favour of the public having as much access to sport as possible on a free-to-air basis, the autonomy and independence of all our sporting organisations must be recognised.

Media rights are the most commercially precious assets for sports organisations and they need to be maximised and reinvested in grassroots supports in order for sports to flourish. In that regard, the Minister would like to see the additional revenues the GAA has generated through its deal with Sky Sports filter down to the clubs at grassroots level as much as possible.

Annual Government funding to the GAA is provided by Sport Ireland through its field sports funding programme. This investment is broadly aimed at encouraging and creating more opportunities for young people to participate in Gaelic games across Ireland. In 2020, Sport Ireland has allocated just under €1.6 million to the GAA under this programme. Like all sporting organisations, the GAA has been significantly impacted this year by the various Covid-19 restrictions imposed since March. We are all aware of the impact the loss of ticketing and match day revenue has had on the Gaelic games associations.

On 2 November, the Minister, Deputy Martin, and the Minister with responsibility for sport and the Gaeltacht, Deputy Jack Chambers, announced an €85 million funding package for the sports sector. The combined support being provided to the family of Gaelic games, which includes GAA, camogie and ladies Gaelic football, through the Covid-19 scheme is in excess of €15 million. In addition to that, a further €15 million was provided to support the staging of the 2020 GAA, LGFA and camogie championships. The Senator will recall that both the men's and women's Gaelic games championships were threatened by the lack of ticketing income due to the impact of the necessary public health provisions on spectator numbers at matches.

As I stated at the outset, the Minister, Deputy Martin, has no role in respect of the commercial arrangements between sporting organisations and broadcasters. However, the audiovisual media services directive provides that member states may designate sporting and cultural events of major importance to society as free-to-air. The provisions were transposed into Irish legislation in section 162 of the Broadcasting Act 2009, which sets down the statutory process for designating events free-to-air. The events that are designated as being of major importance to society are broadcast as a matter of public interest on a qualifying broadcaster - RTÉ, Virgin Media or TG4 - on a live or deferred basis.

The current list provides for several GAA events to be free-to-air. The All-Ireland senior inter-county football and hurling finals were designated in 2003. The most recent review was finalised in 2017, and approval was received from the European Commission to designate the all-Ireland ladies football and camogie finals as events of major importance in May 2017.

To secure approval from the EU for designation, the event must satisfy at least two of the following four criteria: it must have a special resonance with a country as a whole; must be of cultural importance, especially as a catalyst of cultural identity; must involve the national team in the event concerned if it relates to a competition of international importance; and, finally, if it has traditionally been broadcast on free television commanding large television audiences. Two of those four must be met. Another important metric in addition to those criteria is measured by the EU. The event must have at least 5% of audience share, that is, the share of people who have the possibility to watch the event that actually watch the event.

Under the 2009 Act, the Minister is obliged to review the list of designated events every three years. The purpose of the review is to consider the appropriateness of the current list of designated events and to examine whether to add any events of major importance to society. As part of this process, the Minister, Deputy Martin, will launch a public consultation process in the coming weeks. This consultation will give stakeholders a chance to have their say on the current list, identify other events that could be considered in addition to or removal from the list, and provide a rationale on the way an event meets the criteria for legislation.

We did not get a copy of the Minister of State's reply. Did the Minister, Deputy Martin, give him a copy?

I do not have copies to circulate at the moment but we will do that. I apologise.

We will have to get one for Senator Crowe anyway.

That is fine. I thank the Minister of State for his time. If he could send me the response by email I would appreciate that.

I welcome the review. It is encouraging. I am delighted to hear that the Minister, Deputy Catherine Martin, has committed to that. I do not want to labour the point but the fact is that hundreds of millions of euro of taxpayers' money have been invested in the GAA. What is happening is morally wrong, and morally wrong in terms of the members. The GAA said in 2014 that it was for the diaspora. That has proven to be incorrect, false and wrong. As the Minister of State is aware, the contract for Sky Sports coverage of GAA games is up for renewal. I am requesting the Minister of State, as part of this Government, to send a clear direction to the GAA that there should be no more pay-per-view deals. The GAA is a volunteer organisation the length and breadth of Ireland. Its members should be treated with respect. This pay-per-view deal is not acceptable. I ask the Government to send out a clear message in that regard. I respect the commercial decision for the GAA but it is significantly funded by taxpayers' money.

I appreciate the Senator's comments on this matter. I will take the issue around the diaspora in particular to the Minister. It is an area I have worked in and therefore am interested in it.

The year 2020 has been very challenging for the sporting bodies, particularly those that rely on mass spectator events for their income. The Government has provided unprecedented support for the GAA and other sporting bodies in recognition of the contribution they make to Irish society in terms of offering opportunities for sport and physical activity as well as the vibrant role sports clubs play in communities throughout the country. That was demonstrated again when clubs from the Gaelic games and other sports answered the community call to support the elderly and vulnerable members of their communities during the pandemic.

I reiterate that the Government will be reviewing the designated free-to-air events as required under the 2009 Act. My colleague, the Minister, Deputy Martin, will shortly launch a public consultation on the designation of sporting and cultural events of major importance to society as free-to-air. I would encourage all interested parties to make submissions as part of that process.

I thank the Minister of State. It would be good to have that response circulated to Members but I would like a copy of it also.

Vocational Training Opportunities Scheme

I thank the Minister of State for attending. This matter relates to the range of supports to encourage people who are out of work to take up training and skilling opportunities. The reason I raise is it I was approached by a woman a number of weeks ago who is a former Debenhams employee. She has spent many nights on the picket line and is reliant on social welfare supports. She has realised that she needs to take her fate into her own hands and reskill because she needs to take up employment in the new year. She is now reskilling to become a special needs assistant but she has had to stop receiving the Pandemic Unemployment Payment, PUP, and join the vocational training opportunities scheme, VTOS, which results in a drop in her income of €159 per week. That means that she must survive on just 53% of her former earnings. My main question concerns the incentives for those who are out of work to take up training opportunities. Under the PUP scheme, people who were previously earning €400 or more per week receive 88% of their previous earnings; if they were previously earning €300 to €399 per week, they receive a minimum of 75% of their previous earnings; and for those previously earning €250 to €299 per week, they receive 83% of their former earnings. It is not acceptable that someone who takes the initiative and undertakes training sees such a dramatic cut in their income support. I accept that the qualifying period for accessing VTOS payments has been removed this year, which is welcome, but it is not going to do anything for those seeing such a dramatic drop in their income. I acknowledge that there has been a significant expansion in the training opportunities available and that is welcome, but we need to examine how the social welfare system is structured. It is not good enough that it is simply about preventing poverty; it needs to serve as a springboard to work. What incentives have been put in place to get people retrained and reskilled so that they can take up jobs next year and beyond?

As announced under the July jobs stimulus, the Department of Social Protection is developing a range of training and support measures in partnership with the Department of Further and Higher Education, Research, Innovation and Science to assist jobseekers whose jobs have been displaced by the Covid pandemic. Training measures include three main points: first, providing access to additional full-time and part-time education, including targeted short-term courses with more than 35,000 new education and training places for those unemployed; second, facilitating access to the back to education allowance to those displaced by the pandemic to return to education, including VTOS courses, which has been done by waiving the usual qualification period of three to nine months, as the Senator mentioned; and third, Government provision of almost €57 million in funding for the back to education allowance in 2020. This represents a considerable investment in supporting participants to acquire the necessary education and skills to re-enter the labour market. By the end of October 2020, approximately 6,000 students had received support through the back to education allowance.

The Department is also well-advanced in developing a new work placement and experience programme for those out of work for at least six months to provide them with the necessary workplace skills to compete in the labour market, helping to break the vicious cycle of "no job, no experience; no experience without a job" issue. It is intended that the programme will support mentoring to encourage jobseekers to expand their horizons and avail of new learning options that can help them grow into a new career.

If a person in receipt of the PUP wants to apply for the back to education allowance, they are required to transfer to a jobseeker's payment. The rate of the back to education allowance payment will be linked to their qualifying social welfare rate payment. Whereas the PUP is short term in nature and is scheduled to end in March 2021, the back to education allowance can provide longer-term income support, which can be provided for the duration of an education support. It is not optimal to refer people to education at PUP rates for full-time programmes that extend beyond the lifetime of the PUP, as this is a short-term payment for people who are expected to return to work once the restrictions are eased. Indeed, many persons who are in receipt of PUP will return to their previous employment, and many already have.

Where someone in receipt of jobseeker's payment or PUP wishes to pursue short-term or part-time study, they can continue to receive their payment, including PUP, while they continue to satisfy the conditions of that payment. Many options and supports are available to jobseekers wishing to pursue short-term or part-time training or education without a qualification period, and without affecting their existing jobseeker or PUP entitlements.

Finally, my Department offers a range of other employment and job search supports to jobseekers and employers through its Intreo service and public employment service. Further information is available at www.gov.ie and in local Intreo centres.

Any of us who has ever spent a period out of work know that days, weeks and months are vital in respect of the time needed to reskill or retrain. Those weeks and months should not be wasted. It is not good enough for the Minister of State to say that the PUP is going to expire in March and, therefore, people who are in receipt of the payment should not be able to access those State-provided training opportunities until March 2021. We need to do something in the here and now, and we must not waste any time. I acknowledge that those in receipt of the PUP who take up privately-funded training can continue to receive the PUP, but this issue is about people accessing State-provided training, and the supports that are linked to that. It is not good enough that the Department has not acknowledged the need to address the need for incentives for people currently in receipt of PUP to get into training in the here and now.

The Government is committed to supporting jobseekers, including those unemployed pre-Covid and those whose employment has been displaced as a result of the Covid-19 pandemic, in taking up education and training opportunities and to work with them to take up these options. We need to target supports at those who will most need them. Many of those in receipt of the PUP will return to their previous employment - and indeed many have already done so - as public health restrictions ease and the economy opens to varying degrees. At its peak, more than 600,000 people were in receipt of PUP in May 2020, and at its lowest, in October there were just over 205,000 in receipt PUP. As of yesterday, there were just over 351,000 in receipt of this income support. With this week's move from level 5 to level 3 restrictions and the partial opening up of the economy, a significant proportion of these people will exit the PUP scheme and return to employment in the coming weeks. It is, therefore, essential that we target support and resources at those whose jobs are permanently lost and those who have been receiving PUP for significant periods since last May.

Community Employment Schemes

I thank the Minister of State for coming to the House. I think it is my first time addressing him since his elevation, so I congratulate him on that.

I have been asked to raise this matter by Councillor Ben Brennan from Laois, but I know that the matter will interest a number of people around the country. It specifically concerns community employment, CE, schemes and those on them who are in their late 50s and early 60s. Since the schemes were first introduced, they have delivered a number of objectives for individuals and communities. They have served both as activation and social inclusion measures, and they have been adapted to times of low and high unemployment. The schemes are the backbone of many local services such as childcare, healthcare and social care, outdoor works and local facilities. Workers on the schemes work hand in glove with many local organisations, including Tidy Towns committees and local authorities.

It was widely reported at the height of the pandemic that CE scheme workers were the first to step up to the plate to support older people who were cocooning in their homes, by providing meals on wheels and other services funded by the HSE. Participants in schemes are normally long-term unemployed or are from targeted social inclusion groups such as those who are parenting alone or have a disability.

There is no doubt that the schemes have been very successful in delivering on activation and social inclusion objectives.

One of the features of the schemes is that they extend across the life cycle of Governments. Fine Gael Governments have been very responsive to lowering the qualifying age. In 2019, the general qualifying age for community employment schemes was reduced from 25 years to 21 years and for those aged 55 years the rules allowed them to remain on a community employment scheme for three years.

We have been very realistic about the activation outcomes of the schemes. Young people are a lot more likely than those aged in their late 50s or 60s to go on to full time-employment. This is not because of any reluctance on the part of the older cohort. Rather, the jobs are just not there. While many might not like to admit it, there is rampant ageism when it comes to hiring workers. Very talented older participants on community employment schemes have to leave them well ahead of retirement age. This places them in an unemployment limbo for up to four years. There is plenty of anecdotal evidence that many older workers on community employment schemes are making no extra money. They spend the €20 they receive from the scheme on petrol and sandwiches during the week. However, they love to go to work and they love the energy and commitment required of those on these schemes. All of the participants are valuable mentors for younger participants and have a lifetime of rich knowledge and experience to share. It behoves us to ring fence this group in order to protect the opportunity for participation and ensure that if they want they can stay in schemes up to retirement age.

Fine Gael in government has always been very proactive and responsive to changing labour market demands and the needs of community employment scheme participants. I am very hopeful that the Minister of State will respond to the call to extend the participation age up to retirement age. When he contacted me, Councillor Brennan was deeply distressed by the case of a 62-year-old man who, because he had reached the limits of the scheme, is now expected to go on the dole and do nothing. The only cost to the State of keeping him on the scheme was €20. That is wrong in every sense of the word. I look forward to the response of the Minister of State.

Community employment is the largest employment and training programme administered by the Department of Social Protection. The programme was initially established under the aegis of FÁS to enhance the employability of long term unemployed people by providing work experience and training opportunities for them in their communities. Its objective continues to be to provide valuable work experience for long-term unemployed people to help prepare them to gain employment. The community employment programme is delivered throughout the community and voluntary sector by independent community employment scheme sponsoring authorities.

In general, community employment placements for new entrants aged between 21 and 55 years are for one year. Community employment scheme participants who are working towards a Quality and Qualifications Ireland, QQI, major award can seek to extend their participation in a scheme by up to two years to enable them to reach the required standard of qualification. A significant of number of community employment scheme participants each year avail of an extension in order to continue training and obtain qualifications or major awards. However, community employment scheme participants aged 55 years or older can remain on a scheme for three years and do not have to work towards a QQI major award.

In either scenario, a maximum of three consecutive years' participation in a community employment scheme is permissible. A person may requalify for a community employment scheme after a 12-month break once he or she satisfies the qualifying conditions. An overall lifetime limit of six years applies to all community employment scheme participants and seven years for those in receipt of a disability payment.

A pilot initiative, known as service support stream, was implemented in January 2016 for those aged 62 years or older. The initiative facilitated up to 7% of the total community employment scheme numbers being allowed to extend their participation beyond the maximum duration normally permitted and to remain in community employment up to the State pension age, provided the participant continued to meet the eligibility conditions and the number of places in the community employment scheme was not exceeded.

Overall, the service support stream was positively received by community employment schemes sponsoring authorities and participants who availed of the pilot scheme. A number of new conditions were introduced in July 2017 to further support progression and broaden access to community employment for a wider range of people. The service support stream was one of the new options provided on a more mainstream basis. In 2018, the 7% limit for service stream support participation placements was increased to enable 10% of the total number of community employment scheme participants to apply for this facility for those aged over 62 and without the need for a 12-month break in their previous community employment scheme participation, provided the participants continued to meet the eligibility conditions and the number of places on the community employment scheme were not exceeded.

in summary, I can confirm that community employment scheme participants aged over 62 can continue on a continuous basis up to the State pension age in this specific community employment service support scheme strand. This is subject to the standard criteria such as the availability of places on the service support stream, satisfactory performance on the scheme and annual approval by the Department.

I thank the Minister of State for his response. I appreciate it. Community employment schemes have been the poor relation. One only has to look at the way the supervisors on these schemes have been treated down through the years. The Minister of State was not in office to oversee that.

I visited a community employment scheme in Wexford during the summer and it was amazing to see men aged in their late 50s and early 60s committed to the work they were doing in a garden. We need to waive all restrictions for those aged over 62. If people are on a scheme and the sponsor and supervisor are happy with the work they are doing, they should be allowed to remain until retirement age, with no restrictions and qualifying criteria. I ask the Minister of State to bring that proposal back to the Department because there is nothing worse for mental health than being forced into unemployment. My colleague spoke a few moments ago about the devastating effects of unemployment. I have been there and know what it is like. We need to look after the supervisors in the context of pension entitlements and the like. I again thank the Minister of State for coming to the House today and I appreciate his answer.

I have some further information that might be of use. Nationally, there are approximately 19,000 places on community employment schemes, 10% of which are under the service support stream. The scheme is currently under-subscribed nationally. There are 1,081 community employment scheme participants availing of the service support stream. The 10% limit was previously at the local provider level. We have bumped that up to divisional level which should provide more flexibility for local providers to go beyond the 10% limit to some extent in some situations. That will vary from place to place at a local level. I wish to acknowledge that a lot of people availing of the service support stream also contribute invaluable advice and guidance to newer and less experienced community employment scheme participants over the course of their work and activities.

Forestry Sector

I welcome the Minister of State. Ireland has a forestry industry that provides approximately 12,000 badly needed jobs throughout the country, particular in rural areas, including my county, Tipperary. It contributes some €2.3 billion to the economy annually and plays a major role in combating climate change. The importance of the forestry industry is underscored in the programme for Government, which outlines that trees and forests store carbon, clean the air, mitigate water movements, prevent soil erosion, provide habitats for flora and fauna and provide an attractive amenity for the public.

This is all being threatened, however. Tree planting has ground to a halt and our sawmills are running out of timber. This has been caused by the introduction of a new regime for forestry licensing and a failure for this new process to provide the licences that are needed to plant new trees and fell them. This is an issue which has been debated at length in the House and the Dáil and in various committee meetings. Furthermore, the problem has been exacerbated by the additional backlog of projects under appeal with the Forestry Appeals Committee. Despite the passage of emergency legislation only a few months ago, namely, the Forestry (Miscellaneous Provisions) Act, the crisis has persisted and the reforms that were to flow from the legislation have not yet materialised.

Forestry is now in the midst of a full-scale crisis that threatens the future of the industry. Industry representatives have been clear in stating that forestry is on its knees due to the prolonged and ongoing inaction of the Department of Agriculture, Food and the Marine. Despite the coming into force of the recent Act, the crisis has worsened and urgent intervention is needed to save jobs and salvage what is a vital industry.

The Department of Agriculture, Food and the Marine has repeatedly failed to deliver on the commitments to produce the required number of forestry licences. It has not met any of its targets and has repeatedly refused to admit that its process is not delivering.

Last week, it was reported in the Irish Independent that a staggering 4,600 licence applications are backlogged in the forestry service. This was despite that fact the Department of Agriculture, Food and the Marine has consistently stated that approximately only 2,000 forestry licences were backlogged. As reported in The Irish Times, the representative body for the industry in Ireland, Forestry Industries Ireland, has written to the Taoiseach, the Tánaiste and leader of Fine Gael, and the leader of the Green Party outlining that the forestry industry in Ireland is in full-scale crisis, and asked them to intervene directly to save the industry.

Given that the Department has failed to get on top of the situation, the industry has called for three steps, all of which were included in the letter sent to the three party leaders. The first step is to place the forestry division of the Department of Agriculture, Food and the Marine on an emergency footing, redeploy personnel to deal with the crisis and recruit and outsource additional managers and personnel immediately to deal with the backlog of licences. The second step is to set out specific targets for licensing, and hold the Department of Agriculture, Food and the Marine to account by closely monitoring output through a temporary emergency oversight unit based in the Department of the Taoiseach. The third step is to insist the forestry appeals committee reforms its approach and increases its output, as enabled by the Forestry Act.

I have four questions for the Minister. Is the current number of backlog licences 2,000 or 4,600? If it is 4,600, how did the Minister and Department officials previously conclude the number of backlogs were 2,000 and state it repeatedly in Dáil debates? Can the Minister outline when the backlog was cleared, with reference to a specific date and timeline? Will the Minister specifically address the three steps identified by the industry to resolve the crisis?

Let me acknowledge there are delays in the issuing of forestry licences and there are currently real challenges and difficulties in the sector as a result. I fully recognise the impact this is having on the sector. My immediate priority is to resolve the issues which have led to this backlog and issue licences in the volume needed for this important sector to continue to contribute to our rural economy. My Department is working with a great degree of urgency to accelerate the pace at which licences are being issued, and to ensure the system in place stands the test of time and meets all the legal requirements. Together with my colleague, the Minister of State, Senator Hackett, I have met many different stakeholders on this issue and continue to engage intensively with all parties to try to resolve this.

I am more than aware of the importance of this sector. I know it has significant potential for income generation on farms, for the creation of rural jobs, and for the provision of woodlands for public enjoyment. Forestry also has a key role to play in meeting our national climate and biodiversity objectives. That is why the building of a sustainable forestry sector is a key priority in the programme for Government. This means building economic resilience in full compliance with relevant environmental legislation.

The background is that my Department is the planning and consenting authority for forestry licensing in Ireland. Licences are required for afforestation, forest road construction and tree felling. These must be issued in compliance with EU and national environmental legislation. Third parties may make submissions on licence applications and there is provision for appealing forestry approvals to the forestry appeals committee.

Recent case law from the Court of Justice of the European Union and their subsequent interpretation by the High Court, as well as decisions of the forestry appeals committee and others, have required my Department to introduce new appropriate assessment procedures for forestry licencing. These unavoidable changes in the licencing system, which take account of case law on the environment, have resulted in delays in the issue.

The most significant of these changes came in mid-2019 with a High Court ruling on appropriate assessment procedures, which had immediate implications for forestry licencing. The new procedures introduced involved major changes and have been challenging to implement. The changes involve a more detailed screening process of all European sites within 15 km of the project area and other European sites hydrologically linked.

Appropriate assessment is a site-specific analysis that is required under the EU habitats directive, which must be completed before a licence can be issued. The assessment is to judge whether the proposed forestry operations will significantly impact any nearby designated Natura site.

The changes in process introduced to meet these environmental requirements are significant. This has led to delays in the issuing of licences, as most files now require second stage appropriate assessment. There have also been a large number of appeals, which resulted in a backlog of appeals cases.

My Department receives forestry applications and issues new licences every week of the year. This means there is a constant turnover of applications and a work list which has these applications at various stages of processing. We currently have approximately 4,700 files on hand for processing. The primary backlog, however, is with the 2,000 licences requiring ecology input. Generally, the remainder of licence applications are not subject to the delays currently being experienced with licences requiring ecology input. To give some context to our output, we have issued 2,300 licences this year to date, almost 600 of which have issued in the last two months.

I will briefly update the Senator on the staffing allocation around this. We now have 16 full-time equivalent ecologists working on forestry licencing, which is up from just two this time last year. We are continuing to recruit ecologists and will be adding to this team very soon. Ten new permanent forestry inspectors are joining the Department's team, four of whom are starting this week. They have been supplemented by four temporary forestry inspectors and all are immediately allocated to working on licencing. That gives an indication of the seriousness and the resources which are being attached to this to address the backlog, in the full understanding of the pressure the industry is under at the moment, and to try to resolve that situation by bringing a volume of timber into the industry through the issuing of licences. I thank the Chair for her discretion.

It is important to point out that this happened long before the Minister came into the Department. I take on board and totally accept the seriousness with which the Minister takes this. The worry is whether the Department and the officials take it with the same seriousness, but I trust the Minister's leadership on this.

The Minister said there are 4,700 files for processing but only 2,000 are primary backlogs. What is the difference between those? There are 4,700 files in there. Obviously, therefore, it is a backlog for the people who have files in there and they are waiting.

The Minister must have an indication from the 600 that have been processed in the last two months of when he will be able to clear the backlog. Has he any idea of that? In fairness, from my constituency in County Tipperary, approximately 740 people are employed directly in the forestry sector. The Minister is aware these jobs are insecure now with lack of timber. I am thinking of Dunnes Sawmills in Drangan and Sheehan Sawmills in Ballyporeen. These are good jobs and good people who have been in the industry for 25 years and 40 years, respectively, and who give back an awful lot to their communities. We need to make sure we can save this industry and make it viable going forward. The Minister might answer the question on when the backlogs will be cleared or give a prediction, if possible, of when they might be cleared.

Some 4,700 files are in hand, 2,000 of which require an ecology input and assessment. Those require much more work and are where the delays have primarily occurred. The others, which do not require an ecological input, tend to be processed more quickly. As I said, so far this year, 2,300 licences have been issued to date.

The fact the number of licences being issued has not been what is required by the sector has caused many problems and difficulties, and a real crunch now. We are doing all we can in the Department to address it. As I outlined in terms of the additional resources, there are 16 ecologists now compared with two this time last year and that is increasing. The number of additional forestry inspectors coming in to address this is increasing capacity all the time. The immediate priority is getting volume into the system to address the supply challenges and scale that up, and in doing so deal with the backlog.

I cannot say at this point how long dealing with that backlog will take. We are doing all we can to address it and to increase immediate volume supply. Then, into the start of next year, I will be able to give a clear guideline in terms the scaling up of resources and where we are with addressing that backlog.

It is certainly my intention and that of the Minister of State, Senator Hackett, to ensure that this backlog is addressed. The immediate priority is the challenging situation in which many in the sector and many sawmills find themselves. We, in the Department, are doing all we can to address that and take it seriously.

Schools Building Projects

Cuirim fáilte roimh an Aire. I acknowledge and congratulate the Department of Agriculture, Food and the Marine and, more importantly, the Minister for Education, on the work that has been done on the challenges that Covid-19 has presented in our schools over the past number of months. I also acknowledge and congratulate the Department of Education on the provision of school accommodation in the general Galway area over the past ten years. We have a proud record in respect of schools such as Merlin College, Merlin Woods Primary School, Gaelscoil de hÍde, Coláiste na Coiribe, Gaelscoil Mhic Amhlaigh and the new schools in Clifden, Oughterard, Na Forbacha, Claregalway and Lackagh. There has been considerable investment over the past ten years.

There are a number of schools that still have challenges. Scoil Chaitríona, Renmore, has been seeking a new school building for a number of years to no avail. It is a co-educational primary school divided into junior primary and senior primary schools, taking in pupils from a large area to the east of Galway city. The present school buildings were opened in the early 1970s and approach being 50 years old. They are well past their sell-by date and urgently need replacing. The school caters for almost 800 pupils and approximately 70 staff. The present building is single storey with an unusual design where many classroom doors open directly onto a school yard area. That poses issues regarding heat retention, security of the building when the school is off, movement of children during the day etc. Any 50-year-old building has issues but our school buildings should reflect the pride and importance that we place on the next generation and the buildings in Renmore do not do that.

It is not for the want of trying on behalf of the staff, board of management, parents, school community and all politicians in the constituency. I welcome Senator Crowe here today in that regard. They have campaigned long and hard for what they need and deserve, but progress is stubbornly slow. The crunch issue seems to be that the available site may be too small. At present, the school is a single-storey building and caters for 800 pupils. A new school, most like a two-storey building, would take up a smaller footprint. There may be logistical issues in terms of the construction but I am sure they could easily be dealt with. The availability of green space is not an issue. The school is located immediately adjacent to a large green area owned and maintained by Galway City Council. The school has been assured by the council that an agreement can be put in place allowing access to this green space during school hours.

This is a long-running saga which needs a solution. Children who started in the junior school have moved through the system and still no progress has been made. Pupils everywhere deserve the best facilities to get the best start in life. Staff also deserve a decent place of work. As we are raising this matter in the Seanad, I note that Máire Geoghegan-Quinn, a former Senator, was a part of the original staff in the school when it was founded, although she certainly has since gone on to greater things. That goes to show a connection with this House and the length of time since that school was built.

I visited the school and met the then principal and chairperson of the board of management. Their commitment to their school and pupils is 100% and they deserve better facilities in return.

I welcome the fact that the senior Minister has come into the House. I acknowledge that. I understand that she has organised a meeting with all Oireachtas Members and I look forward to that. I originally put down this Commencement matter last Friday and was not aware that a meeting was in the offing. I certainly welcome that and look forward to working with the Minister and all Members of the Oireachtas to ensure that we get progress on Scoil Chaitríona, Renmore.

I thank the Senator for his generous remarks about the work of the Department of Education and how the challenges of Covid-19 are being managed. He also acknowledged how those challenges are being managed on the ground by school communities and I also wish to express my own sincere thanks in that regard. The ongoing work is a challenge that is being met on a daily basis with the immense generosity and determination of school communities.

The Senator also acknowledged the provision of accommodation in the area over a long number of years. I thank him for raising this specific matter as it provides me with the opportunity to clarify the position in relation to the provision of new school buildings for Scoil Chaitríona junior and senior schools, Renmore, County Galway. Scoil Chaitríona junior school caters for boys and girls from junior infants to second class. The school had an enrolment of 392 pupils for the 2019-20 school year. Its staffing allocation for the current school year includes a principal, 19 mainstream class teaching posts, including four disadvantaged over-quota posts, eight special education teaching posts, one shared special education teaching post, four special class teaching posts and two language support teaching posts.

Scoil Chaitríona senior school caters for boys and girls from third class to sixth class. The school had an enrolment of 378 pupils for the 2019-20 school year. Its staffing allocation for the current school year includes a principal, 15 mainstream teaching posts, eight special education teaching posts, 1.02 shared special education teaching posts, three special class teaching posts and one shared home school liaison post. Both schools operate under the patronage of the Bishop of Galway.

The Department requested the patron to explore the potential availability of alternative site options, including a request to engage with Galway City Council regarding any potential land within council ownership. The patron subsequently advised the Department that no alternative sites were available. The Department subsequently met patron representatives and both school authorities to consider a way forward. The school authorities committed to exploring any options that may be available to decant the schools to facilitate a building project. A proposed decant option was recently proposed by the school.

My Department is anxious to advance the building projects for the schools into the architectural planning process. However, the complexities associated with the existing site need to be resolved and the Department is currently exploring the options available in an expeditious manner. I appreciate that this is a priority for the Senator and all Oireachtas Members. I assure the Senator of the Department's co-operation in expediting the matter as soon as possible.

I thank the Minister for that comprehensive reply. I am aware that there has been engagement between the board of management, the patron and the Department over a number of years. As the Minister rightly says, the issue around the site is the principal concern. To reiterate, Mr. Brendan McGrath, CEO of Galway City Council, has outlined that the council is willing to engage with the school patron about the use of a green space across the road from the existing school site. It is a quiet and safe road so I do not believe there will be an issue. That would solve the problem and allow for the existing site to be used. As I said, no other site has been identified. There is an option and a solution. I hope that the Minister will be able to expedite matters in conjunction with the Oireachtas Members in the area and I am sure she will.

I confirm that I appreciate the Senator raising this issue because it has given me an opportunity to outline the determination of the Department to advance this project. I assure him that the Department will continue to work with the patron and the school authorities on advancing this matter. As the Senator earlier outlined, the priority that is being given to this project is underlined by the fact that there will be a meeting between Oireachtas Members and officials of the Department next week. I have every confidence that meeting will be helpful in progressing the matter. It is a priority and we will expedite it as quickly as we can.

Sitting suspended at 11.40 a.m. and resumed at 12.02 p.m.