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Seanad Éireann debate -
Tuesday, 26 Jan 2021

Vol. 274 No. 2

Nithe i dtosach suíonna - Commencement Matters

Job Losses

I thank the Cathaoirleach for selecting this matter and I thank the Minister of State for being present.

Last Friday evening with no advance warning to employees or to the National Union of Journalists, a large number of journalists across a range of well-known local newspapers were laid off. These included the well-known titles, The Midland Tribune and The Tullamore Tribune, the Clonmel Nationalist, the Tipperary Star, the Donegal Democrat, the Leinster Express, and the Leitrim Observer, all of which are part of the stable of the Iconic Newspapers group, owned by UK businessman Malcolm Denmark.

This stable also includes other famous titles such as the Kilkenny People, the Dundalk Democrat and the Longford Leader. These lay-offs are in addition to a reduction in working days and hours in the remainder of the newsrooms in these titles. This comes at a time when the public in all of these communities are depending on newspapers and journalists to give them a factual position on what is happening in their local areas in regard to Covid-19 and the impact on their communities. At a time when people are being asked to stay at home, the local newspaper provides them, in particular the elderly, with a connection to their community and, most important, to factual news as opposed to the unreliable dribble that can pop up on social media feeds. To put it in context, a cut of one reporter to a newsroom of a local newspaper can cause news reporting ability to drop by 25% and so the content drops accordingly and a community consequently suffers as well.

No business is being left untouched by the harshness of this pandemic, as the Minister of State, Deputy Troy, well knows in the context of his portfolio. Bar our healthcare teams, there is nobody more deserving than others in that line. I am not arguing that this morning. However, there are 50 plus local newspaper titles across this country, many of them in their third century of operation, which provide coverage of local news, courts, council meetings and sports. They are a record of our local democracy. If one takes that away, one is diluting local democracy and local accountability.

I have two asks of the Minister of State, Deputy Troy. The media landscape in this country and the world has changed massively in terms of how people access their news. I accept that. Many of these local newspapers were previously family-owned operations. In this particular case, some 26 titles are owned by one UK media mogul, Malcolm Denmark. By all accounts the holding company is profitable and so using of the cover of Covid-19 to lay off people is wrong and it needs to be called out as wrong. Business owners who seek to slash employees while remaining profitable need to be called out.

There is another backdrop to this issue. Prior to Christmas, the Joint Committee on Media, Tourism, Arts, Culture, Sport and the Gaeltacht held two special sessions on the future of local newspapers in this country with the National Union of Journalists and Mr. Frank Mulrennan of Local Ireland, which represents 46 local newspapers across the country. They had been excluded from the Government supports that were allocated to local radio stations, also much deserving and providing local news coverage and local content to those who listen to them, and they were seeking parity in terms of those supports to the tune of €2.5 million. I remind the House that 91% of advertising revenue, which is the backbone of the income of local newspapers, comes from local shops, businesses and planning notices, all of which have ceased since Christmas and as a result a huge part of their revenue has been taken away. My caveat in respect of that is that profitable companies and newsrooms which seek to lay off employees should not be in receipt of the supports for which I am calling this morning. I made that point to the National Union of Journalists at the committee meeting. We cannot have a situation where a business is taking Government support and at the same time laying off employees.

I ask the Minister of State to address the concerns I have raised this morning and to confirm if Iconic Newspapers is in receipt of the employment wage subsidy scheme that has been made available to many companies around this country. I know that the Minister of State has a passion for local democracy and local reporting such as is provided by the businesses about which I am speaking this morning. I am interested to hear his comments on same.

I share Senator Cassells's view on the importance of our media. It is important at any time but it is particularly important at a time of pandemic that we can rely on factual, reputable media outlets. I am familiar with many of the newspapers in this particular group, particularly the Longford Leader, which is exemplary in terms of its factual reporting, and is anxiously awaited on a weekly basis in so many households across Longford and Westmeath, as is the case in regard to some of the other provincial papers.

I extend my sympathy to all the workers who are facing job losses at this time. I fully appreciate how difficult the situation is for those involved and their families in this time of uncertainty. I understand the Iconic Newspapers group has announced a number of proposals, including staff lay-offs and cuts to hours and pay. The Government hopes that these difficult measures may mean that permanent job losses can be avoided as much as possible.

It is normal for businesses to run their own affairs and to respond to challenges in their own way. Government cannot dictate how any business is to be run. Our rule is to ensure there is a framework of legislative protection for workers' rights.

On changing hours and pay, the Terms of Employment (Information) Act 1994 provides that an employer must provide the employee with a written statement of the particulars of the employee's terms of employment. The Act also provides that an employer must notify the employee of any changes in the particulars given in the statement. The Act provides a right of complaint to the Workplace Relations Commission where an employer fails to comply. While an employer may negotiate the terms and conditions of the contract, it is best practice that it should be undertaken in consultation with the affected employee and taking a long-term view of the employment relationship.

Senator Cassells referred to the Future of Media Commission, which was established by the Government in September 2020 to examine the future of media in Ireland. This includes public service broadcasters, commercial broadcasters, print and online media platforms. The commission is examining the challenges faced by public service broadcasters, commercial broadcasters, print and online media. These challenges include sustainable funding sources, changes in audience behaviour and changes in technology. The commission has undertaken a public consultation to which it received more than 750 submissions. It is putting in place a number of online events to explore key themes with stakeholders and the public. The commission is due to report within nine months and its report will inform future media policy, including print media.

In the context of the Government's stated commitment to support independent media into the future, it is regrettable that a company such as Iconic Newspapers is making a restructure of this nature in advance, especially considering the range of financial supports the Government has made available to all businesses across various sectors during the pandemic to sustain them and protect the livelihoods of employees who rely on their employers.

The Minister of State correctly stated that there should be consultation in scenarios such as this. That is the exact point. There was no consultation, none. On Friday night, Ian McGuinness, the Irish organiser of the National Union of Journalists, stated, "At a time when we need solid, public service journalism more than ever, we have seen Iconic Newspapers announce their intention to impose another round of savage cuts." These cuts were taken without prior consultation.

I very much welcome the commitment the Government has shown to the media in establishing the Future of Media Commission. This will be extremely worthwhile and it is a very good expert group. The autumn could be too late for many of the businesses in the local newspaper industry in this country. There are 46 paid-for publications employing some 1,000 reporters that are read by 1.5 million people across the country. There has been a staggering decline of €6.3 million, or almost 22%, in revenues arising from the drop in circulation and advertising revenue. I ask the Minister of State again to clarify where we stand on the call from those newspapers to be treated the same as local radio stations. Will the Government make a decision on the €2.5 million sought from the Minister, Deputy Catherine Martin, before Christmas?

The pandemic has taken a terrible toll on many businesses and livelihoods right across various sectors in the economy. The Government has committed an unprecedented level of financial supports to keep businesses afloat and save jobs. The Senator referenced the employment wage subsidy scheme, which was introduced on 1 September. This replaced the temporary wage subsidy scheme and it addresses one of the biggest overheads that any business faces on a weekly basis, which is the wage bill. This Government is underwriting the wage bill of so many businesses in order to protect them and the livelihoods of the employees relying on them. The Government also reduced the VAT rates from 23% to 21% and from 13.5% to 9%. The Covid restrictions support scheme, CRSS, is also available for businesses that have had to close their doors.

The Senator's query relates in particular to Iconic Newspapers and the request made before Christmas for €2.5 million to the Minister for Tourism, Culture, Arts, Gaeltacht, Sport and Media, Deputy Catherine Martin, and I cannot answer that question. I give an undertaking that I will raise it with the Minister today and revert to the Senator.

Medicinal Products Availability

I welcome the Minister of State, Deputy Niall Collins, to the House and thank him for taking this matter. Like most people, I am not quite sure how to pronounce the name of this drug, Duodopa, but this is my best shot. It is the only flippant remark I can make about this, as it is otherwise a very serious matter.

Duodopa is a pump-based system that infuses a liquid form of Parkinson's disease medication, levodopa, to provide more consistent relief of symptoms on a minute-by-minute basis. It is very effective and there are approximately 100 patients in Ireland who would benefit from it. Patients would typically claw back three to four hours per day of normal function that would previously have been lost to immobility. There is no question as to its clinical benefit and it is generally used in patients with the most significant disability and who therefore have most to gain from its use. It is worth noting that without it, people may be housebound and reliant on carers, presenting both the people in question and the State with a cost that must be factored into assessments.

This issue relates to 100 patients from 10,000 sufferers of Parkinson's disease, or 1% of the total, but for those 100 people it is the difference between having some sort of quality of life and none. The drug is everything to them. It is like winning the lottery because it provides quality of life for them and their families, loved ones and carers. It is critical to those 100 cases. We are talking about 100 individuals rather than any type of statistic. The National Centre for Pharmacoeconomics found it cost-effective at a cost of €30,000 per year. It would be transformative for those who get it.

A separate but related matter is the development of the national deep brain stimulation service in the Mater and Beaumont hospitals. Deep brain stimulation is a surgical treatment for Parkinson's disease that is an alternative to Duodopa and is relevant for approximately 5% of patients, or 500 people. People have traditionally gone to the UK for this treatment.

That is hardly satisfactory in a Covid context or in any other context. Professor Tim Lynch of the Mater hospital, Dr. Richard Walsh of Beaumont Hospital and Ms Catherine Moran of Mater and Beaumont hospitals, as well as a very nice and helpful nurse named Katrina with whom I had a conversation - I apologise that I do not have her surname before me - and who is extraordinarily helpful and committed to this cause, are all working on this issue. There are approximately 50 patients waiting for surgery and they hope to perform the first deep brain stimulation in Beaumont hospital this year. A business case for funding for this initiative has gone to the HSE. The Minister for Health, Deputy Stephen Donnelly, allocated €50 million for new therapies in the budget and he specifically mentioned Parkinson's disease in his remarks. Duodopa and deep brain stimulation are central to all of this. I look forward to the reply of the Minister of State.

I thank the Senator for raising this issue and for giving me, on behalf of the Minister for Health, the opportunity to clarify the position on the availability of levodopa-carbidopa intestinal gel, known as Duodopa, for patients with advanced Parkinson's disease.

As the Senator may know, the HSE has been given statutory responsibility for medicine pricing and reimbursement decisions under the Health (Pricing and Supply of Medical Goods) Act 2013. The Act specifies certain criteria for decisions on whether the State will reimburse medicines. The Minister for Health has no role in this statutory process. HSE decisions on which medicines are reimbursed by the taxpayer are made on objective scientific and economic grounds, including on the advice of the National Centre for Pharmacoeconomics, NCPE. The NCPE conducts assessments on behalf of the HSE and then makes recommendations on reimbursement to assist the HSE in its decision-making.

The HSE strives to reach a decision on drug reimbursement in as timely a manner as possible. Due to the significant moneys involved, however, it must ensure that the best price is achieved, often leading to a protracted deliberative process. Under an interim agreement between the HSE and the manufacturer dating back to 2014, the HSE agreed to fund this drug for up to 81 patients. The manufacturer agreed to fund the treatment of any new patients above the cap of 81 patients through a medical access programme. However, the HSE was informed in 2019 that the manufacturer had unilaterally set aside this agreement. The manufacturer agreed that it would continue to provide the drug free of charge to patients already on the access programme but stated that it would not be enrolling any new patients in the free of charge access programme after 30 April 2019.

On 14 June 2019, the NCPE completed an assessment of Duodopa for patients with advanced Parkinson's disease and recommended that it should not be considered for reimbursement unless its cost-effectiveness compared with other existing treatments could be improved. This recommendation is available to view on he NCPE website. Following this recommendation, the HSE entered into lengthy pricing negotiations with the manufacturer. When these concluded, the reimbursement of Duodopa was formally considered by the HSE drugs group over two meetings, the second of which was held in February 2020. At that time the drugs group made a positive recommendation for reimbursement to the HSE executive management team. This was in the context of the recognised unmet need, the clinical evidence, the cost-effectiveness evidence and the resources available to the HSE.

It is important to note that Duodopa is only one of the medicines with a significant budget impact awaiting decision by the HSE executive management team.

The HSE has yet to make a final decision on the specific reimbursement application and the statutory process is ongoing. I am happy to report to the House, however, that €50 million has been allocated to the HSE in budget 2021 to enable the approval of new medicines.

I am encouraged by this paragraph in the Minister of State's reply:

At that time the drugs group made a positive recommendation for reimbursement to the HSE executive management team. This was in the context of the recognised unmet need, the clinical evidence, the cost-effectiveness evidence and the resources available to the HSE.

That was in February 2020. I ask the Minister of State if he could arrange, through the Department, for me to get a note specific to this recommendation regarding when it will be implemented and when Duodopa will be available to patients. In the same context, I also ask the Minister of State to get me a brief on deep brain stimulation as a parallel treatment for another 5% of people. I look forward to the Minister of State's response.

I will ask the Department and the HSE to follow up on the Senator's requests. We appreciate that Parkinson's disease is a debilitating condition and fully acknowledge that it is a worrying time for patients, families and carers, as Senator O'Reilly outlined in his remarks. I hope for all concerned that a final decision on this reimbursement application is reached shortly. It is important to note, however, that the HSE is the decision-making body for the reimbursement of the costs of medicines under the Health (Supply and Pricing of Medical Goods) Act 2013. The Senator will be aware that the Government has provided €50 million for new medicines in 2021 and it is anticipated this new funding will enable the HSE to approve a significant number of new medicines this year.

I thank the Minister of State and Senator O'Reilly. I believe there will be follow up on that issue.

Emergency Departments

I thank the Minister of State for travelling up to the Chamber today, but I regret no one is here from the Department of Health to address this Commencement matter. University Hospital Galway, UHG, is a model 4 hospital providing 24-7 acute surgery, acute medicine and critical care services for Galway and the region. I acknowledge the front-line staff and management who have been operating under difficult conditions because of the impact of Covid-19 for nearly a year now. The staff in the hospital, and especially the accident and emergency department, have managed to provide those services for many decades now.

In December 2015, during Leaders' Questions, the then Taoiseach, Enda Kenny, proclaimed in the Dáil that "the emergency department at University College Galway [was] not fit for purpose". In February 2017, funding was provided for the design phase of a new accident and emergency department. The project was included in Project Ireland 2040. During a visit to University Hospital Galway in September 2018 by the then Minister for Health, Deputy Harris, we were told by the Saolta University Health Care Group that the planning application would be lodged before Christmas of that year. It was then to be lodged by February 2019. We were then assured that the options appraisal, which was the evaluation of the best use of lands, with a new UHG in Merlin Park, was not going to delay the application.

We were assured that process was not going to delay the application, and that we would not be waiting for that options appraisal to be published before a planning application was lodged. Unfortunately, that did not happen. The options appraisal was published, and thankfully it did state that an accident and emergency department should be proceeded with on the site of UHG. The planning application, however, had still not been lodged. The Saolta group's design team had designed a seven-storey building, with five storeys for the accident and emergency department and the top two floors for paediatrics and maternity services. It was recommended that the original application should go with a shell and core design, where the top two floors would not be fully designed. They would be allowed to go to planning, and then be designed later.

Then that changed, which was positive as they were progressing the top two floors, but that caused a further delay. They were told to do a full fit-out design on the project and that led to another delay in the project.

When I raised this matter with the Minister for Health at a committee meeting in early November, he provided me with information that had previously been provided in response to a parliamentary question tabled by my colleague, Deputy Dillon. The Minister said, "This answer is not satisfactory for the Senator and I am, therefore, going to ask for an additional note on an indicative timeline as to when this will be done, as this is the question he asked, and it needs to be answered." That question still has not been answered. Anything I say is certainly not a personal comment about the Minister but comes from sheer frustration about the abject delays in a project that everybody needs and wants. The staff do Trojan work. The patients absolutely need this project, which is being delayed not by a lack of funding or by Government procrastination, but by the inability of the Saolta University Health Care Group to lodge a planning application. The group engaged with the city council about a bus corridor, which was welcome, but that delayed the project. The shell and core design also delayed the project. Everything seems to have delayed a vital new emergency department. The existing department was described in the Dáil, by the Taoiseach, as being not fit for purpose over five years ago. I am absolutely frustrated about the lack of progress in lodging a planning application, never mind all of the rest that has to be done to ensure there are tender and construction documents, etc. I look forward to the Minister of State's reply.

I thank the Senator for raising this matter and giving me an opportunity to outline to the House the position regarding the new emergency department at University Hospital Galway.

University Hospital Galway provides regional services for a wide range of specialties that serve a catchment area of approximately 1 million people along the west from Donegal to north Tipperary. University Hospital Galway is a model 4 hospital that provides 24-7 acute surgery, acute medicine and critical care. This project for a new emergency department at University Hospital Galway, which is part of a larger development incorporating maternity and paediatric services, is included in the capital plan for 2021. Approval has been granted to complete a temporary extension to the emergency department to provide additional accommodation. This includes segregated waiting areas, segregated treatment areas, isolation rooms, additional resuscitation spaces and additional support accommodation to take account of new requirements to treat Covid-19 patients, and improved infection control and prevention requirements for the emergency department. Externally, this also includes enabling works by way of road and car park reconfigurations, and utilities and drainage diversions, that are all located to the east of the main block of University Hospital Galway.

The temporary emergency department extension will be a single-storey building with a rooftop plantroom and will be connected to the main hospital block at the existing emergency department entrance. It is expected that this project will be completed in early 2022. The temporary emergency department project, and associated works, will serve as an enabling works project for the proposed permanent emergency department by helping to clear the site.

The main emergency department women's and children's development at University Hospital Galway is a complex project and is in the early stages of design progression. This project is of significant scale and must progress through the stages outlined in the public spending code. The design team was requested to assess the feasibility of fully developing the women's and children's element of the block at the same time as the development of the lower emergency department floors. This would result in the completion of the full development as one project. This feasibility report has been completed and has been considered by the HSE nationally.

No date has yet been set for the planning application for the main building. A few enabling works projects are required to clear the site before the main building can go ahead. The design team has had pre-planning meetings with the local authority on two of the enabling works projects. Other site enabling works are ongoing in preparation for the main emergency department women's and children's block development, including road and services realignment.

All capital development proposals must progress through a number of approval stages in line with the public spending code. The delivery of capital projects is a dynamic process and is subject to successful completion of various approvals, which can impact on the timeline for delivery.

I thank the Minister of State for the response on behalf of the Department of Health. While there was a good deal of information in it, the salient point is that no date has yet been set for the planning application for the main building. Despite Saolta University Health Care Group telling the then Minister, Deputy Harris, in September 2018 that the application would be lodged before the following Christmas, there is as yet no date for the main application for the building. Temporary works are being carried out which will be completed in early 2022. The way things are going, that will be 2023. Of course it is a complex project, and it is stated that it is in the early stages of design progression. People were talking about it and showing us the designs years ago. A great show is put on when Ministers visit. Saolta University Health Care Group said it would lodge a planning application before Christmas 2018, but it still has not lodged it and is nowhere near doing so, by all accounts.

I am greatly concerned by the response from the Department. I am not getting personal with the Minister of State, but I am extremely frustrated by the abject failure to deliver the first phase of this project, which is the planning permission.

I hear the Senator's frustration and anger on behalf of his constituents and the people of Galway and the west of Ireland with this ongoing issue and the lack of a coherent timeline. I will communicate his frustration on behalf of the people he represents to the Minister, the Department and the HSE.

I also echo the Senator's words of thanks and appreciation to the front-line workers in Galway and, indeed, throughout the country. All of us must continue to express our thanks for, and appreciation of, the hard and dedicated work these people do when they turn up every day on behalf of the health of the nation.

Third Level Fees

It will come as no surprise to the Minister of State to hear me say that I believe in a publicly-funded model of third level education and moving towards the complete removal of fees. Universities and colleges have been underfunded for over a decade, forcing them to find money in the private sector or to charge international students huge fees.

I have been contacted by students, as I am sure the Minister of State has been, who feel they have been scammed, quite frankly. They say their fees are completely unjustifiable because key elements of their courses are not taking place. One woman said that class sizes have doubled due to online learning and there is reduced support from lecturers as a result. She says it is double the money for the university, but half the attention for the students. Another student said there have been no laboratory classes for many courses in science, which are the most costly part of these courses for the university. Students say that, typically, science courses cost €2,000 more because of this. Another student said that students are unable to find part-time work, which is a major issue for international students who moved here in September and whose fees are significantly higher at approximately €25,000. On top of that, they are paying Dublin's sky high rents.

The grant of €250 given by the Government to almost every student recently must be seen in the context of the increase in fees for courses, thus offsetting those increases in some way, and where some students will have to complete another semester next year to pass their courses by completing placements and so forth. In that context, €250 is not a meaningful reduction in fees. University College Dublin business school students have asked for a 30% reduction in fees and approximately one third of the graduate medicine students at UCD withheld their fees and have asked that next year's fees be frozen or reduced. I commend them on that.

I will say it again. Ultimately, the new Department of Further and Higher Education, Research, Innovation and Science in which the Minister of State is involved should be the launch pad to building a truly publicly funded third level model of education. We need to share that burden across our society. Students and their families cannot shoulder that burden or that cost alone. My question, therefore, is this: will the Minister of State engage with universities to ensure that our future doctors, social workers, scientists and teachers are charged a fair amount for what they are getting this year and what they may be required to do next year?

I thank Senator Warfield for raising this matter. The fee payable by students can vary depending on a variety factors, including, of course, the type of course and the student's access route, including previous education. Higher education institutions are autonomous bodies, and the total level of tuition fees payable is a matter for the institutions to determine, including during the period when their delivery methods are adjusted in response to Covid. I am of course very conscious of the impacts of the Covid-19 pandemic on our students. While Ireland is on level 5 of the plan for living with Covid, all further and higher education institutions will deliver the majority of their classes online, with only essential activities being held on site. While I appreciate that the Covid impacts are disappointing for students who had hoped to have as much time on campus as possible, these measures are necessary to support halting the spread of the coronavirus.

In recognition of the challenges facing full-time third level students, financial assistance is being provided in the academic year 2020-21 to all students who avail of SUSI grants and all EU full-time undergraduate and postgraduate students attending publicly funded higher education institutions in the State. Under this initiative more than 72,000 students who avail of the SUSI grant have received a €250 top-up to their grant, and students who do not avail of the grant but who attend publicly funded higher education institutions in the State can reduce by €250 any outstanding student contribution fee payable or receive a €250 credit note from their institution. This builds on the additional supports announced in July, including a doubling of the student assistance fund, a €15 million technology fund for devices for students in further and higher education and an additional €3 million provided for investment in supports for mental health services and well-being initiatives.

In considering this issue it is also important to note that the State currently provides very substantial support to undergraduate students in higher education towards the cost of their studies. This support has played a very significant role in facilitating access to and growth in higher education. What was previously the preserve of a relatively small proportion of the school-leaving population is now more widely available, as reflected in the current transfer rate from second to third level. This commitment is demonstrated through the free fees scheme, under which the Exchequer provides funding towards the tuition fee cost for eligible undergraduate higher education students with students paying the student contribution. The student contribution applies annually to all students who are eligible under the free fees scheme. The current rate is €3,000 per annum. Currently, 60,000 students have all or part of their student contribution paid on their behalf by the State via the student grant scheme. The total cost of the tuition fee and student contribution supports is in excess of €500 million per annum. The combined impact of these supports and initiatives highlights the strength of the Government's commitment to supporting students in meeting the costs of third level education.

This is the first day of the second semester for many students. The key question I am asking the Minister of State is whether he will engage with the universities. Not everybody signed up for online courses. People could have signed up for online courses. These fees are just completely unjustifiable.

People are telling us they feel scammed. We need to do more than the €250 grant. I ask the Minister of State to intervene on this issue with the universities so they can act and help students who are struggling. Will he do that?

The Minister of State mentioned the student contribution charge which is, in effect, fees as far as people are concerned. His party is very proud of its record in education. I encourage him to make this one of his issues in government. Sinn Féin has consistently proposed in budget debates that we reduce the fee by €500 and I ask that the Minister of State consider doing that. I also ask that he engage with universities on this issue. People did not sign up for online courses.

I thank the Senator. When the Minister, Deputy Harris, and I engage with the heads of our universities and institutes of technology they tell us that the fact that the vast majority of tuition is now taking place online does not mean that the provision of it is cheaper for them. I am relaying to the Senator what they have said to us.

We are very aware of the difficulties facing students during the pandemic. In general, there is a requirement in these exceptional times to have a responsible approach to the needs of students whenever possible. It is important to acknowledge that the higher education institutions have to date shown enormous willingness to respond in numerous ways. I encourage all students to engage with their institutions to discuss any issues in respect of their courses, including fees. I also thank the Senator for raising this issue which is topical to many thousands of students up and down the country.

Equine Industry

I thank the Minister of State for coming to the House to respond to this particularly difficult and challenging issue. The equine industry, as we all know, is synonymous with County Kildare. It has incredibly positive socioeconomic benefits for our county, which is known as a thoroughbred county not just in Ireland but throughout the world. There are three racetracks, Goffs, Horse Racing Ireland, HRI, 78 trainers and numerous breeders in Kildare. The impact of that in terms of hospitality, restaurants, people working in stable yards, etc., is significant.

It was very concerning to learn before Christmas that Horse Sport Ireland, which is temporarily located in Naas, was planning to move to Dublin. Punchestown is very well recognised as a racing track, as well as for other equestrian sports. It hosts a lot of community events. It had the generosity and magnanimity, under the chairmanship of David Mongey, to offer a site free of charge to Horse Sport Ireland so that we could keep 60 jobs in Kildare. They are people who buy their tea, coffee, lunches, etc., in Kildare. We have also negotiated with the current owner of the former Iris Kellett equestrian centre in Kill, where a lot of State money was used to build an equestrian centre for the 2003 Special Olympics World Games. He has offered to provide its full kit free of charge to Punchestown should the jobs stay in the county. That is very magnanimous.

Business people are involved in putting a business plan together to ensure Horse Sport Ireland, which is an excellent organisation, stays in the county. A lot of funding comes from the State, including some €5.5 million from the Department of Agriculture, Food and the Marine and €1.5 million from the Department of Tourism, Culture, Arts, Gaeltacht, Sport and Media. I ask the Minister of State to ensure that Horse Sport Ireland stays in Kildare with capital funding.

I thank Senator O'Loughlin for taking this initiative. I am aware at first hand of the love, care, connection and passion as well as the economic appreciation of horses and their welfare. The equine industry in Kildare is second to none. It is a world leader. As I said before, the horse or equine industry is to Kildare what Semple Stadium and Croke Park are to the GAA. It is the spiritual home. In Kildare we consolidate, build, and expand. We do not dismantle, remove or decommission. To remove such an essential piece of infrastructure from Kildare would be as incongruous as removing vineyards from Bordeaux.

I appeal to the Minister of State at the Department of Agriculture, Food and the Marine to review this decision and prevent it from happening under his watch. It is not only about Kildare. Of course, I am a proud Kildare public representative, but 14,000 jobs are generated by the activities of Horse Sport Ireland and €816 million is generated. When we put this into perspective we see this is twice what the sheep industry generates. We have to look at this. There is an opportunity here, be it for Punchestown, which wold be a fantastic venue, or wherever, to put us as a world leader. It would be such a boost for tourism. It would build on the good work done already and it would represent a type of Abbotstown, the go-to place not only in Ireland but in the world for everything equine. It is a major opportunity. It is not once in a generation; it is a one time ever opportunity. I urge the Minister of State and the Government to look at this carefully.

I thank both Senators for raising this issue and showing their interest in this area. As the Minister for Kildare, as it were, I take on board the points raised. No one can doubt the passion for my county and my close connection with the equine sector. I recognise the acknowledgement that the Senators, as public representatives for our county, share of the important role that equine activity plays in Kildare. That is important.

It is also important to put some context on what I am about to say. Horse Sport Ireland is a company limited by guarantee. It is the national governing body of equestrian sport in Ireland. It is not a State body. It is recognised by Fédération Équestre Internationale, Sport Ireland, the Olympic Council of Ireland and Sport Northern Ireland. Though it receives some financial support from my Department and the Department of Tourism, Culture, Arts, Gaeltacht, Sport and Media, it is independent of my Department in operational matters and policy decisions on issues such as the location of its office. That is a matter for the board of HSI.

The Senators will be aware that following the recommendations of an independent review by Indecon consultants in 2018, the board of Horse Sport Ireland has been undergoing significant reorganisation. A new board is now in place and all of the Indecon recommendations have been implemented, which is very much to be welcomed.

HSI is responsible for directly running the stud books of several Irish horse breeds and undertakes a range of initiatives in the promotion, marketing, education and training of the sector. Under the current strategic plan, Horse Sport Ireland aims to lead the equestrian sector and enable it to fulfil its potential, grow participation, win medals and be a top breeding nation.

The equine breeding remit is of particular interest to my Department given the increased value that I believe we can bring to the sector. At present, the average price of a sport horse foal is approximately €3,000. Sales of elite foals achieve up to €8,000. I believe we can be ambitious and that we are only scratching the surface of the value of the sport horse in the breeding sector in the context of the income that we can generate for our rural economies. Most breeders only hold two sport horse mares or fewer for breeding. This can be an additional income for farmers. We should definitely be ambitious in terms of wanting to double the base price that we get for our foals. However, that will take significant work and I know HSI has ambitions in that regard. Along with my ministerial colleagues in the Department of Agriculture, Food and the Marine, I look forward to working closely with HSI in that regard.

HSI has been based in the office in Millennium Park, Naas since soon after it was established in 2007 following the amalgamation of the Irish Horse Board and the Equestrian Federation of Ireland, bringing together the breeding and competition sectors. It is now appropriate, given the passage of time and the evolving role and resource challenges in terms of office accommodation, that the situation falls due for review.

The concept of Horse Sport Ireland having a defined headquarters, national training centre and breeding centre has been an objective since the inception of Horse Sport Ireland and has been referenced in every strategic plan since 2009.

It is one that I and my ministerial colleagues in the Department of Agriculture, Food and the Marine would very much like to see happen. The importance of and need for a national centre of excellence has been well identified by both internal and external actors and indeed by the wider stakeholder group through their contribution to a report called Reaching New Heights, a review conducted a few years ago into which there was widespread stakeholder input.

It should be noted that Horse Sport Ireland is an all-island, national organisation serving 32 counties, and therefore the place it is considering relocating to cannot be confined to only one county, particularly when the breeding and the elite performance side of things are considered.

I am conscious that I have limited time and do not have enough to read all of the note I have here. I will, however, reference that Horse Sport Ireland has a very ambitious hub-and-spoke approach whereby there would be a national centre as part of that model and we would see the development of five regional centres to propose improvements, enhance facilities and enable Irish horses to be produced and have value added in Ireland, which is really important. HSI's headquarters is under active consideration by its board. The board has identified a location for the core of its future strategy, which happens to be at Greenogue, County Dublin, which may fit the organisation's needs in terms of facilities. Other sites have also been mentioned and I am aware of them having been mentioned in the Department. I and my officials will be meeting with HSI early next week and I am aware of other meetings that Kildare County Council and others have had. I look forward to going through the detail of this proposal, which is at a very early stage, and talking it through with HSI next week.

It is important that Horse Sport Ireland be ambitious and we certainly want it to be. It is important to note that it does need to move from its present premises, but I have no confidence, from what the Minister of State has said, that he is going to fight for it to be retained in Kildare for all the reasons I and Senator Martin have outlined. We had a good Fianna Fáil Minister in Kildare, Mr. Charlie McCreevy, who delivered for the equestrian world and delivered for Punchestown. There is absolutely no reason there should not be a further investment in Punchestown by bringing Horse Sport Ireland there and giving it an absolutely world-class site, which is what it needs for carrying out its functions and work. I accept all the reasons Horse Sport Ireland is a 32-county and national organisation, but moving it from County Kildare which is synonymous, for all the reasons that I said, with the equestrian and thoroughbred world would be absolutely wrong. I have spoken to the Minister, Deputy McConalogue, and the Minister of State, Deputy Chambers. I have liaised with Kildare County Council and I absolutely believe we can come together to ensure this stays in Kildare.

Nobody knows better than me how important Punchestown is to the rural economy and to the economy of Kildare. I worked at Punchestown Racecourse for four years and was actually a course builder for a number of summers on the three-day equestrian course, which is a fantastic facility in Punchestown. I would love to see HSI set up in Punchestown. Punchestown has been mentioned, as has Goffs, and there are numerous other places such as the Kill Equestrian Centre, which the State has previously invested in but which is in private ownership. These are all different options that I would like to ensure are fully exhausted.

I also want to see that the approach in terms of capital funding has been fully exhausted by HSI because the Department of Tourism, Culture, Arts, Gaeltacht, Sport and Media has a very critical role to play here. I have only been in the Department of Agriculture, Food and the Marine since 1 July and I have seen maybe three to four different proposals on where HSI will go. As such, I can understand the Senators' concern about this latest one, but from my perspective it is another one I have seen. What I want to see teased out is the real potential we have to develop a state-of-the-art system that will see an improved system for HSI. Ideally, as Minister for Kildare, so to speak, I would love to see it in the county, but from a 32-county perspective we must get this right for the long-term future of Horse Sport Ireland.

Childcare Services

I welcome the Minister to the House and thank him for coming in himself to take this important matter. I have raised this matter to seek clarity as to the status of early years services.

As the Minister knows, early years services and childcare providers are concerned about the lack of clarity and certainty around their position. In recent days and weeks, I have been engaging extensively with providers, those involved in the SIPTU Big Start campaign and with Seas Suas, representatives of which communicated yesterday with all Oireachtas Members, seeking clarity on the full reopening of the sector and asking what public health criteria will be used to enable them to reopen fully. We are all aware that childcare providers are now in their fourth week of offering services on a reduced basis to the children of essential workers. Many of them are deeply concerned about their safety in their work environment and there are also issues around not operating at full capacity in terms of funding and resources. A survey by the Federation of Early Childhood Providers found that, of 706 early years and childcare services that participated and have been open on a reduced basis since 4 January, 14% had a positive Covid-19 case resulting in the closure of either pods or the full service. Some 67% of their members indicated that staff were uncomfortable attending work as they feel unsafe in their work environment.

We know that a Cabinet decision is due today and we understand that a lockdown until 5 March is likely. In that context, the childcare providers providing services and the staff going into work every day to provide that service are entitled to greater clarity.

A further issue that has been raised with me relates to the roll-out of the vaccine and where childcare staff will be in the prioritisation list to receive a vaccine. That is also a matter of great concern. We know, from the SIPTU Big Start campaign, that as many as 79% of early years professionals do not have access to sick pay. There are multiple issues for those working in the sector. There are also issues for those of us who are parents and issues around child safety. In a context where the Government appears to believe it is not practical to introduce an aggressive suppression strategy, as the Labour Party has sought, including mandatory hotel quarantine, it is extraordinary that we are potentially facing months of children being denied the opportunity to return to school. Crèches and childcare providers will not be able to open fully. Children requiring additional education still face a level of uncertainty and businesses remain closed while it is not practical to enforce the rules on non-essential travel. I looked at the arrivals and departures at Dublin Airport and there are flights going out to Lanzarote every day this week. It is extraordinary that those could be classed as essential travel. I am glad that the Government is going to implement stronger enforcement of those rules but we, in the Labour Party, have called for an aggressive suppression strategy. That is clearly what people want and what we, as a country, need to try if we are to reduce our transmission rates and then keep them low because we know about the uncertainty over the vaccine roll-out and its timing. It is clear that we are going to need a longer-term strategy than it appears the Government is prepared to take. I am disappointed about that. It is an important context within which childcare providers deserve greater clarity and assurance on reopening.

I thank the Senator for raising this important issue. I acknowledge that even in level 5, childcare professionals are continuing to provide childcare services and school-age childcare for the children of essential workers. They are also providing services to vulnerable children and that is an important support in the economy which did not happen during the major lockdown of March 2020. I express my gratitude to people in the entire sector for all they are doing. The Senator will know that the early learning and care and school-age childcare services that are providing childcare to the children of essential workers and vulnerable children are fully funded by the State through all the existing departmental funding schemes, including the early childhood care and education programme, ECCE, scheme, the national childcare scheme, NCS, the community childcare subvention programme, CCSP, and the training and employment childcare, TEC, programme, whether children are attending or not.

Services that are currently closed due to the fact that they have the permission of the Department, including all services that deliver the ECCE scheme and other services for which there is no demand from eligible parents, are also receiving full subsidies from all of those schemes.

The public health advice continues to be that it is not necessary to close preschool or childcare services due to a risk of Covid-19. ECCE has been closed as part of the general effort to reduce movement across the community, not because there is any risk to either the children or the childcare professionals working in those services. However, it is important to acknowledge, as I think we all do, that no environment is without risk of Covid-19.

To reduce and mitigate that risk, we have very detailed guidelines for the childcare sector which have been implemented with great rigour across the sector since May of last year. Between 1 November and 15 November, there were 85 notifications of the presence of Covid in a childcare service. It is important to note that not all cases of Covid-19 in a service will result in the full closure of a service or of a pod. Where there is evidence of a confirmed case within a service during the infectious period, the HSE works with the service provider to decide what measures need to be taken. The HSE has informed my Department that, in 2021 to date, fewer than five childcare services have been directed to close fully as a result of Covid-19.

The Senator raised the issues of vaccination and testing. My Department has been engaging rigorously with the Department of Health on the issue of vaccination. Early learning and care staff and school-age childcare staff are 11th on the list of priority for vaccination. This means that they are given greater priority than those aged 55 to 64 in other occupations important to the functioning of society. Obviously, we have an evidence-based allocation strategy. Should the evidence change, I will certainly advocate on behalf of the sector.

More than 1,800 childcare services are currently open and providing childcare to the children of essential workers and to vulnerable children. All of these services continue to receive funding from the full range of departmental streams. Services which are closed with the permission of the Department also receive the full subsidies. Services which are currently closed with permission, including the 1,500 early childhood care and education, ECCE, scheme-only services and 800 other services, are receiving force majeure funding, as will services which are directed to close due to public health considerations arising from Covid-19. Childcare services in which there is no demand for childcare from eligible parents can also apply for this funding on a weekly basis. All childcare services continue to get funding from the employment wage subsidy scheme, which makes up approximately 50% of their total funding. The sustainability fund is also available to services that have issues with regard to sustainability.

While the Minister did not address the broader issue, I thank him for the comprehensive response on the specific issues I raised with regard to childcare. I am advised that some services are still having difficulty in meeting operational costs and there was concern that they would be unable to recoup funding where they were unable to open due to staffing issues. I am glad the Minister has provided some clarity on that point. I would like to engage with him further on the future Covid-19 sustainability fund which he has mentioned and to which he has said services facing financial difficulties will soon be able to apply. That is certainly welcome.

The Minister has said that fewer than five services are fully closed but the survey certainly indicates that there has been a higher rate of cases resulting in the closure of pods within services. That remains a matter of concern.

I will finish, as did the Minister, by acknowledging the vital work of those who continue to provide this essential service throughout the pandemic. I will continue to advocate on their behalf. I look forward to further engagement with the Minister on this issue.

There has been rigorous engagement between my Department and the sector over recent weeks and particularly since the higher level 5 restrictions were introduced. We have had eight meetings of the childcare advisory group at which representatives have met officials of my Department. I have attended seven of those eight meetings myself because I know this is a difficult time for providers. We continue to work with providers and wider groups such as SIPTU, which is representing childcare professionals, to make sure the sector remains sustainable and to make sure we can keep it open for the parents who are essential workers and for vulnerable children. We will continue to work to develop schemes that will maintain funding for the sector while also addressing the issues of sustainability. Different childcare services have different funding streams and their funding comes from different sources. Some are more reliant on fees from parents. We will be addressing these issues in the near future.

Sitting suspended at 11.50 a.m. and resumed at 12 noon.