Nithe i dtosach suíonna - Commencement Matters

Departmental Records

I thank the Minister of State at the Department of Foreign Affairs, Deputy Colm Brophy, for coming into the House to answer the question put forward by Senator Rónán Mullen. The Senator has four minutes.

Go raibh míle maith agat, a Chathaoirligh, agus cuirim fáilte roimh an Aire Stáit.

Official documents that are produced by the authorities of one country, and which are intended to be submitted to the authorities of another, would ordinarily need to be certified as authentic by the Government of the originating country in order to be accepted abroad, and further inquiries then taking place after authenticity in the receiving country. This has been simplified in a number of ways. For example, by the Hague Convention abolishing the requirement of legalisation for foreign public documents of 1961 or the Apostille Convention, which put procedures in place for an apostille stamp to be affixed to documents. That means in instances where both countries are party to that convention, the second country will accept the document as being authentic without any further inquiries being made. This is an international certification of sorts that is comparable with notarisation in domestic law. A notary certifies that a document is authentic or that the signatories on it are authentic, and this is accepted by anyone receiving it. The apostille operates the same principle but on an international level. Matters were simplified further in 2019 by the EU regulation on public documents. That has meant certain public documents that are produced by the authority of a member state and being presented to another member state will no longer require any legalisation or an apostille.

Both Irish citizens and companies still require this for some public documents for use within the EU as well as a range of documents used outside the EU. Authentication is most often required for foreign adoptions where significant amounts of documentation are required to be sent abroad but also for immigration and citizenship matters, for certain business transactions, share sales and so on. Covid-19 has meant that instead of being processed very quickly by the Department of Foreign Affairs, documents are now taking a month or more to be processed. We are talking here about the consularisation of documents by the authentication and apostille public offices of the Department of Foreign Affairs. These offices in Dublin and Cork have been closed to the public since last December and they have accepted documents by post only. This has led, as I have said, to delays of four weeks or more in the processing of documents. Ordinarily, the public offices process documents on the same day that they are submitted. The lawyers in the House will be painfully familiar with this area.

These documents are usually processed by law clerks in solicitors' offices, who are diligent and competent people who know their stuff. During the summer holidays, however, it has often been delegated to apprentice solicitors, many of whom will have spent quite a few summer afternoons queuing in the Department of Foreign Affairs' public office waiting for documents to be authenticated. I hope by raising this matter, those who may be aware of this are not caused an outbreak of post-traumatic stress disorder, PTSD.

It is a matter which affects businesses and, therefore, affects people. My question to the Minister of State, therefore, is why this delay is happening. How can a month-long backlog have built up? How can a same-day turnaround in person turn into a four-week turnaround when this is being operated by post? Have some of the staff operating the back office of the consularisation section been redeployed during Covid-19? If not, surely the process should not take longer than a few days when postage is taken into account. It is a simple question for the Minister of State. I also ask when the public office will reopen.

I thank Senator Mullen for raising this matter. The Department's authentication and apostille unit is responsible for the authentication of documents to be used abroad, as the Senator stated in his contribution. The unit provides the essential consular services to Irish citizens and businesses by verifying a document's origin and by confirming a signature and seal or stamp appearing on it are genuine.

The services, similar to many, has faced significant challenges in its operation during the Covid-19 pandemic. In line with public health restrictions, public-facing offices were closed in Dublin and Cork in March 2020. Despite this, the authentication and apostille service was quickly identified as essential and I can confirm the Department has continued providing this service throughout the Covid-19 pandemic. Staff in both Dublin and Cork have continued to attend and work in the office, throughout all restriction levels, to access the applications and operate specialist printing equipment.

The Covid-19 restrictions have, of course, presented significant challenges to the functioning and delivery of the service. The closure of public offices due to public health restrictions necessitated operational changes to the service by moving it from a public-facing same-day turnaround service to a registered postal-only service. This has lead to an inevitable increase in waiting times and a disruption to well-established work practices.

Furthermore, the duration of level 5 restrictions has required the rotation and division of staff to separate locations in order to respect public health and safety requirements, protect staff and ensure the continuity of the business. The level of applications has also remained extremely high throughout the Covid-19 pandemic and there is currently a backlog.

The Department is aware of the longer than usual turnaround times and strenuous efforts have been invested in managing and minimising these. These efforts have included the setting up of a postal and registry system in conjunction with An Post, the purchasing of new specialist equipment and the sourcing of additional office space to accommodate staff. Further measures have also been taken to address turnaround times and additional staffing has been assigned.

Despite the numerous challenges, the unit processed more than 46,000 applications last year and, to date, has processed 18,477 applications this year. Staff have also been as responsive as possible in accommodating the many urgent requests. I wish to acknowledge the professionalism of the staff in Dublin and Cork in particular, who have continued to operate the service throughout all the levels of the pandemic with great patience and dedication.

I also wish to acknowledge the continuing dialogue and good working relationship with the stakeholders and the public on this matter. We really do appreciate their patience. I assure the Senator that work is ongoing to address the issue and to reduce waiting times as quickly as possible.

I thank the Minister of State for coming in but, unfortunately, the response which has been prepared for him is rather lame. Why is it inevitable that a switchover from an in-person, public-facing system to a registered postal-only service would cause any delay at all? One could argue it may speed up the process in certain circumstances. I have been given no good reason for the delay, apart from the claim the necessary spacing out of people may contribute to a delay. Surely something such as that could have been overcome relatively quickly.

Certainly, an argument has not been made that staff have been redeployed to deal with other aspects of the Covid-19 emergency. Why do the changes consequent on Covid-19 always seem to lead to delays? The delays in this case have not been justified.

On another matter which relates to the Department of Foreign Affairs, I do not understand why such an enormous backlog has built up in terms of passports. There is a backlog of 92,000 applications at present. That is approximately 9% of the number issued in a normal year. By any yardstick, that is enormous. The Minister, Deputy Coveney, stated it could be cleared in eight to ten weeks but that is difficult to believe, given the passport application system has been under immense pressure for many years now.

I thank the Minister of State for coming in but I am not satisfied with the answer. I understand staff have to socially distance but in the case of passports, it takes just one person to man the machines which produce passports. Surely, in the case of the apostille system, it would have been possible to get over the initial adjustments which needed to be made for safety purposes and to get the system working fast.

A situation in which one has gone from an in-person service to a delay of four weeks is not acceptable. It needs to change quickly.

Unfortunately, Senator Mullen expresses an alarming lack of knowledge on what it takes to produce a passport. There is not just a single machine, as I hope the Senator is well aware. In a number of instances, there is a process of authentication of documents and all the necessary things. These are essential protections to ensure our passports, which are highly valued-----

That is just bluster.

-----as passports are protected and not issued in error. Senator Mullen's figures on the Passport Office are, unfortunately, also out of date, as he may be aware from previous replies.

It is a pity the Minister of State did not come in with the information I wanted, instead of supplying information I had not requested.

I beg Senator Mullen's pardon. First, he raised something which was not in his matter to which I am responding, because his lack of knowledge and information on it was regrettable.

The Minister of State is reading out a prepared speech instead of answering the question.

The functioning of the Passport Office has significantly improved, as Senator Mullen might have been aware if he had attended the other times I talked about it, and we are clearing that backlog.

As for the matter the Senator did raise today, the staff are working diligently to carry out their work. There is a delay because the service required a certain amount of space and way of delivering the service, pre-Covid-19. I am sure Senator Mullen would not want to put staff's health and safety at risk by continuing in the manner which we were doing pre-Covid-19.

(Interruptions).

The Minister of State, without interruption.

We had to reallocate the work practices, as to how we deliver the service during Covid-19, but we will clear the backlog.

By the way, we process more than 290,000 passports in a normal year and we are well within our capacity limits to deliver the passports.

I thank the Minister of State and apologise for the repeated interruptions by the Senator.

Sports Facilities

I welcome the Minister of State to the House. I have put down this matter to ask the Minister for Defence if he will make a statement on the use of Defence Forces playing fields in the Dublin 6 and Dublin 6W areas by local sports clubs.

This relates to an ongoing issue which has been the subject of some correspondence between the Minister and me and has been the subject of a motion before Dublin City Council. It relates to the serious lack of playing fields and sports amenities for local children in the Rathmines, Ranelagh and Harold's Cross areas. Councillor Mary Freehill, our local Labour Party councillor, and I have been working for some time to try to secure access to playing fields for local children and their sports clubs because of this serious shortage.

We have requested the Minister for Defence to make available greater access in particular to the playing fields at Cathal Brugha Barracks. These barracks have a playing field on the southern end, which has been well-established as a playing field for many decades. Local sports clubs currently have access, notably Ranelagh Gaels and Portobello GAA. However, the Ranelagh Gaels club, in particular, is growing fast and has large numbers of children. The access is not sufficient.

We are glad to see the significant increase in demand for playing fields in recent years. It is partly due to a welcome rise in the participation of young girls in sport. Ranelagh Gaels projects it will have equal participation between girls and boys by 2023. However, because there are no other publicly owned playing fields in the Rathmines area, the lack of access to facilities is hampering the growth of the clubs and the development of children's sports.

I wrote to the Minister for Defence, Deputy Coveney, on this matter in April. My colleague, Councillor Mary Freehill, put down a motion at Dublin City Council on 12 April to transfer the pitch to council ownership in order to rezone it as Z9 to preserve, provide and improve recreational amenities, open space and green networks in the area. The transfer would enable the council to invest in the pitch and develop the facilities there as an important public amenity. Unfortunately, the Minister has responded by saying that the fields are used as training fields by the Defence Forces and he is not willing to accede to the request that the aforementioned motion be supported.

I am raising this as a Commencement matter to ask the Minister to commit to providing greater access to the fields for the local clubs. Opening up the grounds could serve local primary and secondary schools as well, including the new Educate Together schools campus on Harold's Cross Road, near the old greyhound stadium site. Those schools, both primary and secondary, are looking for access to playing fields. All children and young people in the area should be enabled, facilitated and encouraged to play sport in recognition of the essential role exercise plays in their development and well-being. We have all become very conscious over the last year or more of the enormous loss to children and young people, not just of school and education through prolonged school closures but also of other development opportunities through the lack of availability of sports training and extra-curricular activities.

According to the Government's own website, the Defence Forces property portfolio consists of approximately 70 sites, with lands comprising approximately 21,000 acres. Clearly Cathal Brugha Barracks is a small part of that but in relative terms in the area, it comprises a large green space that is publicly owned and that should be made available, in an enhanced way, to local clubs. Those clubs really would benefit from the development of facilities there. I also speak here in my capacity as a parent. My own children have played sport there so I am well aware of what is there and I understand the importance of that green space to the local area. It could benefit from greater development and greater access to clubs and local people.

I thank the Senator for raising this matter and for giving me the opportunity to respond on behalf of the Minister for Defence, Deputy Coveney.

Since the establishment of the Defence Forces, it has been a long-standing practice to allow sporting organisations and local community groups access to military lands. This policy reflects the importance to the Defence Forces of being front and centre within the communities in which their military installations are located. In 2019, in a pre-Covid context, in excess of 100 sporting organisations and community groups throughout the country were facilitated by having access to military property. This is a proud tradition which has served both the Defence Forces and generations within communities in good stead and I am happy to say that it is intended that this practice will continue into the future.

The Department of Defence receives numerous requests for the use of Defence Forces facilities throughout the country and always endeavours to process any application for use in a fair, equitable and community-centred fashion. In relation to the playing pitches at Cathal Brugha Barracks, the Department fully appreciates that the lack of facilities available to sporting groups in the Dublin 6 and Dublin 6W areas is a huge challenge and, as such, it authorises the use of these pitches to two GAA clubs in particular. Indeed, more than 40 hours of use every week is authorised to these clubs on the military training field. The question of how the clubs use their individual allocations is a matter for themselves and the Senator will appreciate that it would not be appropriate to prioritise one club at the expense of another.

The military training field is actively used by the Defence Forces for induction, team sports and military training on a regular basis. In these circumstances, it is paramount that the Defence Forces maintains this training field in Cathal Brugha Barracks which provides an appropriate, safe and secure location for military training. However, the Senator can be assured that the Defence Forces will continue to facilitate use of the facility, outside of military exigencies, by a number of local sporting organisations and schools in the Dublin 6 and Dublin 6W community. Again, I thank the Senator for raising the matter.

I thank the Minister of State for the response and for the stated commitment that the Defence Forces will continue to play a role in the community by facilitating sporting organisations and schools to use its facility. I recognise, as does everyone, the enormous contribution of the Defence Forces to the community and should have stated that at the outset. It is very much appreciated that the Defence Forces training pitches and playing fields are made available for use by local communities, not just in Dublin but across the country. That is very much recognised and appreciated and I certainly did not mean to suggest otherwise. However, I hope the Minister of State will relay to the Minister for Defence, Deputy Coveney, the serious wish of the local community that there would be continued engagement with the Defence Forces on enhanced use of the fields at Cathal Brugha Barracks in Rathmines by local clubs and schools beyond the usage arrangements that are currently in place. I look forward to continued engagement with the Minister and the Department on this matter and I know that Councillor Freehill, other local councillors and local clubs look forward to that engagement too.

I thank the Senator for her interest in the matter. I assure her that it is not intended to dispose of any aspect of the military installation and that all of those availing of the facilities at Cathal Brugha Barracks will continue to be able to do so.

Commercial Rates

I thank the Minister of State for taking this Commencement matter. The model of commercial rates that we operate in this country can be traced back to legislation dating from 1826, the time of King George IV. At that time, income tax was not even in place. Income tax had been introduced as a temporary measure during the Napoleonic Wars but it did not come back into Britain and Ireland in any real way until the 1840s. Essentially the model that was introduced in Ireland in the 1820s and 1830s as a way of funding local government has not really changed. We still operate the same commercial rates model under which local government is funded based on the size of the shop floor. It is calculated in two ways and the only way that can be changed is when the Valuation Office carries out a revaluation, which happens periodically, or the local authority decides to change the multiplier.

That system was fine in the 1800s but we are in a very different era now. We have moved to a situation where e-commerce now accounts for 50% of all card spending in this country. The pandemic has accelerated the use of credit and debit cards for transactions. What I am asking for here is a level playing field. If we want to ensure that our main street and high street shops, which are also supporting local community activities, survive and if we want to continue to support that retail experience, we must develop a fairer system of funding local government. It is not fair, for instance, that bookshops, of which there are approximately 230 all over the country, are paying commercial rates to their local authority while the largest bookseller in Ireland, Amazon, does not pay commercial rates and will not do so until it opens a warehouse here. This is a question of ensuring a level playing field.

Commercial rates are an important element of funding for local government. Approximately €1 in every €3 contributed towards local government comes from commercial rates, exceeding €1.5 billion every year. Regardless of what new system we put in place, we must continue to fund local government properly and I passionately believe in doing that. During the period of the pandemic the Government has been very good in providing business supports, particularly through commercial rates waivers. However, we are now in a new world where transactions are increasingly being carried out over phones and tablets. That is great in that it gives us a lot more freedom but if we are going to encourage urban renewal and town regeneration, in which the Minister of State is a passionate believer, then we must ensure that those businesses that are offering the main street and high street experience are competing on a level playing field. The model that we have at present does not allow for that. The booksellers are the classic example. They contribute to their communities by sponsoring local sports clubs, arts groups, Tidy Towns committees and so on but they are also subject to commercial rates. We do not see Amazon's logo emblazoned across the jerseys of local soccer or GAA teams.

As we emerge from this pandemic and place a greater emphasis on urban regeneration, I ask that we give a fair deal to those small retailers and consider proper local government funding and reform of the commercial rates model.

Like the Senator, I strongly believe in strong and well-funded local government, having spent 16 years of my public life as a member of a local authority. The issue he has raised is important. As he will be aware, local authorities are legally obliged to levy rates on any property used for commercial purposes. Indeed, commercial rates are the single greatest source of income for local authorities, with that income supporting the provision of essential local services. When preparing their budgets for 2021, local authorities budgeted collection of €1.67 billion in rates from approximately 150,000 commercial and industrial properties. This equates to 29% of the overall projected revenue for 2021, although the figure varies by local authority. The continuing impact of Covid-19 for all society and business may have a significant effect on these estimates.

In 2020, to support businesses and ratepayers and in recognition of the impacts of Covid-19, the Government funded the cost of a commercial rates waiver for nine months. This unprecedented measure offered support to businesses, as well as financial certainty to local authorities, and cost €730 million. The Government is currently funding a more targeted rates waiver, with modified criteria, for the first six months of 2021, with an expected cost of €320 million. It will equate to a total cost to the Exchequer of more than €1 billion.

The Local Government Rates and other Matters Act 2019, which modernises rates legislation and practice, was passed by the Oireachtas and enacted in July 2019. Plans to commence the legislation and introduce necessary regulations have been delayed due to the impact of the Covid crisis and work on the Government-funded rates waivers. The commencement of the provisions of the 2019 Act is an important element of our commitment in the programme for Government to examining ways to further streamline the commercial rates system post Covid-19.

A property-based charge such as commercial rates has a distinct advantage over sales-based taxes or any tax based on profits or incomes, as it is generally found to be easy to collect and difficult to evade. Rates are levied on any property used for commercial purposes, making no distinction as to whether that commercial activity is online. In that context, there is no intention to alter significantly the commercial rates model.

The trend of customer transition from bricks and mortar shops to online retail is acknowledged and is a matter for taxation policy consideration by my colleagues in the Department of Finance. I support the need to protect footfall on our streets and in towns and city centres. I acknowledge it is vital to ensure that rates continue to contribute to a stable basis for funding local government and not least to the cost of services provided by local authorities such as public lighting, development control, parks and open spaces, all essential elements to create the environment in which communities can prosper.

I take on board the argument made by the Senator. The issue he raised relating to booksellers is important. My colleague, the Minister of State with responsibility for public procurement, is in the Chamber. Being able to provide contracts to local booksellers and suppliers for libraries and so on is an important part of it. Local authorities will have to give consideration to other mechanisms for raising revenue, such as setting up energy supply companies or getting involved in public banking, something we have been raising for years. Perhaps they could even levy out-of-town car parking to bring funding back into town centres. There is no doubt we have a significant challenge into the future but we can collectively address it. The Town Centres First policy will deliver significant impacts by providing a suite of options to support town centres and people returning to them. These are important elements to be added to the revenue and income streams for local government.

I have no doubt as to the Minister of State's commitment on this issue but the shift is going to be very dramatic over the next decade. The pandemic has simply accelerated the speed at which we engage online. Travel agents, for example, are very much a minority, with more than 99% of travel transactions booked online. If we are to protect the retail experience, we cannot have a system of funding local government that is based simply on the size of the shop floor.

This has been a problem in rural areas. Large rural pubs, for instance, have been subjected to very high levels of commercial rates and that has threatened their viability. It is simply about levelling the playing field. If somebody is selling something, they should be contributing in the same way to our communities. I appreciate this is a broader taxation question but it is completely unfair that the bookseller on a main street or high street, who contributes directly to the local community, has to pay commercial rates, yet a large multinational does not have to pay for the same services.

The Senator has our commitment that we will bring forward the Local Government Rates and other Matters Act 2019, recognising the need for change. I reiterate that not all local authorities are as reliant on rates revenue as others. In Fingal, for instance, it accounts for 51%, whereas in a county such as Leitrim, it is about 16%, so there is considerable disparity. It is important that we examine alternative revenue-raising mechanisms for local government, be it public banking or a levy on out-of-town car parking, to channel funding back into town centres. It could also involve setting up energy supply companies to supply renewable power to developments and large users of electricity. There are other mechanisms whose potential in local government we need to unlock to provide it with sustainable and viable income streams over the coming years and beyond.

Energy Policy

I welcome the Minister of State, Deputy Ossian Smyth.

Only this morning, the International Energy Agency, IEA, released a report calling for radical change if we are to reach net zero emissions and stay within the 1.5°C target of the Paris Agreement. The IEA stated, "If we want to reach net zero by 2050 we do not need any more investments in new oil, gas and coal projects". If ever there was a clear signal that Ireland and the EU need to unshackle themselves from the Energy Charter Treaty, ECT, this is it.

The ECT, which was sneaked into Ireland without an Oireachtas debate, is an international treaty that gives investor protections to the energy sector, providing access to closed-door arbitration mechanisms for investors to sue states when they decide they do not like the policy changes those states are making because they might interfere with their profits or future profits. Investors are allowed to bypass domestic courts and sue EU member states for, in some cases, billions of euro in compensation. Compensation claims have been made against states for environmental rules and measures, including alleviating fuel poverty or cutting fossil fuel subsidies. These claims have had a chilling effect on governments.

I will outline a couple of examples of investor cases. In 2017, the French environment minister drafted a law intended to phase out fossil fuels by 2040. The Canadian company Vermilion threatened to sue the French Government. This worked, and the government revised its proposals and watered down its climate ambition, allowing for a renewal of oil permits beyond 2040. Rockhopper, a British oil and gas company, brought a claim against the Italian Government following its decision to ban an oil and gas exploration along the Italian coastline, while Uniper in 2019 started a challenge against the Dutch Government because it tried to phase out coal-powered electricity by 2030. It is seeking €1 billion in compensation. Much like the HSE hackers, Vermilion, Rockhopper and Uniper show there is no length to which these companies will not go to protect their interests, no matter the damage that does to the public good.

We know what needs to be done to avert climate change. Companies will have to leave fossil fuels unburned, and the public should not be left carrying the cost of their stranded assets.

After all, the public is already paying the cost of the fossil fuel companies' lies about climate change over decades. The ECT prevents states from taking the necessary action to tackle climate change.

With Italy already having unilaterally pulled out of the ECT due to its nefarious influence, the French and Dutch are also considering pulling out of it and are calling for the EU as a bloc to consider leaving it. Ahead of the next round of negotiations on 1 to 4 June, where does Ireland stand? Does Ireland support the removal of investor-state dispute settlement, ISDS, chapters from the ECT? Does the State support the expansion of the ECT into the global south? Does the State support the French and Dutch positions that the ECT is likely irreformable and that the EU needs to leave it as a bloc?

The Irish public deserve to know, ahead of 1 June, where Ireland stands on the ECT. We sneaked it in without the Irish people knowing we were signing up to it. They now have a right to know where we stand in terms of its future.

I thank the Senator for the question and am delighted to answer it.

The ECT is a political declaration on international energy co-operation which was signed in 1994 and entered into force in 1998. Currently, there are 53 signatories and contracting parties to the treaty, including all EU member states, except Italy, the UK, Japan and many former Soviet states. The ECT provides a multilateral framework for energy co-operation that is unique under international law. It is designed to promote energy security through the operation of more open and competitive energy markets while respecting the principles of sustainable development and sovereignty over energy resources. The treaty also provides for dispute resolution procedures between states and between states and investors in other states who have made investments in the territory of said states.

More recently, in particular following policy actions taken by EU member states in pursuit of Paris Agreement objectives, a number of cases have been taken against member states by energy investors. In one notable case, a German energy company has filed an arbitration claim against the Netherlands seeking in excess of €1 billion in compensation for the Dutch decision to phase out electricity production from coal by 2030.

Use of the ECT provisions in this way has attracted international criticism and accelerated the process to modernise the treaty to accommodate the objectives of the Paris Agreement, while within this context the European Commission has proposed modernised and revised treaty provisions that could restrict energy investment protection only to those investments that comply with emissions thresholds, effectively ruling out protection for coal power and all but the most efficient gas power plants. The Commission also proposes to extend ECT protections to biomass and hydrogen infrastructure, including hydrogen generated using fossil fuels provided that the associated CO2 emissions generated are captured and stored.

The Commission's proposed reforms have split the ECT membership, many of whom do not share the same emissions reduction ambition, and the EU bloc itself, with an increasing number of member states calling for the EU to abandon the modernisation process and withdraw from the treaty altogether. Spain and France have threatened to leave the treaty following Italy's earlier departure in 2016. However, the effectiveness of such a step remains unclear given the continued applicability of the treaty after withdrawal under a 20-year sunset clause under article 47(3) which overlaps substantially with 2050 net zero goals.

The Department's position is to continue to support the efforts of the Commission to negotiate reform of the ECT in the first instance while reserving the option to withdraw from the treaty should these efforts fail and if it is considered the appropriate approach by Government to achieve our national renewable energy and climate ambition. The Department's view is, in a nutshell, in line with the Commission's approach of reform not withdrawal. The rounds of negotiations in 2021 are foreseen for 1 to 4 June, 6 to 9 July and during the weeks of 28 September and 9 November.

Separately, in late 2020 Belgium submitted a request to the Court of Justice of the European Union for an opinion on the compatibility of the future modernised ECT arbitration provisions within EU law. This follows from a recently established position that arbitration provisions in intra-EU bilateral investment treaties are incompatible with the EU law principle of autonomy. Therefore, from an EU law perspective Belgium's request may provide some clarity on the future relevance of ECT provisions for member states. A decision from the court is expected in the coming months.

I thank the Minister of State. He did not answer my question about the ISDS mechanism in the ECT. Does the Government support the removal of that system? Even if it excluded fossil fuels, is it right that investors have that power over states? We do not know what the future holds in terms of hydrogen or renewables. In fact, RWE, which is a renewable energy generator in Ireland, is riding two horses at the moment because it is one of the organisations taking a case against the Dutch.

It is also interesting the Minister of State mentioned the 20-year sunset clause when the Government is looking to sign us up to CETA which also comes with a 20-year sunset clause. These are nefarious aspects of trade agreements and I do not think the Irish public would like to know that we are signing ourselves up to things we cannot remove ourselves from for 20 years.

Regarding reform, the ECT is irreformable because it has a veto. The decisions taken to reform have to be unanimous. Japan has already ruled out any reform. Surely the Irish State should now join the French and Spanish and say that we need to pull out as a bloc.

Do I give two replies to the Senator or just one?

The position of the Department is to attempt reform rather than to withdraw. If we cannot get what we want out of reform, we will withdraw. We are clear there is a division between member states. Outside of the EU there is a division between the different parties that have signed up and have different ambitions from us.

The treaty was formed at the end of the Cold War in a completely different world where the ambitions and long-term strategies of different countries were all about energy security and being in a chaotic world where things were at risk, and the idea of the goals were stability and energy security. Now, our long-term goal is emissions reduction. It is focused on the Paris Agreement, and we are moving away from trying to protect investors towards trying to protect our Earth and common atmosphere.

School Facilities

I welcome the Minister of State. My Commencement Matter concerns a licence agreement for a green field beside a school in Dublin 15, St. Patrick's National School in Diswellstown. The agreement is with Park Developments Group. It is a local agreement between the school and developer for the use of the land. It is zoned for community infrastructure and will not be used for housing. The agreement has worked very well. The school needs it for playing. It is the only green space it has. On 30 June, Park Developments Group has said it will revoke the licence unless there is significant progress on the purchase of the field. I will explain why that is so important, not just in terms of playing.

The school was built as a three-stream school and has been operating as a four-stream school for the past three years. It is on a three-stream site, and even at that it was squashed. For the past three years the school has used two community centre rooms, one of which only has one window, and the library of the school as classrooms. None of those rooms have proper bathrooms and children do not have any green area in which to play besides the field.

If the school is not expanded, it will have to revert to three streams because it cannot accommodate any more children. A four-stream school is not sufficient to meet the demand in the area. Every year I deal with disappointed parents who cannot get their children into the school. The pupil-teacher ratio is 30:1.

A two classroom extension in a new prefab was opened recently, but the cycle will start again in September with the library being used as a classroom for the school year 2021-22.

It cannot continue like this. This is just the beginning of the challenges this school faces. It was built in 2006 and in 2010 the presence of pyrite was discovered. Engineers recommended a total removal of the hardcore infill. That work needs to be done but legal proceedings through the Chief State Solicitor's office are ongoing. There were issues as the contractor that built the school in the first place expressed interest but that was not a situation with which the school wanted to proceed. I believe there is mediation going on between the parties but if unsuccessful, the Department will instruct the Chief State Solicitor's office to set the case down for trial with a view to progressing the permanent remediation works, in parallel with legal proceedings. This school faces emergency works every year and has lost more play spaces in its yard because of pyrite.

In the short term we need this field. Going into September of a school year without a green play area, with all the children squashed into the areas the school has is unthinkable. In the medium term the school needs that field for the permanent remediation works, to accommodate the children in other areas while the work is ongoing in order that the school can continue to function properly. We also need this field for the long-term expansion of the school for the area because there is ongoing development. The school has the field up until 30 June and the clock is ticking. Park Developments has signalled very clearly that it needs to see significant progress when it comes to purchasing this field. The school wants it, Park Developments wants it and the Department has told the school that it should continue to take in students on the basis that it would purchase this field. I ask the Minister of State for an update on this.

I thank the Senator for raising this matter. To put this issue in context, in order to plan for school provision and analyse the relevant demographic data, the Department divides the country into 314 school planning areas and uses a geographical information system, with data from a range of sources, to identify where the pressure for school places across the country will arise. Due to an increase in demand for primary school places in the Diswellstown area, which the Senator mentioned, enrolments for St. Patrick’s National School have increased by 13% in the past five years to the current enrolment of 835. The current staffing levels comprise one principal, 31 mainstream teachers and one developing post. The land and building out of which the school is currently operating will not allow for any further expansion, as the Senator has correctly pointed out. The land adjoining the current school site is deemed suitable to meet the Department’s requirements to allow the school to expand to a full four-stream school. Acquiring the site of approximately 1 acre to the north of the existing school site would provide accommodation for a displaced car park, additional car parking, displaced ball courts and pedestrian and cyclist permeability to Diswellstown Road.

As the Senator may be aware, officials in the Department are working closely with officials from Fingal County Council under the memorandum of understanding on the acquisition of the plot of land adjacent to St Patrick's National School. This site acquisition process has been progressed in respect of the requirement in question and in line with standard acquisition protocols. Negotiations, which are ongoing between officials in my Department and the owner of the additional 1 acre plot adjoining the current school site, are not straightforward. An offer for the land has been made by Fingal County Council on behalf of the Department. However, the landowner has introduced a number of preconditions unrelated to the sale of this land, which I am not at liberty to discuss. Discussions on these preconditions between the Department and the vendor are at a sensitive stage. I reassure the Senator that everything possible is being done by Department officials because they appreciate the urgent necessity to acquire these lands, for the reasons the Senator has so eloquently outlined. They are working very closely with officials in Fingal County Council to expedite the acquisition as efficiently as possible. I understand the urgency of this matter.

The Senator also mentioned the pyrite issue. That situation is being monitored and there is funding available under the emergency works scheme if needed.

It is important to set out the criteria the Department looks at when acquiring a site and evaluating a site's suitability. First, it looks at the zoning. As the Senator has said, this site is in a community infrastructure zone so it is suitable from that perspective. It also looks at existing services, site orientation, topography, transport and access, which are all very important criteria. As I said, this site is of interest to the Department and as the Senator has outlined, it is already being used as a play area for the school. The adjoining land is most suitable for an expansion of the current school accommodation. The Department is in negotiations with the landowner but agreement has not yet been reached in order to obtain the best value for money for the Exchequer.

I thank the Minister of State for that response. I am glad to hear that the Department is committed to this project and understands the urgency behind it. This issue has been going on since December 2019 so I sincerely hope a resolution and an agreement can be found and I hope Park Developments will come to an arrangement with Fingal County Council and the Department. The school would like to have space for the provision of a special class as well. It is in all our interests that this proceeds as quickly as possible. I understand that it is a sensitive matter but information has not been forthcoming. The school feels as if it is in limbo. The Minister of State is right that there has been a 13% increase in enrolments and there would be a lot more if there were more space for this school. It is a great school and I hope we can get this across the line as soon as possible.

I completely agree with the Senator. This issue needs to be expedited, particularly if it has been going on since 2019. However, the Senator will appreciate that the negotiations do not involve just one party. Discussions are ongoing with Fingal County Council as well as with the landowner and these preconditions need to be teased out and deliberated upon. We need to see if commonalities can be found in order to continue and progress with the site acquisition. I note what the Senator said about a new prefab. There is urgency to this matter as a library is to be used as a classroom. We in the Department will be doing everything we can to ensure the negotiations progress as expeditiously as possible. I will also bring this matter to the attention of the Minister for Education, Deputy Foley. The Senator highlighting it today in the Seanad will concentrate minds and may result in the expedition and resolution of this issue in early course.

Driver Test

I welcome the Minister of State to the Chamber and thank him for taking this very important debate. It is important to recognise that the last year has been incredibly difficult for many people who have been out of work for the last number of months. I wish everyone who went back to work on Monday well. There have been an awful lot of challenges in so many sectors, from health to employment, and in every facet of society.

As we reopen the country, get people back to work and restore some normality to society, we face a number of challenges, one of which relates to driving tests and theory tests. A major backlog has built up through no one's fault and it is important that be stated. It is simply a matter of fact. We are where we are on this, but it needs to be rectified. I know the Minister of State is making a great effort to speed up the clearing of the backlog even with respect to online theory tests. I would be interested to hear his contribution on that.

We are in a difficult position in that many people want to return to work but they do not have the capacity to drive because they have done their driving test or their theory test. With the backlog, the waiting time for a driving test is approximately 25 weeks. I have spoken to several people who have contacted my constituency office who were either offered jobs or are seeking to take up jobs. They are young people, in particular, who are either in college or starting apprenticeships who want to start working but cannot because they do not have a driving test. I spoke to a lady whose son had his first driving lesson last Saturday and will have to wait three weeks for his next lesson due to the demand. He had planned to start a job this summer as an essential worker but will not be able to do so as the lessons are too spaced out and it will be a number of months before he will have completed all 12 lessons. He was also due to sit his test recently but the test centre cancelled it.

Some 38% of people on the waiting lists are aged between 21 and 30, which is further impacting on their employment opportunities. It is particularly impacting in rural areas. I think of my own area especially at this time of the year when agriculture is the beating heart of the economy in rural Tipperary. Many people would be involved in harvesting and driving tractors carrying grain all over the rural countryside, but they cannot do that if they do not have their driving test. When I spoke to the lady I mentioned, it was suggested that an interim measure might be put in place for learner drivers on a provisional licence, perhaps some leeway by the Garda for those who have had their provisional licence for a certain period and have good driving experience. If those people have been offered a job and are trying to work it is not feasible for their parents to transport them to and from work. We need to give some leeway for the next number of months to provide for those people.

The key issue is to attack the backlog as quickly as possible. There are different challenges in different areas but in rural Ireland, and the Minister of State will know this, the majority of people need to drive to get to work. We do not have the flexibility of having a fantastic public transport system. The quicker this can be done, the better. I know the Minister of State is taking the issue very seriously. Addressing it would have a major impact on reopening the country and getting people back to work. I look forward to the Minister of State’s response.

I thank the Senator for raising the issue of the backlog of driving tests in Tipperary, which I am taking on behalf of my colleague, the Minister of Sate with responsibility for transport, Deputy Naughton.

Under the Road Safety Act and as provided by the Oireachtas, the driver testing service is an operational matter for the Road Safety Authority, RSA. Specific details about locations and the backlog in Tipperary are matters for the RSA. If the Senator contacts the RSA and has any difficulty he can come back to me and my office will assist him. However, I can tell him that currently in Tipperary across Clonmel, Nenagh, Thurles and Tipperary Town a total of 1,992 people are waiting for an invite for a test. Some 220 people have been scheduled for a test, having booked their test date, and 102 people are in category B - those are applicants who have advised us they are an essential worker and are awaiting an invite for their test. I have more detailed information on that which I can provide to the Deputy afterwards and through my office.

RSA driver testers are undertaking driving tests in extraordinarily difficult conditions, in an enclosed space, where physical distancing is not possible. Testers are also moving between vehicles provided by test candidates, which are not controllable work environments.

The Department of Transport is liaising with the RSA on an ongoing basis on how to meet the growing demand for tests. An additional 40 driver testers have been authorised, along with 36 approved for retention or rehire in 2020. The RSA is making good progress in recruiting these additional testers and they are expected to conduct tests by the end of June 2021. The Department and the RSA will monitor what impact the new testers are having as they come onstream and as the Covid restriction level reduces. Further recruitment, if necessary, is currently being discussed.

The RSA is also looking at a number of other measures, including whether the number of tests a driver tester can perform each day can be increased within current health constraints. Due to the additional hygiene and sanitation procedures that are required, each testing slot now takes a much longer time to complete. As a result, the number of tests a tester can safely conduct per day was reduced from eight to five when the service reopened. Following experience of managing the tests under Covid restrictions, this was increased to six in mid-September. This may be raised to seven, depending on health assurances, but not until June 2021 at the earliest.

The Department is in discussions with the RSA on how to return to the normal target for the maximum waiting time, which is around ten weeks. It is clear it will not be possible to arrive at this quickly, given restraints which must be in place due to the pandemic. The safety of staff and test candidates is of paramount importance.

I acknowledge counties like Tipperary are in a different position from, for example, Dublin both because of the distances that have to be travelled and alternative sustainable means of transport is not always available. Public transport services often do not exist and there are specific requirements for agricultural transport licences to carry out the work of agriculture, which mean it is essential that people can have these tests.

I will allow the Minister of State to come back in a minute. Senator Ahearn has one minute to respond.

I thank the Minister of State for the detailed response. As he said, counties like Tipperary have different challenges but they are not ones that cannot be overcome. We need a little bit of time to address them but we are in a critical stage now. As the Minister of State said, in agriculture with the cutting of silage and harvesting season coming upon us, it is a critical time. The number he cited of 1,992 people waiting to be called for a test is high. I thank him for providing those detailed numbers. It would be helpful if the Department could provide a county breakdown of the number awaiting tests to provide clarity on the position nationally. Some 102 applicants are classed as essential workers, which seems quite low. Perhaps we should examine who is characterised as being an essential and non-essential worker for the purposes of the driving test. I would think those involved in agriculture, people who have jobs in line or the possibility of taking up a job on foot of having passed a driving test should be classed as essential workers. I receive calls on this issue every day. A father whose daughter had her theory test cancelled contacted me yesterday. She will now not be able to get her test until August, which will be near the end of summer. It is very frustrating for people. It is no one’s fault. I thank the Minister of State for his response.

If the Senator has any specific proposals or recommendations he would like to submit to me I am happy to take them on board. In terms of driver theory testing, at the start of June we are starting a new online driver theory service. It should always have been like that but the need has been underlined by the pandemic. This will mean 3,000 people will be able to do their driver theory test online, which will help us to move forward. We have also had a problem with training and with people getting driving lessons, because one cannot isolate within a vehicle.

The RSA is setting up new test centres. Due to the fact that it cannot fit that many testers into the existing centres on foot of the need for social distancing, we need to establish new centres. We have 40 new testers and will hire another 40 once the new test centres are set up, so there is a commitment to not ending up with long waiting lists for driving tests.

Sitting suspended at 10.11 a.m. and resumed at 10.30 a.m.