Skip to main content
Normal View

Seanad Éireann debate -
Monday, 31 May 2021

Vol. 276 No. 8

Nithe i dtosach suíonna - Commencement Matters

Road Traffic Offences

I thank the Cathaoirleach for his initiative in relation to the National Day of Sweden. I know he has been marking these occasions in recent months. It is a nice gesture to recognise significant national days, particular those of other countries in Europe. I think his initiative will go down well with them.

I welcome the Minister of State, Deputy Josepha Madigan, to the House. In raising this Commencement matter, I am seeking to have tougher penalties introduced for people who park in disabled bays and spaces. The Minister for Transport should consider the introduction of penalty points, rather than additional fines, for this offence.

Yesterday, I took the time to travel to Dublin following an outcry about the state of the city after events of the previous night. I also took the opportunity to look at disabled parking bays. All over Dublin, people illegally park in disabled parking bays and nobody seems to be doing anything about it. It was a Sunday, so maybe people were taking their chances. The fixed charge for misuse of disabled parking bays is currently a €150 fine, to be paid within 28 days. People with disabilities are suffering. It is essential to facilitate people with disabled parking bays because they are bigger and allow accessibility. It is about people having the right to engage in their communities and being able to come into their cities and towns and access schools and places of worship and work. Disabled parking bays are there for a purpose.

There has been a considerable increase in the number of disabled parking bays around the country. However, people are parking in them and preventing disabled people from parking. There are not that many such bays in each street. If the Minister of State looks around her area of Stillorgan and Mount Merrion, she will see that they are spread out. They are not just planted in places for the sake of it. Their locations have been thought through and chosen for a reason.

Are we really committed to supporting people with disabilities, including moderate disabilities? Are we really encouraging them, by putting policies in place that will permit them to come into the villages, towns and shops, to meaningfully engage with their communities? They have the same rights as everybody else. This is also an equality issue. It is about good management of the issues around parking but, more importantly, it is about supporting people with critical disabilities.

From speaking to representatives of Irish Guide Dogs for the Blind, with which I am involved, and the National Council for the Blind, NCBI, with which Senator Martin Conway has been involved, I know that tactile paving and bigger parking spaces have improved access for people with disabilities.

What I am proposing is that the Minister consider introducing penalty points. It is tough and hard. Most people who get two or three penalty points want to get them off their licence so they are conscious of their behaviour.

The Oireachtas issued its standard press release this morning on Commencement matters. I had circulated the standard notice giving my name and the time at which the Commencement matter would be taken and the press office here issued its statement. Within minutes, I had been contacted by members of Galway, Louth, Laois, Kildare and Wicklow county councils expressing an interest in the issue. They told me this was a serious problem in their parts of the country and they had been trying to do something about it but the issue was one of enforcement with limited resources.

It is important that we put in place a mechanism such as this and I am interested in hearing the views of the Department on the matter.

I thank Senator Boyhan for raising this matter, which I am taking on behalf of my colleague, the Minister of State at the Department of Transport, Deputy Hildegarde Naughton. We can both agree that the abuse of disabled parking spaces by other motorists is selfish, anti-social and, as the Senator mentioned, anti-equality. It can cause grave disruption for those for whom the spaces were installed in the first instance.

As the Senator will be aware, the disabled parking permit is available to people living in Ireland with a permanent condition or disability that severely restricts their ability to walk. The intention of this permit and the disabled parking scheme more generally is to provide access to parking bays of sufficient size in close proximity to important services, such as post offices, banks, pharmacies and shops for people for whom access to such services would be denied if they could not park and disembark either because of the size of a parking bay or because they could not park within a short distance of a service due to their limited mobility.

Disabled parking bays on public roads and in local authority car parks are a limited resource that must be managed in such a way as to ensure they are available for those for whom they are, in the simplest and most practical terms, absolutely essential. A motorist who chooses to park in one of these specially designated spaces without holding a valid permit is, therefore, not only guilty of breaking a parking regulation but is actively choosing to take a space away from someone who genuinely needs it and depriving that person of access to essential services.

This brings us to the question of what might constitute an appropriate penalty for this kind of behaviour. The Senator has proposed that unauthorised parking in a disabled space be made a penalty point offence. While I share the Senator's abhorrence of this infringement, the Department of Transport considers it neither necessary nor appropriate that it be made a penalty point offence. I will outline for the Senator the reasons and the rationale that have been given to me.

It is a general principle that penalty points are applied only for driving offences. Only one parking offence, dangerous parking, is included as a penalty point offence and that is because it directly affects moving traffic. Motorists who park illegally in a designated disabled bay meanwhile currently face a fixed-charge penalty, as the Senator said, of €150 rising to €225 if not paid within 28 days. By way of context, I note that most other parking offences incur a €40 fine. A decision was taken in 2018 by the previous Minister for Transport and former constituency colleague of mine, Mr. Shane Ross, to substantially increase the penalty for parking in a disabled space to reflect the gravity and anti-social nature of the offence. The penalty incurred for this offence is now the highest of all fixed-charge penalties for driving and parking offences.

I welcome Senator Boyhan's contribution and share his determination that disabled parking spaces be safeguarded for those who need them. However, the Department of Transport does not consider it appropriate that this offence, the fixed charge for which is nearly four times that of most other fixed-charge parking offences, be included in the penalty points system.

I have heard the points the Senator made on enforcement, equality and accessibility. He asked whether we are committed to supporting those with disabilities. All Departments must consistently reflect on that question and make sure we improve services for people with disabilities in whatever form that might take.

While I recognise that the words in the reply are not those of the Minister of State and that she is responding on behalf of the Minister for Transport, the response is very disappointing. The Minister for Transport is telling us that while it is very nice of me to raise this very important matter, he is not prepared to change the status quo. What does his stance say to disabled groups, the 31 disability officers in the 31 local authorities and the people with disabilities who cannot get a parking space on Wicklow Street, for example? Paying fines is a revenue generating exercise. It does not give the person with a disability the option to park somewhere. It does not give a parking space to a person who wants to park outside a GP's surgery and finds all the parking spaces full. That is exceptionally disappointing.

I ask the Minister of State to ask the Minister for Transport to consider Operation Enable, an initiative by Louth County Council involving multiple agencies and An Garda Síochána. I will photograph five disabled bays today and send the images to the Minister for Transport, along with a proposal to either amend current legislation or introduce new legislation. We can no longer speak about disabled access and disability issues in these Houses if we cannot stand in solidarity with disabled people who have told us, through the Irish Wheelchair Association and Disability Federation of Ireland, that they experience difficulty finding parking spaces and participating in their communities.

I will convey the Senator's disappointment and remarks to the Minister of State at the Department of Transport, Deputy Naughton. The Department of Transport is of the view that the penalty is fair, proportionate and sufficiently high enough to deter drivers from engaging in this kind of behaviour.

Senator Boyhan talked about Operation Enable, which is a multi-agency initiative. I understand there is a significant incidence of permit fraud with counterfeit and stolen permits being used and permits being borrowed or shared among friends and family members. Having consulted An Garda Síochána and other relevant stakeholders, the Department of Transport is now in the process of examining what appropriate legislative tools might be deployed to best tackle permit fraud. It intends to include provisions to this end in the forthcoming road traffic Bill.

Ambulance Service

I welcome the Minister of State at the Department of Finance, Deputy Sean Fleming, to the House.

I welcome the Minister of State. Irish Community Air Ambulance, formerly known as Irish Community Rapid Response, was formed in Rathcoole in north Cork 23 months ago. In that time, it has been tasked close to 1,000 times by the National Ambulance Service. In 2020, it was tasked 490 times and so far in 2021, it has been tasked 225 times. This exemplifies the range of services the organisation provides and the dedication of its crew and the staff. The number of tasks in which Irish Community Air Ambulance has engaged has increased by 20% and these tasks include an increased number of farming-related incidents. Each task costs €3,500, which clearly represents value for money, saves many lives and ensures people are transported for treatment quickly.

Irish Community Air Ambulance leases its helicopters from Sloane Helicopters, a company based in the United Kingdom. In June, Sloane Helicopters will set up a company to enable it to continue operating in Ireland as a result of Brexit. The new company will operate under an Irish airline operating certificate, AOC, and Irish Community Air Ambulance will then lease helicopters from the new Irish entity. As a result of this new arrangement, Irish Community Air Ambulance will be charged VAT on its payments to Sloane Ireland. It also pays VAT on the fuel used to power its helicopter emergency medical service, HEMS, aircraft.

I have been in contact with the chief executive, Michael Sheridan, who has met with Oireachtas representatives and spoken to us individually. I am advised that the charity will be pay €320,000 in VAT in a full calendar year based on its current levels of service. Should it provide an additional air ambulance base in the future in support of the National Ambulance Service it would expect to pay in excess of €640,000 in VAT in a full calendar year to provide our rural and urban communities with a vital lifesaving service. This will represent a significant cost for the charity, providing a vital service in support of the National Ambulance Service, as it is only a partial VAT recovery due to its charitable status, as the Minister of State knows. This VAT bill could instead be used by the charity to fund an additional 92 lifesaving missions each year.

The primary reason for my Commencement motion this morning is that the existing VAT relief scheme under section 103 of the Value Added Tax Consolidation Act 2010 should be looked at and reviewed. In 2013, the former Minister, Michael Noonan, brought in a statutory instrument that provided that inshore aircraft be repaid any, "borne or paid tax in relation to— (a) the supply or hire to it, (b) the intra-Community acquisition or importation by it, or (c) the repair, modification or maintenance for it".

I appreciate, and I am sure the Minister of State does, the difficulty for Irish Community Air Ambulance in raising funds in this pandemic but also it is doing lifesaving work. The additional VAT costs will place an additional and significant burden on it in terms of fundraising that would not appear to be an equitable outcome, given that an exemption is in place for sea rescue craft. I am not creating a competition or adversarial situation. I am asking that we provide an equitable playing field to a charity that is providing huge service. Irish Community Air Ambulance has benefited each community by its inception, work and the manner of its work. I hope the Minister of State and the Government will look favourably on the request.

I thank the Senator for raising this topic. He has given us some detailed information which I would not have been privy to on the amount of VAT that is paid by Irish Community Air Ambulance in a full year. The Senator has mentioned the issues of VAT on leasing and VAT on fuel. Most people, not just in the Cork and Munster areas but right through Leinster and several other regions in the country, appreciate and acknowledge the work being carried out by many volunteers and by people involved with the Irish Community Air Ambulance service. It has been directly responsible for getting so many people from so many situations to hospitals. I understand why the Senator is raising the issue of its VAT bill.

Section 103 of the Value Added Tax Consolidation Act 2010 deals with ministerial refund orders and authorises the Minister for Finance to order repayment of tax in certain circumstances which are set out in regulations. Rather than amending the Minister's power, the Senator's intent may have been to propose amending the VAT regulations, which would have been the Value Added Tax (Refund of Tax) (Rescue Boats and Related Equipment) Order 2013, SI 249 of 2013, which the Senator may have referred to in his opening contribution.

The refund order is in place in accordance with the EU VAT directive, which allows for historic VAT treatment to be maintained under certain conditions. Ireland has maintained this relieving provision, which provides for a refund of VAT on the cost in respect of small rescue boats and ancillary equipment to Irish Water or other qualifying groups. That is an historic situation that was always in place over many decades. The purpose of those regulations the Minister introduced was to facilitate and copper-fasten the VAT situation and their treatment under the VAT regulations in respect of those bodies that were historically in operation at that time. However, it did not cover any new operation that would be coming in subsequently.

Unfortunately, there is no scope under the EU VAT directive to introduce or amend the refund order to include the provision of aeromedical services. Similarly, there is no provision in either European law or Irish VAT law to allow a zero rating or exemption for supplies of this nature. It is important to remember that VAT legislation in Ireland as set out in the Value Added Tax Consolidation Act 2010 must comply with EU directives.

There is no scope in the EU VAT directive to exempt supplies on the basis of charitable status. In recognition of the issue, which affects charities across the country, the Minister for Finance introduced a VAT compensation scheme for charities in budget 2018 to relieve the VAT burden on charities and to partially compensate them for the VAT they incur on expenditure related to income raised independently. The scheme applies to VAT incurred on expenditure on or after 1 January 2018 and is paid one year in arrears. The conditions under which it is possible to qualify for repayment under this scheme are outlined on the website of the Revenue Commissioners. Where the total eligible amount of claims from all charities exceeds the capped amount, which is currently €5 million, claims are paid on a pro rata basis. This is a relatively new scheme, which has been in place and operating only since its introduction in 2018, and the first refunds were paid under the scheme in 2019. It continues to operate and is being reviewed now. I will respond with more detail regarding this scheme during my second intervention concerning this matter.

I thank the Minister of State for his reply. I am happy to work with him and colleagues from across the Houses, and especially with Deputies Creed and Moynihan, in respect of the Irish Community Air Ambulance organisation. The fundamental issue here is the €320,000 in VAT being paid by a charitable body to the State, when the organisation in question is tasked with being called out at all hours. Last Friday, we debated the Acting Chair's motion on search and rescue services. This Commencement matter is also about search and rescue and concerns an organisation which saves lives and brings people for care and treatment. The Irish Community Air Ambulance was called out 490 times in 2020 and 225 times this year so far, and that gives us an indication of the level of activity of the organisation. I hope we can find a means and a mechanism to do something about this situation. I appreciate that the hands of the Minister of State are tied, but I hope we can be creative in this regard.

Senator Buttimer will be aware that this issue is a budgetary matter and, as such, can only be dealt with at budget time. It is important that this matter is raised, however, but I am not offering any golden solution to this issue on budget day. The scheme introduced just two years ago, however, was capped at just €5 million. For the Senator's information, a review of that scheme is being undertaken by the Department of Finance, the Revenue Commissioners and the charities sector and a report will be published in June or July. Therefore, it will be possible to discuss this issue well in advance of the budget in the autumn.

To give an indication of how things stand, requests for repayment submitted during the two years in which the scheme has been operating were in the region of €44 million to €46 million, but only €5 million was available under the scheme to meet those requests, which represented only about 12% to 14% of the VAT paid. It is good to put that information on the public record. We do not have information regarding last year's claims because people have until the end of June to submit them. I ask the Senator to watch out for the report on this scheme coming out this summer so that we can debate the matter well in advance of the forthcoming budget.

Bullying in Educational Institutions

I welcome the Minister of State, Deputy Madigan. First, I acknowledge that schools in general are putting a great deal of time and effort into proactive strategies to ensure that school environments are as welcoming and inclusive as possible. We must, however, also acknowledge that bullying exists and is happening in the physical form, although less so now, and in the shape of cyberbullying. Some of the reports we saw during the pandemic have given cause for major concern concerning the rise in cyberbullying and its impact among young people. We must be watchful of this issue as a society. We must work together with school communities to ensure that we are tackling bullying behaviour and encouraging and supporting our young people who are being bullied to enable them to be resilient and to be able to deal with it.

Of course, the bystander has a very important role in this. The overall culture of schools is important in terms of their values. It is the case that diversity and respect for all is taught in almost every school, in addition to an understanding of, and addressing and standing up to, prejudice.

The anti-bullying policy in schools was developed eight years ago now and needs to be reviewed. It needs to include particular direction on homophobic and transphobic bullying and racism. The world has changed an awful lot in the past eight years. It is the prerogative of every individual school to have an anti-bullying policy, but it is very important that the Department of Education clearly outlines what that should be. We need to change the language around it, which does not have to be negative such as "anti-bullying". We can use positive language such as "transforming lives', etc. Many good programmes are in place in different schools, which have been rolled out by different patron bodies. If we had a roadmap to different types of strategies, we would go a long way.

We need to take a number of steps. Any approach to bullying has to include the voice of students. It is also important that parents are very actively involved. We need an online safety commissioner. The time for talking about it is over. We need to have one in place and we need to examine digital literacy for our students as well as online safety programmes. The emotional and therapeutic supports that are badly needed in schools need to be rolled out on a more constant basis. Every school should have access to a counsellor or a relevant professional. We all hear about the significant adult in young people's lives, but teachers need to have a lot of extra support to enable them to be that significant person.

There have been issues with data. There are two schools of thought on this, but at the moment the Department does not collect data on bullying incidents, the type of bullying and so on. It is important we do that for monitoring in future.

I thank the Senator for raising this important issue. She will be aware of the national Action Plan on Bullying published in 2013, which was a number of years ago as she said. We are all aware that bullying is a very complex and difficult issue that can occur in many different settings, including the home, wider family, social groups and during sporting and youth club activities. I note what the Senator said about the different forms of bullying. It is not just specific to physical bullying but can take many different forms, including cyberbullying.

The anti-bullying procedures for schools were developed in response to the national action plan in 2013 and they are aimed at strengthening our approach to preventing and tackling bullying in schools. It is important to note, however, that the anti-bullying procedures for schools are not the whole answer to this complex problem, nor were they intended to be. The anti-bullying procedures for schools are designed to give direction and guidance to school authorities and school personnel in preventing and tackling school-based bullying by promoting a positive school culture and climate that is welcoming, as the Senator said, of difference and diversity and is based on inclusivity and respect.

The procedures for schools also recognise that parents and pupils have a role and responsibility in helping the school to prevent and address school-based bullying behaviour and deal with any negative impact within school of bullying behaviour that occurs elsewhere. The procedures set out the need for schools to encourage and strengthen an open dialogue between all school staff and students to ensure they provide appropriate opportunities for students to raise their concerns in an environment that is comfortable for them.

The policy must set out the school's procedures for investigating and dealing with bullying and for the formal noting and recording of bullying behaviours. The policy also requires schools to use established intervention strategies, consistent recording and investigation and, critically, a follow-up of bullying behaviour.

The Senator mentioned support for teachers. There are extensive training and curricular supports available to schools, including through the social, personal and health education, SPHE, curriculum, the professional development service for teachers, and the Department-funded national anti-bullying website to tackle schools in the development of policies and practices on the prevention of bullying and harassment and the safe use of the Internet. Funded by the Department, is an important resource in this area and promotes the autonomous, effective and safe use of the Internet by young people.

I note what the Senator said about the pandemic and the difficulties that children, in particular, faced during that period of time. All boards of management are required to adopt and implement an anti-bullying policy that fully complies with the requirements of these procedures. A template anti-bullying policy which must be used by all schools for this purpose is included in the procedures. The procedures also introduced important oversight arrangements that involve the school principal reporting regularly to the board of management, setting out the overall number of bullying cases reported to the principal since the previous report and confirmation that all of these cases have been dealt with or are being dealt with. In addition, there is a requirement for the board to undertake an annual review of the school's anti-bullying policy and its implementation. Confirmation that the annual review has been completed must be provided to the parents' association and published on the school website. This requirement ensures greater transparency for parents and students as to how schools deal with bullying behaviour.

The Senator mentioned encompassing the voice of the child, which is crucial. The Education (Student and Parent Charter) Bill 2019, when enacted, will further support a positive school culture and climate necessary for preventing and tackling bullying. The Bill, as we know, has been passed by the Seanad and is currently awaiting an Order for Second Stage in the Dáil. The overall aim of this legislation is to improve the level of engagement between schools, students and their parents by inviting feedback, comment and observations from students and parents, and by developing a listening culture in the school.

I thank the Minister of State for her response. I acknowledge that the parent and student charter will be welcome. There has been a significant delay in implementing the legislation but I am glad to hear it is approaching Second Stage in the Dáil.

I accept and acknowledge that there are a significant number of supports but more are needed. As time goes on and more research is done, we learn more and need to be able to adapt. For example, the whole area of restorative justice in schools has come to the fore in recent years and it is transformative. I know about this particularly through my acquaintance with the former principal of Scoil Na Naomh Uilig in Newbridge, Ms Noreen Duggan. She found that restorative justice was an incredible tool to reform and change the behaviour of the perpetrators of bullying. It is an approach we definitely need to consider.

The presence in schools of the National Educational Psychological Service, NEPS, is, unfortunately, far too low. I emphasise again that training is still continually needed for teachers and, of course, parents in the school community.

I note what the Senator has said about restorative justice. It is something in which I believe, even in the criminal justice system and its application to prisoners. In the bullying area, it is definitely worth considering. I will bring that suggestion back to the Minister, Deputy Foley.

Extra NEPS psychologists have been provided for in the budget for this year. We were acutely aware, in particular during Covid, of how difficult it has been for children. It is important that we have adequate resources and psychologists. It is also important to stress the role of the Department's inspectorate in monitoring schools and looking at their anti-bullying measures in primary, post-primary and centres for education, using a number of different inspection types.

I am also aware and conscious of the fact the Joint Committee on Education, Further and Higher Education, Research, Innovation and Science is engaged in a series of meetings and is listening to a range of stakeholders, including representatives of my Department, on the topic of school bullying and its impact on mental health.

The Minister for Education and I are looking forward to engaging positively with these deliberations. I have noted the Senator's concerns and I will bring them to the attention of the Minister and the Department.

Agriculture Industry

I thank the Minister of State for coming to the House to respond to this matter today. I fully appreciate that the Minister, Deputy McConalogue, is busy with the Common Agricultural Policy, CAP, negotiations. I hope he will continue to resist calls for higher levels of convergence and that he will continue with the fight to ensure productive farms remain viable in Ireland, particularly for young people.

I have raised this matter because, in respect of the age profile of those involved in farming, over 55% are aged over 55, whereas only 5% are under the age of 35. In its Irish farm report which was published last month, the Irish Fiscal Advisory Council, IFAC, found that 71% of the farmers it surveyed had not yet identified a successor, and one third of them cited the fact they believed the farm they were farming was no longer viable. Let us put that into context by looking at careers or professions with similar numbers. Taking the public service, for example, if 55% of gardaí or teachers were over 55 and only 5% aged under 35, it would be a major crisis. For any other business, or indeed the civil or public service, that kind of age disparity would represent a major crisis. We are now facing a significant crisis. It requires radical measures to address it.

There are some indications from the CAP talks that around 3% of direct payments will be ring-fenced for young farmers. Macra na Feirme and indeed the European Council of Young Farmers have indicated that figure should be 4% at European level, because it is not just a challenge for Ireland and we need to be that radical. While I accept the Government has significantly increased the budgetary spending on agriculture and has introduced a number of small schemes and various tax measures, none of them have been radical enough to address some of the challenges we are facing.

We need to look at education and greater levels of educational supports for young farmers. We certainly need to look at the financial supports that are in place to ensure it is viable. We need to look at mentoring schemes. We also need to look at the retirement schemes that are in place to ensure they are in the best interests of farm families. I have spoken to many young farmers and they have often told me it is not just that they have to support their own families on the farm but also they often have to support their parents. Farming is a multigenerational activity.

As with all of farming, the biggest challenge is around the question of income levels. The issue is how to make farming attractive as a career. Farmers have no problem with working long hours, but the difficulty is that while we are seeing increased productivity, we are not seeing increased profitability. When there are so many other options for young people coming from rural and farming backgrounds, there is less of an incentive to take over the farm and engage in food production.

It is essential we continue to have farming and food production that is sustainable environmentally, but it is also vital we have a farming system in Ireland that is sustainable financially. I worry that if we do not take radical action now, we are going to continue to see the flight from the land. We are going to see fewer and fewer young people engage in farming and seek to take over the family farm. As we have seen, the challenge we will face will be that the age profile of those who are farming will continue to increase.

I am asking that we be radical in our approach and look at those levels of intergenerational support, particularly in the CAP negotiations.

The Senator is correct, and I wish my colleague, the Minister for Agriculture, Food and the Marine, Deputy McConalogue, the very best in the ongoing negotiations, which are critical in the context of the future viability and sustainability of farming in Ireland. We will certainly fight Ireland's case in that regard.

The Senator is correct about the significant challenge. The challenge of generational renewal is widely recognised at both national and EU levels. It is about anticipating and managing risk. Slightly more than 5% of farmers in Ireland are under 35 years of age. Supporting young farmers and facilitating generational renewal are critical to ensuring a bright future for the agrifood sector. This challenge is not unique to Ireland because there are similar statistics throughout the EU. Generational renewal has been cited as one the key objectives of CAP. Under the new CAP proposals, member states will have to incorporate in their CAP strategic plans comprehensive plans to develop young farmers and encourage farm succession. Commission proposals have suggested an amount equal to 2% of the direct payments envelope for this purpose. During the negotiations, it has been suggested that this funding should be increased. This issue is being considered. Unfortunately, Ministers were unable to reach a conclusion on this CAP reform proposal last week in Brussels. However, all parties have indicated their willingness to support young farmers.

At national level, the programme for Government states that we must nurture and protect the generational nature of Irish farming by providing opportunities for new farmers and producers to enter the sector in a financially viable way. A suite of measures is in place to support young farmers. Under the current CAP, the national reserve for young farmers scheme provides financial support to young farmers during the critical early years when setting up. Additionally, under the targeted agriculture modernisation schemes, TAMS, II young farmer capital investment scheme, young farmers can avail of a 60% grant rate as compared to the standard rate of 40%. There is also support available for collaborative farming to cover legal costs incurred. From 2015 to 2020, some €110 million was issued in total under the young farmers scheme, benefiting an average of over 8,000 farmers each year. A further €35 million has been allocated since 2015 to young farmers under the national reserve. Under TAMS II, over €125 million has been paid to approximately 4,974 young farmers.

There are a number of significant taxation measures available to young farmers. To assist succession, there is agricultural relief from capital acquisitions tax, retirement relief from capital gains tax and stamp duty exemptions on transfers of land. In addition, the succession farm partnership scheme provides for a €25,000 tax credit over five years to assist with the transfers of farms within a partnership structure. To facilitate land mobility, there is long-term leasing income tax relief. It allows young farmers and new entrants to the sector to gain access to land. It also provides a route to retirement for older farmers, assisting in generational renewal. A 100% stock relief on income tax for certain young trained farmers also assists young farmers in the setting up phase. The most recent figures published by the Revenue Commissioners for all these measures show that there was an annual support of over €228 million provided across various national tax reliefs. The future growth loan scheme supports strategic long-term capital investment. Loans of up to €500,000 are unsecured, making it a viable source of finance for young and new entrant farmers. It has seen huge demand, with 38% of the number of loans, 1,269 loans worth €150 million, sanctioned to date.

The Department of Agriculture, Food and the Marine's statement of strategy and the draft agrifood strategy to 2030 are currently out for public consultation. These have set out objectives to improve generational renewal. Supporting young farmers and generational renewal continues to be a priority of the Government. The Department will continue to actively engage with stakeholders on this issue.

I thank the Minister of State. It is not just an Irish problem, it is also a European one. However, if we are serious about addressing this issue, talking about only 2% of the direct payments envelope to be targeted at young farmers does not strike me as giving this a sufficient level of priority. The challenge we must examine relates to the question of what constitutes success. I am not saying that there are no schemes in place.

If we are looking at 2030, will we have sufficient numbers of young people involved and engaged in farming to ensure that it is a viable activity? My problem is that while the schemes we have are very helpful, I do not believe we are being radical enough. Are we seeking to ensure that farming will remain viable? We need to look at a forum on the future of farming with a very specific focus on how we can engage with young people. We are tinkering around at the edges but if we look at the trends and what is happening there are serious questions on whether farming can remain a viable activity for many young people.

I agree with the Senator on the 2% for generation renewal. Consultations are ongoing but it is certainly not sufficient to address what is a crisis in farming. Generational renewal is a vital concern for farm families and it is a challenging issue. Inheritance and farm transfers are complex. I have highlighted the vital and substantial support provided through the taxation system for generational renewal. Additional supports include €159 million for agriculture relief for 1,413 participants, €27.2 million for 10,820 beneficiaries under long-term leasing relief, €41.9 million for stamp duty exemption for 2,733 participants and €1.2 million for stock relief for 420 young trained farmers. Supports must be targeted at key challenges. Access to credit is often cited as a concern for young farmers. Loans under the future growth loan scheme are unsecured, which makes it a viable source of finance for young and new entrant farmers, particularly those who do not have high levels of security.

It is my intention that the new CAP and strategic plan will continue to focus on strategic requirements and the CAP consultative committee, which considers all matters concerning new CAP proposals, has broad membership providing for ongoing consultation. I acknowledge the concerns raised this morning and it is important they have been raised. I will certainly work with my colleagues. The Department is in negotiations on the new CAP strategic plan in Ireland. We believe that there are wider issues regarding generational supports but it is also about ensuring farmers feel they have a viable future in rural Ireland. This is what we want to achieve.

Water Quality

Gabhaim buíochas leis an Aire Stáit as ucht teacht isteach arís. Tá sé an-ghnóthach an tseachtain seo. We will have to make the Minister of State an honorary member of the Seanad. He is great for coming in. To more serious matters, we all heard about Kilkee last week. It is a very famous beach and the reason is that it is a beautiful and safe bay. Unfortunately, Kilkee has had major issues for years. This is the third year in a row that the beach has been closed. I have said before that we have a water emergency, and this is another big example of it. Kilkee was promised a water treatment facility many years ago, which was to be completed by the end of last year. Now it is being said it will not be completed until 2024 or 2025. People want to know what is happening and when it is happening. I do not care whose fault it is. At this stage, nobody cares. We just want the solutions.

A very worrying issue that keeps coming up, and it also came up in Lahinch previously, is e.coli infection of younger bathers and more vulnerable bathers. Families have contacted me. In one case, a child got e.coli and gave it to his two week old brother who ended up in hospital. Are we waiting for the Government to get sued in the courts? Several families have contacted me about this issue.

At present, there is no treatment plant in Kilkee. There is a unit with a screen but that is it. The water is pumped out over the cliff. It is not fit for purpose anyway. Even on a good day, it is not good enough. On a bad day, we all see what happens. People blame climate change but there are many elements to this. There is no one simple solution because there are so many elements. We have heavier rainfall now. Previously, storm drains fed into the sewerage treatment system or the septic tank or whatever was holding it. This worked in the past but now we have different types of rain and heavier rainfall. This means the raw sewerage and storm drain water all get mixed up. Sometimes the system backs up because it cannot cope. This happens all over the country, as we know from the Environmental Protection Agency's results.

Two weeks ago, burst water mains resulted in the shutdown of the beach, which is devastating for all of the businesses that have finally reopened.

Meanwhile, it could be another four years before Kilkee gets a treatment plant.

A number of factors are at play and, unfortunately, a treatment plant will not take care of all of them. The Victoria stream, which has run-off from the catchment area, must be dammed every year. That stream sometimes bring contamination to the bathing areas. Water from the dammed stream is then fed into a pump station for pumping to the outfall at the cliffs. There is also the Atlantic stream on the east side of the beach. That is not pumped out at all and goes straight into the bay. That could also bring about contamination.

We have been saying this for a long time. The Minister of State, who is a member of the Green Party, realises that water was a major issue for us when the programme for Government was being negotiated, particularly in the context of proper investment in water, looking at water quality and catchment-based solutions. There can be many of these, and they can include soft engineering as well as hard engineering. We need catchment-based solutions because septic tanks and water treatments will not solve all the problems. There are myriad issues and unless we see water as an emergency issue, we will not solve the problem.

Gabhaim buíochas leis an Seanadóir as ucht an t-ábhar seo a ardú inniu. I acknowledge that this is a human health matter and that there is also a cost to businesses, many of which have been dealing with lockdown over the past number of months and are seeking signs of hope from the pandemic towards a brighter summer. This is the summer of the outdoors, as the Taoiseach has stated. It is really important that our wastewater treatment plants and bathing areas are in a condition where people can enjoy bathing in a safe manner.

The commitment made by the Government shows that we are committed to resolving these issues around the country.

I am glad to hear that better funding than ever before is being given to Irish Water for capital funding. That is very positive news. I do not accept that the Minister, Deputy Darragh O'Brien, can say that he has no direct role in this matter. This keeps happening: we set up some sort of semi-State agency and we then say it is all their fault. People blame Irish Water all the time but what of the State? Even I as a legislator feel slightly responsible for what is happening in Kilkee. The Minister cannot just say it is up to Irish Water and that he has given them loads of money. This has been going on for quite a long time. While there is an older legacy issue there, and I cannot blame it all on the new Ministers, we must take responsibility as legislators. We cannot just say that Irish Water has been given the money and that is the end of that. Irish Water was also given the money for this four years ago and it did not happen. Now we are told it is in the plans but there is no definite date. I appreciate the Minister of State, Deputy Noonan, coming to the House. I appreciate that Irish Water has been given bigger funding than ever before. That gives me hope.

The Senator is correct. It is collective responsibility. It is not just that of Irish Water. We are embarking on a whole new cycle of river basin management plans, the public consultation for which will commence shortly, and on marine protected areas. There is a lot of work we must do collectively. The Government is committed to working in partnership with Irish Water to resolve these infrastructural deficits that have existed for far too long and have caused the significant problems in Kilkee.

There is an update on the specific incident over the weekend, which the Senator referred to. The sewer, which is the foul rising main, that burst in Kilkee, County Clare, did so at 2 p.m. on Saturday, 29 May. There is no effect on the beach for now because flow has been diverted to the storm rising main and the dam in the Victoria stream, which flows onto the beach. This has been in place since earlier this week. Irish Water has tankers on standby to assist if needed. The break in the rising main is located in the caravan park, and has been traced to a location under an occupied caravan. The caravan will be vacated tomorrow evening and moved for repair to start on Monday morning. Irish Water has notified the EPA as a prosecution.

I acknowledge the challenges this has created, including the disruption to business and the concerns for public health. We are working and putting every effort in to try to resolve the issue as a matter of urgency.

I thank the Minister of State. That concludes Commencement matters for today. The House will suspend until 12 noon. Is that agreed? Agreed.

Sitting suspended at 11.33 a.m. and resumed at 12.03 p.m.