Nithe i dtosach suíonna - Commencement Matters

Rights of Way

I welcome the Minister of State and thank him for taking time out of his busy schedule to be here. I wish to raise the registration of rights of way and the coming deadline of November. I understand there are two methods by which rights of way can be registered. One is that the person who requires the right of way can contact the landowner or owners and ask them to sign an easement which can be lodged with the land registry. Alternatively, the person seeking the right of way can lodge an application with the land registry, which in turn contacts the landowner or owners, and if there are no issues, the person seeking it may go ahead and register the right of way.

There is a deadline of November pending for the registration of rights of way. I suggest the deadline be extended for several reasons, the main one being the public is simply not aware of it. People are not aware of what will happen or what they will have to do to register a right of way after that date. There is also the pandemic, which meant most businesses were closed. Those who were aware of the deadline did not have the opportunity to address the issue of rights of way because of the lockdown.

I wish to raise two related issues. Local authorities granting planning permission in areas where there are public walkways is an issue around the country. They grant planning permissions without being aware a right of way exists, perhaps a public walkway or beach front. There are examples which have caused friction in communities. I suggest the Department could issue a directive to all local authorities advising them that prior to granting planning permissions, they should be cognisant of any rights of way, and where there are local rights of way, the local authorities should take on the responsibility of registering them. It should not be left to members of the public to go through the expensive and arduous procedure.

There have been delays in requests for registration based on possession. I am aware it can take up to five or seven years for the process to complete. Will the Minister of State shed any light on the nature of the problem causing the delay? Is it staffing or something else? There is clearly a problem and there has been for some considerable time.

I would like responses to these, but in particular around the deadline that is coming in November and the lack of awareness among the public. They need to be made aware of it and advised what the procedure will be after November. I hope the Minister will extend the deadline and initiate an awareness campaign so that people know the changes and when they will happen.

I thank the Senator for raising an important matter which is exercising many Members, solicitors and others.

I want to convey the apologies of the Minister for Justice, Deputy Humphreys, who regrets she cannot be here for this matter due to the Cabinet sitting. On behalf of the Minister and the Government, I thank Senator Gallagher for raising the matter.

The Land and Conveyancing Law Reform Act 2009 provides for fundamental reform and modernisation of land law and conveyancing law, and aims to simplify the law and the conveyancing process. Registration of easements acquired by prescription is set out in the 2009 Act and the Registration of Title Act 1964, as amended by Parts 12 and 13 of the Civil Law (Miscellaneous Provisions) Act 2011. The functions previously vested in the Minister for Justice under the 1964 Act were transferred with effect from 1 January 2018 to the Minister for Housing, Local Government and Heritage, who has responsibility for the Property Registration Authority of Ireland, PRAI.

The Minister for Justice understands from the PRAI that the following is the position. First, the extension of the transitional period of three years originally prescribed by section 38(b) of the 2009 Act by the 2011 Act, which extends the period to 12 years, relates simply to the period when a claim to a prescriptive right can be made by reliance on the "old" law replaced by the 2009 Act. From 2021, reliance must be made on what can be termed the "new" law introduced by the 2009 Act and, in particular, reliance must be made on the new single and shorter period of 12 years. There is no question of a cut-off point occurring in 2021 when a claim to a prescriptive right can no longer be made. All that changes in 2021 is the basis on which the prescriptive right can be claimed, and that is the shorter period.

Second, the new procedure for registration of a prescriptive right introduced by section 41 of the 2011 Act is not subject to a time limit. It is a permanent procedure and, in particular, does not cease to be available in 2021. The only change which occurs in 2021 is the basis on which an application must be made to the PRAI. As I pointed out, from 2021, the application will have to be grounded on the "new" law introduced by the 2009 Act and reliance on the "old" law repealed by that Act will cease to be possible.

This procedure is only for easements, including rights of way, acquired by prescription. If all parties agree to the registration of an easement, an application should be made by lodging the appropriate deed of grant.

The Department has received correspondence, including a detailed submission, requesting an amendment to section 38 of the Civil Law (Miscellaneous Provisions) Act 2011. The Department of Justice is currently in the process of arranging discussions with official stakeholders on this topic. The Department is assessing the situation. However, it is important people are aware of the changes being made.

With regard to access to public walkways, beaches and so on, that is more a matter for the Department of Housing, Local Government and Heritage. However, I understand the Senator's concerns. It is an issue that concerns many counties, in particular coastal counties, and I have seen similar situations arise in Wexford.

I will bring to the attention of the Minister, Deputy Darragh O'Brien, the concerns around delays in registrations with the PRAI. While, again, it is a matter more appropriate for the Department of Housing, Local Government and Heritage, it is an important issue and I will raise it with the Minister for Housing, Local Government and Heritage.

I thank the Minister of State for his comprehensive response. I feel there is a lack of awareness in regard to the changes that will occur post November 2021 not just among the general public but also among the legal profession. I repeat my request that some form of public awareness campaign is launched by the Department outlining clearly the changes that will occur post November 2021, given there is a lot of confusion and fear. Rights of way can be a very contentious issue that can divide communities and neighbours. It is important there is transparency on this issue.

On the issue concerning local authorities, I appreciate it is not for the Department of Justice. I welcome that the Minister of State will contact the relevant Minister in regard to local authorities being aware of existing rights of way before granting planning permission, which is very important.

On the issue of staffing in the land registry office, the delays are of serious concern and this needs to be addressed. I would like the Minister of State to comment on whether there is a deficit in staff numbers and, if so, if it is something he will be in a position to address.

I again thank the Senator for raising the matter. During Covid, there has perhaps been an issue around public awareness on many different issues and, in particular, when these changes will occur and what they actually mean. Perhaps there is concern that these changes will have a greater legal impact than they will in fact have.

I agree with the Senator that rights of way can be extremely contentious. Good neighbours have become bitter enemies over rights of way. As someone who practised as a barrister for 14 years, I have witnessed this myself. We should always endeavour to have the law as clear as possible to ensure we do not have these kinds of contentious issues in our communities.

I will certainly bring to the attention of the Minister, Deputy Humphreys, those concerns that affect the Department of Justice, and those that are more relevant to the Department of Housing, Local Government and Heritage to the attention of the Minister, Deputy Darragh O'Brien.

Aviation Industry

As the Minister of State knows, the aviation sector has been decimated by Covid-19. While the roll-out of the vaccine is making wonderful progress and, for most people, the end of the pandemic is in sight, unfortunately, it is not so for the aviation sector. Its global foundations have been rocked to the core. The sector, quite frankly, feels abandoned by this Government. Towards the end of last week, we had a situation where Stobart Air indicated it was going into liquidation. That is having a very significant impact on connectivity and on the nearly 500 people who work for the company. With regard to Lufthansa Technik, based on media reports over the weekend there is an indication that it is having a strategic review of operations at Shannon Airport. Given approximately 500 people are working in that operation, there are real concerns in the sector. This comes on the back of Aer Lingus recently announcing the closure of the cabin crew base at Shannon Airport, with no idea or indication of when it is going to reinstate routes to London Heathrow, Boston and New York, all of which very important routes for balanced regional development, inward investment and connectivity.

For a country so dependent on aviation for connectivity and jobs, it seems absurd that we have the most restrictive regulations and travel restrictions in Europe. The failure to endorse rapid antigen testing is ridiculous, in my view, and is preventing people and the sector from having any kind of meaningful recovery. The delay in rolling out the EU digital Covid certificate to 19 July is hard to fathom when we consider the vast majority of countries across Europe are rolling it out from 1 July. There is a failure by the Government to engage meaningfully with airports and airlines and to set out a strategy setting out a clear funding model to support and underpin strategic routes while passenger numbers take time to recover, as they will, and to get back to a point where they are profitable and sustainable again. I appeal to the Minister of State to get the Government to implement this action plan.

I welcome the Minister of State. I endorse what Senator Timmy Dooley has said. It is imperative and incumbent upon the Government to ensure we maintain connectivity as an island nation. It is time for a real hands-on approach from the Government to engage with an all-embracing travel and aviation sector, and that includes the airlines, the airports, the staff, the travel agents, hospitality and tourism. This is not just about Senator Dooley and I looking to protect Cork and Shannon airports and the staff, who have taken gargantuan hits already and who have made huge sacrifices and changes. This is about us, as an island nation on the periphery of Europe, yet at the heart of Europe. It is what we must do. We must take on board what Senator Dooley said in the context of the Covid-19 travel certificate. The Cathaoirleach is from Kerry. It is also about going to America and reopening and re-engaging transatlantic routes. We have the most conservative travel restrictions in the world.

We could spend the entire day debating this Commencement matter. It is about jobs, foreign direct investment and a compendium of travel, industry, aviation and business. More important, it is about people's livelihoods. I hope that in the near future, we can have a bigger and wider debate on the aviation sector.

I thank Senators Dooley and Buttimer for raising this critical matter for the aviation sector regarding regional access within Ireland and connectivity throughout the world. I am taking this matter on behalf of the Minister of State at the Department of Transport, Deputy Naughton, who cannot be here but who sends her apologies.

I would like to provide an update on the challenges facing the aviation sector and the steps being taken by the Government to restore connectivity and ensure the industry will be well positioned to recover once the public health crisis has abated. The Government is very aware of the critical importance of regional and international air connectivity to Ireland's economic development and growth. It is a key enabler of international trade and business, including foreign direct investment and tourism. For this reason, the Government places a priority on international connectivity. Over the years, Ireland's aviation policy has supported a robust and dynamic sector and facilitated rapid growth in new routes and passenger numbers. The sector is experiencing its most challenging crisis, however, with many analysts predicting it will take several years for it to return to 2019 levels of activity.

All service providers in the sector, apart from those substantially or exclusively dedicated to air cargo, have had no option but to radically address their core base and seek to safeguard liquidity. Alongside rationalisation measures, the major service providers are shoring up their finances through increased borrowings or raising new capital. Regrettably, Stobart Air's plans to secure a new buyer failed over the weekend. This resulted in the airline ceasing trading and a liquidator is expected to be appointed imminently.

The announcement is deeply regrettable for the 480 Stobart Air workers who have been directly impacted by the decision, and my thoughts are with those families who have been seriously affected by this shock decision. Job cuts have, unfortunately, been a feature of other European airlines as a direct consequence of Covid. The temporary wage subsidy scheme, TWSS, followed by the employment wage subsidy scheme, EWSS, have been generally successful in maintaining the link between airlines and their employees during the Covid crisis. In this instance, however, the loss of its franchised contract for the operation of regional UK routes and other factors made Stobart Air's position untenable.

The restoration of regional connectivity is critical for the Government and work is under way to secure a new operator on these vital regional routes as soon as possible. The Government is acutely aware of the ongoing impact of the pandemic on the aviation sector and has put in place a range of supports for businesses including the aviation sector. These supports include the wage subsidy scheme, a waiving of commercial rates, a deferral of tax liabilities, the Covid restrictions support scheme, the credit guarantee scheme and the Strategic Banking Corporation of Ireland working capital scheme. Liquidity funding is also available through the Ireland Strategic Investment Fund pandemic stabilisation and recovery fund for medium and large enterprises.

The Government also allocated funding for an €80 million aviation-specific support package in 2021. In addition to €21 million in funding for regional airports under the regional airports programme for 2021, a further allocation of up to €6 million to the regional airports under a state aid-compliant scheme is available in 2021. This is in recognition of the impact of Coivd-19 on our smaller airports, and Donegal, Kerry and Knock Airports are eligible for funding under the scheme. Applications for funding under this measure are being assessed and the Minister of State, Deputy Naughton, hopes to be in a position to allocate funding within the coming weeks. Approximately €32 million is also being provided to support Cork and Shannon Airports this year.

Additionally, the Department of Transport is assessing applications for funding to State airports under the €20 million Covid-19 supplementary support scheme, and the Minister of State expects to soon be able to provide funding to Cork and Shannon Airports under the scheme. This support will allow the airports flexibility to provide route incentives and airport charge rebates to stimulate the recovery of lost connectivity this year. Government policy on regional airports seeks to optimise conditions for regional development and connectivity, both for social and economic benefits. The Government recognises that, as employers, they contribute to the local economy and employment is supported through the various ancillary services provided to the airport.

Unfortunately, key stakeholders - the airlines and airports - do not believe the Government has engaged in a manner that would help to give confidence to the sector to begin the process of recovery. The Minister of State rightly identified that it will take a number of years, but we have got to start somewhere. That level of discussion and negotiation needs to begin now. As much certainty as possible needs to be given to the key players, namely, the airports and airlines.

The Minister of State's response in itself was fantastic but, as Senator Dooley rightly said, we now need the aviation recovery task force to be re-established with a clear remit. As the Minister of State correctly stated, it will take time to drive a plan for the recovery of the aviation sector.

I acknowledge that both Senators have a genuine interest in the sector, not just locally or regionally but nationally as well. It is a matter that both have raised regularly, even before the pandemic. I will convey all their concerns to the Minister of State and the Government to ensure that whatever steps can be taken will be taken as quickly as possible. I agree that speed in regard to this matter is as important as doing the right thing, so we need to act quickly.

Driver Test

This matter is exercising the minds of many people, particularly young people. I accept that because of a Cabinet meeting this morning, the Minister of State is filling in for various Ministers. I appreciate that this is not his area of responsibility but I am sure he will convey the message to the Minister for Transport.

The issue of the driving theory test has been in the public arena for some time. My frustration at this stage stems from the number of young people who have approached me about their test having been cancelled up to five times, which is causing deep frustration. Many of those young people are relying on passing the test and have been for some time. They may rely on it for summer work in the agricultural sector to drive farm machinery or in order that they can move on to the driver test and get their summer work. Quite a number of students and young people have summer jobs, and if nobody in their family is available to take them to work, they are missing out. Some of them have even had to give up their summer jobs.

I am not trying in any way to dilute the importance of road safety and of the theory test, but we have to look seriously at the possibility of some type of amnesty. I do not know whether the Minister of State is aware of the current backlog but it is significant. I am not an expert but I will propose a way in which the issue could be resolved. Given that candidates must complete driving lessons before taking the driver test, many of the theory test questions could be taken into account during that process with a driving instructor. Many of the theory test questions relate to road signage, yielding at junctions or stopping on motorways. They are pertinent questions that I am sure arise frequently when people take driving lessons with instructors. Many of the instructors I know are thorough and careful about going through the process with the person taking the lesson.

Will the Minister of State bring this suggestion to the Minister and his senior Cabinet colleagues?

I am afraid that if we do not something now this matter will go on and on.

Again, I am very anxious to point out that I do not seek to dilute road safety issues. I know the importance of testing, lessons and to go through the process. It is important that we all know the different road signs so that we know what to do at junctions. I do not say that we should get rid of that. I ask that in the short term we add this to the period of the 12 lessons that a person must undertake before doing a driving test. I acknowledge that all the Minister of State can do today is take my message back. I do not want this issue going on for many months so I hope that he can bring my message back to the Ministers and the Cabinet, and that we see some sense.

I thank the Senator for raising the matter of the possibility of a temporary amnesty for the driver theory test. Every Senator and Deputy is acutely aware of the serious backlog in theory tests and the impact of same. Certainly anybody in that situation has my sympathy and staff in my constituency office in Wexford are acutely aware.

I am taking this matter on behalf of my colleague, the Minister of State at the Department of Transport, Deputy Hildegarde Naughton. She cannot be here and sends her apologies.

The driver theory testing service is the statutory responsibility of the Road Safety Authority, RSA. As the Senator will be aware, the gradual reopening of in-person driver theory test centres commenced on 8 June and as test centres have reopened they will be permitted to conduct 25,000 theory tests monthly. The centres have extensive Covid-19 measures in place to protect both customers and staff, and ensure a safe delivery of the service. It is planned that capacity will be increased to approximately 50,000 tests monthly when public health guidance permits. A gradual reopening was possible due to the detailed work undertaken by the RSA and its contractor, in conjunction with expert medical advice, to examine each aspect of the testing process, and ensure to the maximum possible that the resumed tests would be safe for the public.

The RSA has been working to deliver online theory tests as well with a pilot online test under way for trucks and buses. The pilot service has now been extended to include a limited number of car and motorbike tests. The new offering will see 4,000 online theory tests available for all categories of vehicles for the month of June. From July, the authority plans to offer up to 10,000 tests per month. Tests are available on a first come, first served basis with the new online service becoming more widely available later in the year.

It is important to emphasise the limits of an online test. While convenient for test candidates, tests must be monitored closely thus making them far more staff intensive than tests in centres. When the RSA and Prometric, which is the test operator, get approval to extend capacity in centres to 50,000 tests they have indicated that they will prioritise staff for the test centres and may have to reduce the figures online from 10,000. This will have a positive impact as the test centres are far more efficient and can deliver a greater number of tests.

The Department of Transport is conscious of the significant number of people waiting to take their driver theory test. While we can appreciate a suggestion of a temporary amnesty to alleviate the backlog, the Minister for Transport will not make changes to the existing legislation for the learning to drive process. A test is required by EU law. While the EU requires only that theory be tested before a person receives a full licence, national law requires that before applying for a learning permit, candidates must complete and pass a driver theory test. This applies to anyone applying for a first learning permit in any vehicle category. The test is designed to check knowledge of critical issues such as rules of the road, risk perception, hazard awareness and good driving behaviour. Upon passing the theory test, an individual can then apply for a learner permit. We require the theory test before issuing a learning permit for the safety of all road users, including the learners themselves. Until a person successfully completes a driver theory test and demonstrates that he or she has attained a sufficient level of road safety and motoring knowledge, he or she cannot commence driving on our roads. Almost 25% of all those who undertake a theory test do not pass. By allowing individuals to bypass this vital step in the learning to drive process will only put their safety and the safety of others at risk, which I know is not the Senator's intention, and risk further pressure on other services.

It will take time for the driver theory testing service to return to normal and for the backlog to be cleared. The new online service is still in the pilot stage but the intention is to offer the service more broadly to customers in the coming months. The increased physical capacity, when permitted, coupled with the new pilot online service will help manage the backlog of customers and shorten waiting times. Every measure has been put in place to ensure that the maximum number of customers can be served while public health guidelines are strictly adhered to.

I thank the Minister of State. I am disappointed with his detailed reply because I feel that it will take a long time for us to clear the backlog if we do not take exceptional measures.

I stand to be corrected but I have been told that one cannot get an online test as none are available. I do not know whether that is true or whether the Minister of State has up-to-date information. If we are going to give online theory tests, we certainly need up it from 4,000 a month. We should consider introducing emergency legislation.

I reiterate strongly that I do not suggest that we dilute road safety. I also reiterate that much of the material in the theory test is covered by instructors when giving lessons. I am concerned that the backlog is having a significant effect, particularly on the young population, and the constant cancellation is highly regrettable. I understand where the Minister of State is coming from. I would be very thankful if he conveys to the Minister of State, Deputy Naughton, and that both of them convey to senior Cabinet colleagues to at least see can we do something to increase the number of online theory tests. I appreciate that much of the backlog is due to Covid and unforeseen circumstances but we need to act.

I appreciate the Senator's very real concerns around this matter. I know that he would not in any way suggest that road safety should be compromised and that it is certainly not the angle he is coming from on this matter. He has a genuine concern about the backlog, which many of us have, in terms of people trying to get access to theory tests. The backlog is having a very real impact on all sorts of people's lives, especially young people who want to get out whether it is for college or work purposes.

I assure the Senator that the Minister of State, Deputy Naughton, takes this matter very seriously and it is a matter that exercises the Government. Every step that can be taken will be taken to ensure that the backlog is cleared as quickly as possible and that the people who need driver theory tests get them so they can get their driver's permit, and get on the road as quickly as possible but in as safe a manner as possible both for themselves and for all road users.

Personal Injuries Assessment Board

Having listened to the contribution made by Senator Eugene Murphy, with which I agree, and the response made by the Minister of State, I was reminded of a line that may have been incorrectly attributed to the late Dr. Garret FitzGerald. He was reputed to have objected, on one occasion, to a policy measure on the basis that while it was all very well in practice that it would not work in theory.

As the Minister of State will be aware, the Personal Injuries Assessment Board, PIAB, was established in 2003 to try to divert personal injuries claims from the courts, reduce legal costs, reduce the pressure on the courts system and relieve upward pressure on insurance premiums. As we also know, to knowingly or recklessly give false statements in any court, either in direct evidence or by affidavit, amounts to perjury, which is a very serious offence that carries substantial sentences. The gravity of this offence is underlined in the Criminal Justice (Perjury and Related Offences) Bill 2018. It was originally sponsored by my former Seanad colleague, Pádraig Ó Céidigh, and I hope that the Bill will pass its final Stages in the House this afternoon. While the legislation deals with the situation in the courts, it is a remarkable fact that while the PIAB process was intended to be a substitute of sorts for the courts, there appears to be no legal penalty of any kind for making false or misleading statements in an application to the board for a claim of damages. In 2019, a total of 31,500 applications were made to the board and 11,500 awards were made. Approximately 20,000 applications were rejected by PIAB each year for the past several years as being unmeritorious for whatever reason and deserving of no award of damages. Therefore, PIAB rejects well over 60% of all applications each year.

Nobody is suggesting all these rejected applications were false or misleading because there can be many factors involved in the rejection of a claim but, given the sheer number of rejected claims, it is difficult to believe all of them were based on the truth, the whole truth and nothing but the truth. Since personal injuries actions are regularly rejected by the courts based on false and misleading evidence, there is a likelihood that a substantial proportion of claims rejected by PIAB were based on allegations that were shown to be false or not wholly true. While perjury in a court of law runs the risk of prosecution and a serious penalty, there appears to be no penalty whatsoever in law for making a false or misleading claim to PIAB. The Personal Injuries Assessment Board Act 2003 and the very substantial amending Act in 2019 place no positive duty on claimants to tell the truth and do not even contain the words "false", "misleading" or "truthful", or any words like them. That is extraordinary given the onus of honesty that is correctly placed on applicants to other State agencies. The Nursing Homes Support Scheme Act contains stringent provisions against the making of false or misleading claims to the HSE. There is a penalty of up to three months in prison or a fine of €5,000 for knowingly or recklessly giving false or misleading information. When dealing with the Revenue Commissioners or the Department of Social Protection, applicants have to make regular and repeated commitments regarding the truth and accuracy of their applications. When getting a jobseeker's benefit or jobseeker's allowance, an applicant has to sign a declaration stating he or she is out of work and is a genuine claimant. This must be done every single week for which he or she collects the payment. Why on earth, therefore, is an applicant of PIAB not required to do likewise given that applicants are often making claims for tens of thousands of euro, or often hundreds of thousands?

Why is there no provision in law applying penalties for false or misleading statements to PIAB? Is the Minister of State aware of how many claims PIAB exposes as being false or misleading each year? How would he assess the knock-on effects of such claims on the work of PIAB and on insurance costs? As matters stand, any person can submit an application seeking damages that is a tissue of lies from start to finish but face no consequences for doing so. Does the Government have a reason for this? Will it justify further inaction?

I thank Senator Mullen for raising this important matter, which I am taking on behalf of Minister of State, Deputy Robert Troy, who unfortunately cannot be here this morning. PIAB is an agency under the remit of the Department of Enterprise, Trade and Employment that independently assesses claims for compensation arising from personal injuries. It can assess claims only where both parties, namely, the claimant and respondent, consent to an assessment. Under the PIAB process, a respondent has 90 days to carry out an appropriate examination of the facts relating to a claim before deciding whether to proceed with the PIAB process. By proceeding with the PIAB process, the respondent would have considered the claimant's case and satisfied himself or herself as to its merits or otherwise. Where liability is an issue, or the circumstances of a claim are disputed, the respondent, generally an insurer, will refuse an assessment of the claim by PIAB so he or she can investigate the matter. In those circumstances, PIAB will release the case and provide authorisation to a claimant to proceed to litigation if he or she so wishes.

PIAB does not investigate the circumstances of claims or address the issue of liability. This is because PIAB is not a court. It is an administrative body that assesses and makes awards for personal injuries based on the personal injury guidelines following consent of the parties and without recourse to court. The determination of liability is, by its nature, a matter of judgment for which a court is the appropriate body and for which a court can take into account the relevant matters presented to it by all parties.

Cases that proceed to court are subject to the Civil Liability and Courts Act 2004. Section 14 of the Act provides that any party to a personal injuries action who has falsely sworn an affidavit is guilty of an offence. Sections 25 and 26 address the matter of false evidence and fraudulent actions and section 29 sets out the penalties for persons found guilty of such acts, including fines of up to €100,000 or up to ten years in prison, or both.

The investigation of fraud is a matter for An Garda Síochána. Any individuals or companies that believe they are the victims of fraud should report it to the Garda. PIAB co-operates fully with any requests for information from the Garda.

The PIAB model, which is based on the consent of parties, works. It saves tens of millions of euro annually that would otherwise be paid in costs by the parties, and ultimately by policyholders. Through PIAB, claims can be settled without the need for many of the costs associated with litigation, which can contribute to the high cost of settling and the cost of insurance.

A range of actions to mitigate insurance fraud are set out in the Government's Action Plan for Insurance Reform. These actions are led, in the main, by the Minister for Justice. Of particular importance is the Criminal Justice (Perjury and Related Offences) Bill 2018, currently before the Houses and which I hope will pass through the Seanad today. When enacted, this will provide a deterrent to the making of misleading or fraudulent statements. It will be a welcome development, particularly regarding the cost of insurance.

As part of the action plan, the Minister of State, Deputy Troy, is currently finalising legislative proposals to enhance and reform PIAB and will engage with the Seanad on strengthening the PIAB process in the near future.

PIAB is not a court. It is an administrative body for assessing and either party can reject the process if he or she feels unsatisfied with it.

I thank the Minister of State for his reply. Nobody ever said PIAB was a court. I accept that the Minister of State, Deputy Browne, is just a messenger for another Minister of State but, on a previous occasion, when Deputy Michael McGrath asked a parliamentary question on the same matter, the then Minister, Deputy Humphreys, at least stated baldly there were no penalties involved where false and misleading claims are made to PIAB. On neither occasion has the Government given a reason for this omission. The result is that somebody can place their lies on the roulette wheel of PIAB without even having to buy a chip. One can imagine a situation in which there is a conspiracy involving the person making a claim and somebody within an organisation. Why should there not be a penalty for putting false information before PIAB – false information which, for one reason or another, might not be properly denied or put in issue, as a result of which there would be a concession and acceptance of an award from PIAB? The reply that was given previously was very matter of fact and almost blasé but, in the context of the discussion on personal injury claims and insurance costs, which has raged in recent years, there is surely a jaw-dropping lacuna. There has been no action by the Government. There has been much political posturing about the cost of insurance in recent years. I have said here before that those involved often seem more interested in the rhetoric and grabbing headlines than in tackling the problem. Judges and the legal profession have been unfairly blamed. There was even a nonsensical kite flown about a potential constitutional amendment to cap awards. The Judicial Council guidelines on awards have come into effect, which is welcome, but I have concerns about some of the changes made that may see the victims of genuine injuries being short-changed owing to large cuts to the levels of awards. There is little indication, of course, that there will be a fall in insurance premiums. Regardless of all that, it is inexcusable that successive Governments and Oireachtasí have left this gaping hole in the PIAB regime unplugged.

There is not a gaping hole and there is no lacuna. It is on purpose. PIAB is an administrative body and both parties voluntarily enter its process to try to resolve the matter as quickly as possible without resorting to litigation. If we were to introduce what the Senator is proposing, we would effectively turn PIAB into a quasi-judicial body.

No, we would not.

Parties would then effectively expect to have to be legally represented, which would only increase costs significantly. It is a process in which it is hoped that both parties will engage openly and honestly to resolve the matter in question, if possible. If an insurance company believes an applicant is in any way being untruthful - companies have their own resources to make these assessments - it can simply reject any assessment and take the matter to court, where the full force of law is available to address any falsehoods or lies. If the Senator's proposal were to be implemented, PIAB would become a more complex, quasi-judicial body and would serve only to increase costs.

No, it would not. If there are lies-----

It is not a lacuna. It is on purpose.

Employment Support Services

I want to talk to the Minister of State about the newly found localism that Covid has brought about. It is a positive move. Owing to the travel restrictions, people were forced to stay within a radius of 2 km to 5 km but a side effect was that they discovered what was under their own noses and grew to appreciate it more. We were moving towards a sense of that anyway because of concerns over sustainability and because people were sick of their lifestyles, always being on the go, congestion and chasing their tails.

In many families the Covid pandemic brought about another way of doing things. It was not for everybody, particularly people who are working from home in cramped rented accommodation. For many people a new localism is a positive thing.

We have responded to this. The rural strategy has been launched. The Government has acknowledged the opportunity for people to choose where they can live. The Department of Enterprise, Trade and Employment has delivered a legal framework on the code of practice to disconnect and we will see further funding in budget 2022. We have the national broadband plan and the connected hubs network. We are making an effort for our towns and villages to become more attractive places to live. We have increased services to cope with the population shift. Therefore, we have a strategy.

However, what about our suburban and urban villages? The legal framework applies and the national broadband plan applies, but we do not have the same opportunities when it comes to co-working hubs. There are many opportunities for people to open hubs in rural areas, but not the same opportunities in suburban areas and urban villages. The lifestyle pressures are slightly different for suburban and urban areas, but they are just as real. For instance, in the area where I live, in places like Ongar, Blanchardstown village and Castleknock, people do not have the space for home offices.

The Government wants to encourage spending in the local economy. We do not want people to be working from home all the time. We want to see them in our main streets and getting the benefit of that. We need to think of all the families who live in suburban areas and the parents who would benefit from working closer to home. The pandemic has shown us that there are more ways of doing things. For many people the one-size-fits-all approach to working in an office it is not feasible for everybody, whereas remote working gives flexibility to more people.

Funds are available for people who want to open co-working hubs in rural places but there is very little when it comes to suburban and urban areas where I live which would really benefit from them.

I thank Senator Currie for raising this timely matter. I apologise on behalf of the Tánaiste who cannot be here this morning. Co-working hubs are becoming increasingly relevant as a result of the Covid pandemic. They have brought great benefits to people's lifestyles, allowing them to spend more time with their families and their communities.

As our country continues to navigate through the Covid-19 pandemic, remote working and measures to support remote working have become more important than ever before. This is reflected in the programme for Government, which contains commitments aimed at facilitating remote work across Ireland in recognition of the fact that remote work can provide benefits in terms of regional development, climate action and work-life balance.

In January, the Tánaiste published the national remote working strategy Make Remote Work, the objective of which is to ensure that remote working is a permanent feature in the Irish workplace in a way that maximises economic, social and environmental benefits. The Department of Enterprise, Trade and Employment, in concert with its enterprise development agencies and other Departments, is actively working to support the implementation of this strategy through the progression of actions over the course of 2021, overseen by an interdepartmental group. Future investment in remote working hubs and infrastructure in particular in underserved areas will underpin the development of the national hubs network over the coming period.

To build on the capacity of enterprise centres, incubator hubs and shared office space to offer remote working facilities, a central objective of Enterprise Ireland's regional strategy, Powering the Regions, is the Worksmart Challenge. This challenge aims to support 10,000 co-working and incubation spaces regionally over the coming years.

Enterprise Ireland's open regional development feasibility fund is available to promoters looking to scope out and investigate the viability of larger full-scale projects such as remote working hubs. A feasibility grant of €15,000, or 50% of eligible costs, whichever is lesser, is available to qualifying applicants meeting the required criteria.

An additional €5 million has been allocated to the Department of Rural and Community Development in budget 2021 to support the development of a national hubs network as well as to upgrade the existing facilities throughout the country. The Minister, Deputy Humphreys, recently announced that €75 million has been awarded for 24 projects under the rural regeneration and renewal fund with significant investment made in remote working hubs under this call.

Furthermore, the 2021 town and village renewal scheme will place particular emphasis on projects supporting remote working and enhancing town living as outlined in Our Rural Future - Rural Development Policy 2021-2025. The maximum grant available is being raised this year to €500,000. The scheme will support these objectives and will encourage more people to return confidently to town and village centres to work, shop and socialise. Through these initiatives, the Government is striving to develop a landscape in which employers and employees can reap the potential benefits remote work has to offer.

I acknowledge the Senator's concerns that there may not be enough focus on urban and suburban areas which would also have alleviated traffic congestion. Sometimes it can take as long to get from a regional county to Dublin as it can to get from the suburbs into the city centre. I will bring the Senator's concerns to the attention of the Tánaiste.

I thank the Minister of State. I feel that suburban and urban villages are being left behind. We are doing all this amazing work and we have set out the strategy. Suburban villages such as Ashtown, Ongar and Blanchardstown would really benefit from this. I know there are concerns about city centres, but it is a different thing. We are afraid of the worst-case scenario when the horse has already bolted in terms of the effect that the pandemic has had. We need to be thinking about a dynamic recovery for our city centres and we can do that but we also need to carve out a space for our suburban and urban villages.

I again thank the Senator for raising the matter. I will bring it to the Tánaiste's attention. In my county I have seen the improvement in people's lifestyles, the socioeconomic and environmental benefits of people being able to work from home and not having to commute long distances. They can benefit from remote working hubs and we are looking to develop more of those in County Wexford. I agree that everybody should be able to avail of the socioeconomic and environmental benefits of remote working hubs, either in rural areas or in more suburban areas of Dublin. I will bring those important matters to the attention of the Tánaiste and ask him to come back to the Senator on the matter.

EU Directives

The final Commencement matter comes from Senator O'Donovan who was in the Chair when many of my own Commencement matters were discussed. I think I might have had more selected when he was Cathaoirleach.

I welcome the Minister of State to the House. As I think this is my first time speaking before him, I wish him every success in his brief.

The EU Regulation, Article 61(1) of the Control Regulation 1224/2009, imposes unrealistic and extreme demands on fishermen and fisherwomen to have all products weighed at the place of landing before being transported, held in storage or sold. This new article imposes severe and undue hardship on inshore fishermen who are already hard pressed to make a living. I will explain what I mean by inshore fishermen. I live in Schull, but the same applies to Crookhaven, Baltimore, Union Hall, and all around the coastline including in Donegal and Wexford where they fish in small boats of between 18 ft. and 35 ft. I believe the fishermen are an endangered species because their catch is getting tighter and scarce. They fish for crab, brown crab, velvet crab, scallop, shrimp, etc.

It is seasonal and depends on the weather, and many times their vessels are tied up. Most of these fishermen are part time. One could not make a living full-time doing this work. In my view, Article 61(1) was never intended to target these inshore fishermen. It was intended to target, in some instances, the illegal landing of pelagic fish in large amounts and lots. It has now accidentally spilt over on to these unfortunate fishermen. The cost to fishermen, whether they be in Schull, Crookhaven or Union Hall, of getting a weighing scales to weigh a box of crabs, two or three dozen lobsters, or perhaps a box of shrimp is totally unrealistic. It should be revoked.

Fishermen traditionally trusted the factories and storage facilities. The fish were weighed, and they were paid a fair sum of money for the product they fished, supplied and brought on shore. This new regulation will place a burden on them which many will not be in the position to meet or to take on board financially. It is ludicrous and I ask the Minister of State to convey this message, not alone to the Sea-Fisheries Protection Authority, SFPA, which is the enforcer in this country, but also to the European Commission.

As another example, recently in Castletownbere, three large Spanish trawlers landed probably about 100,000 tonnes of pelagic fish. Not one of those fish was weighed. The fish were landed in large refrigerated lorries and transported all the way to Spain. Who is monitoring that? Who is controlling that situation? In my view, there is no one doing so. Unless we wake up and look after the inshore fishermen - I am talking about the small guys or the small women, in regard to their catch, around the coast - they will be put out of business. When that is all gone, we will have people in Schull or Baltimore and in the restaurants throughout the country, who would love to see crab meat, lobster or shrimp on their plate, asking what happened to those fishermen. They have been over-regulated and hounded out of business. As I said earlier, these people are the endangered species, yet the big players, particularly the Spanish and the French who have abnormal quotas, seem to do what they want. I ask the Minister of State to wake up. I know he is here representing the Minister, Deputy McConalogue, who has his own situation in County Donegal. I ask them to give some respect and fair play to these part-time fishermen who are trying to eke out a living. Some of them are on the fish assist scheme, etc. They should not be put out of business.

I apologise on behalf of the Minister, Deputy McConalogue, who is in Lisbon today for important discussions relating to the Common Agricultural Policy and, unfortunately, cannot be here. I thank Senator O’Donovan for providing me with the opportunity to update the House on the matters pertaining to this very important issue.

For the record, I should state at the outset that the strict legal position in relation to the revocation of Ireland's control plan is that the monitoring and control of fishing vessels within Ireland's exclusive fisheries zone are matters for the Irish control authorities. Under the Sea-Fisheries and Maritime Jurisdiction Act 2006, all operational issues of this nature are exclusively for the Sea-Fisheries Protection Authority and the Naval Service. Therefore, the Minister, Deputy McConalogue, is expressly precluded from getting involved in operational matters such as this.

By way of background, as the Senator will be aware, following an EU Commission audit in 2018, Ireland received a formal decision of the Commission's intention to conduct an administrative inquiry under Article 102(2) of the 2009 EU Fisheries Control Regulation to evaluate Ireland's capacity to apply the rules of the Common Fisheries Policy, CFP. The findings of the inquiry were communicated to Ireland in December 2020. The findings of the administrative inquiry deemed the Irish control and sanctioning systems as unsatisfactory, and the Commission put forward a concrete and specific package of measures to address the issues raised. Many of the issues arising in the administrative inquiry are operational matters for the SFPA and, under statute, the Minister is precluded from getting involved in them.

The Department of Agriculture, Food and the Marine has commenced a process of engagement with the EU Commission in association with the SFPA, which is responsible for operational matters. In the context of this engagement, the Senator will appreciate that the Minister is not in a position to comment on the EU Commission's findings and the package of measures the Commissioner has set out. To do so, at this juncture, would risk prejudice to Ireland's position. In the context of the administrative inquiry, Ireland was notified in April 2021 of a Commission implementing decision revoking the approval of the Irish control plan submitted for the weighing of fishery products. The European Commission deemed that Ireland's obligations arising from the 2009 EU Fisheries Control Regulation were not being met by the Irish control plan as the risk of non-compliance with the rules of the CFP could not be minimised. The Commission implementing decision in relation to the revocation of the control plan states:

... operators did not have in place a "weighing system fit for purpose", as provided under ... the control plan and the audit identified manipulation of weighing systems. Moreover, although aware of [these] shortcomings, Ireland did not take appropriate measures to address such noncompliance, in particular by withdrawing the permission to weigh after transport as foreseen in ... the control plan. Consequently, the control plan does not minimise the risk of ... [systemic] manipulation of weighing pelagic catches in Ireland and the under-declaration of catches by operators.

Since the Commission's decision was announced, I understand the SFPA has engaged directly with the industry to ensure that fishers and processors are familiar with the changes that are required to comply with EU weighing requirements, and continues to engage with the industry on this matter. The SFPA recently advised that it is holding a public consultation to gather feedback and opinion on a revised control plan for a derogation to weigh fish after transport in Ireland. The online consultation is open until 18 June 2021 and is available on the SFPA website.

On behalf of the Minister, Deputy McConalogue, I would like to reassure the Senator and the House that the Government takes the Commission's findings relating to fisheries control failures, including the revocation of Ireland's control plan, very seriously. We are fully committed to having an effective, dissuasive and proportionate system of fisheries control in place.

I know the Minister of State is standing in for the Minister, Deputy McConalogue, but that answer disappoints me. The facts are that tomorrow week, there will be hundreds of trawlers coming up the Liffey by way of protest. The reasons for this are that countries like Belgium have a larger quota for certain species than the Irish have. We have been totally unrepresented. The Minister, through the Commissioner and the Commission, must stand up for the rights of these fishermen. To say that the SFPA will do its job is grossly unfair. Why is the SFPA not in places like Castletownbere and Dingle, and other ports like Killybegs or Ros an Mhíl, weighing the fish brought in by the French and the Spanish monthly or weekly? That is ignored but the poor Irish guys, especially the inshore fishermen, are really overpoliced. They can - excuse the language - go to hell. The treatment of the inshore fishermen over the years, by the SFPA and this Government or previous Governments, has been a disgrace and nothing less.

With due respect, I know the SFPA is independent, but if it does not listen, the fishermen will not lie down. They have communities and families. This will only be the start of some sort of a fishing war that is not going to go away in the short term. Public representatives, whether they be Deputies or Senators, will regret the decisions being made by Europe and enforced by the SFPA. Somebody has to wake up and smell the roses.

I hear that Senator O'Donovan is very passionate and has genuine concerns on this matter. It is a matter that affects a number of coastal counties, including my county of Wexford. I will certainly bring his concerns to the attention of the Minister, Deputy McConalogue, when he returns from Lisbon. It is a matter I will certainly raise with him as the concerns, which are real and genuine, are affecting fishing communities throughout this entire country. I understand where those concerns come from, very much so.

The Minister of State has been busy today.

Sitting suspended at 10.09 a.m. and resumed at 10.30 a.m.