Nithe i dtosach suíonna - Commencement Matters

Diplomatic Representation

I thank the Cathaoirleach for selecting this important topic. I welcome the Minister of State to the House. Ireland has always played a part in international peace and stability missions. The Department of Foreign Affairs currently has 11 Irish mission members seconded to the Organisation for Security and Cooperation in Europe as part of the special monitoring mission to Ukraine. They have been on this mission for the last seven years. The 11 secondees receive no remuneration from the State. Instead, they are paid a board and living allowance directly from the OSCE. There are a number of problems with this.

First, Ireland has the distinction of being the only state which does not pay its secondees in Ukraine. For example, UK members are paid a salary on top of their board and living allowance. For the last seven years, Irish secondees have been paid no salary and, therefore, have made no PRSI contributions. When they return to Ireland, they will have a major gap in their PRSI contributions with all the attendant consequences for accessing unemployment benefits and the State contributory pension later in their lives despite having been employed. The Ukraine mission is considered a high-risk mission and while an additional small daily stipend is paid to Irish secondees by the OSCE for those in very high-risk areas, the Irish State pays nothing.

Second, members of the mission have been trying to raise this issue with the Government and the Minister for Foreign Affairs since 2016 and no answers have been forthcoming apart from stating that it was under review. It beggars belief that it has taken the best part of five years to make such a decision. We are either going to pay them or not. The very least the State could do would be to dignify their question with an answer. The case submitted in 2016 had the support of both the ambassador and the assistant secretary general in the Department. I am aware the case was submitted by Ambassador O’Leary to the Secretary General and the Minister on 4 November 2016. Subsequently, the case was submitted to the management board meeting of the European neighbourhood and policy division, ENP, on 11 July 2017. This made a very reasonable suggestion that monitors be given a payment of either €2,000 or €3,000 per month, to a maximum of 12 monitors. The case provided a detailed rationale for a payment, including how out of step Ireland was compared with other EU and non-EU counterparts. I have heard anecdotally that the Department of Foreign Affairs believes there may be a legal issue in ring-fencing payments to this cohort, but other nations do not have the same problem.

Third, I have a very serious concern about the lack of support being given to these secondees who remained in place on the mission during the most serious pandemic this world has ever seen. I find it upsetting that no one from the Department of Foreign Affairs contacted these Irish citizens at any stage over the last two years to see whether they were okay. Again, this contrasts sharply with the experience of mission operatives from other states, who received high-level or direct engagement from the sponsoring authorities in their countries of origin. This included being contacted during the pandemic regarding their safety, as well as directly arranging their repatriation. I cannot imagine how these loyal and faithful Irish people feel when their international colleagues were treated so well by their countries, while all the Irish team received was a deafening silence. We are very quick to say how proud we are of those who represent this country overseas on peacekeeping and stability missions, but it would appear we are not so quick to treat them with the common decency and respect they deserve. We should, as a nation, be ashamed.

I hope the Minister of State has some good news and that he will take what I have said on board.

I apologise that I do not have printed copies of my script available for circulation, but that will be rectified shortly. My officials are making arrangements to have some brought here as soon as possible.

Gabhaim buíochas leis an Seanadóir as an ábhar tábhachtach seo a ardú i dtosach an tsuí inniu.

The issue of remuneration or benefits for Irish citizens working for the OSCE special monitoring mission to Ukraine is under review by the Department of Foreign Affairs. I expect that a conclusion will be reached this year. Currently ten Irish citizens are working in the special monitoring mission to the Ukraine. Ireland contributes directly to the OSCE and the OSCE special monitoring mission budgets but, like many OSCE participating states, we do not offer additional payment packages to Irish citizens directly recruited and employed by the OSCE.

Irish citizens can apply for two categories of overseas positions. Contracted positions offer salaries and other allowances and benefits that are similar to those offered under the UN Common System. The other category of post includes payment from the OSCE of a boarding and lodging allowance, currently €125 per day, and a package of life and disability insurance. The employment is limited to the duration of the mission mandate and is renewed formally every year. Some special monitoring mission members, that is, those serving in Donetsk and Luhansk Oblast, also receive an additional €30 in hazard pay. The OSCE covers the cost of travel from Vienna to field missions and travel expenses for a return trip home once per annum.

The recruitment process is handled by the OSCE and Irish citizens have a clear choice of applying for contracted jobs or for positions that provide a less comprehensive package of allowances. For those Irish citizens interested in working overseas, the Department and the EU jobs system provide many opportunities and a variety of potential positions. The Department runs a rapid response core roster of highly skilled professionals deployed at short notice to humanitarian emergencies for a period of three to six months. The Department also deploys Irish citizens to the EU Common Security and Defence Policy missions. Those positions are remunerated with a stipend provided with an allowance living costs and reimbursed for a number of expenses.

Irish citizens applying for positions with the special monitoring mission to the Ukraine, or any other positions within the OSCE, have all the conditions of employment outlined prior to the application process. The rules are transparent and the Department, when approached, is very clear about the lack of remuneration or allowances from it. There are many different approaches taken by the OSCE participating States, ranging from comprehensive to more basic. The majority of states pay nothing in addition to their citizens working for the OSCE and so there is no common approach from EU member states on this issue. Nonetheless, the Department is once again considering possible ways of providing additional benefits to Irish citizens working for the OSCE special monitoring mission to Ukraine and will make a decision in that regard in the coming months.

The Minister of State will be aware of the impact of the lack of payment of PRSI contributions and how that will impact people. He and I have often discussed PRSI and I know that he is committed on this issue.

I ask that he has the decision expedited as quickly as possible. I understand that people know what they are getting into when they sign up for these jobs, but they sometimes do not realise the full impact it will have on their future lives, particularly in regard to PRSI. The Minister of State has given a commitment to see to it that a decision is made. I appreciate his time on this matter and I thank him for coming to the House today to address it. He might contact my office when he is made aware that a decision has been made.

The Department and I have great respect for Irish citizens working in various institutions around the world. A number of the affected people were in touch with me directly on my appointment as Minister of State with responsibility for European affairs. This month, I had a meeting with the OSCE Secretary General, Helga Schmid. I was delighted to note that there a number of Irish people at senior level throughout that organisation. It is an important organisation, with a lower profile than it should have.

The Senator mentioned a particular mission in the Ukraine. We know how important and dangerous that can be. The importance of the contribution of Irish citizens is widely recognised and the conditions of employment of these organisations vary. I have been contacted by some of the individuals affected and they have informed me that the conditions of work may not be satisfactory or competitive. This matter is being reviewed. I am confident that a decision will be taken in the coming months.

Primary Care Centres

I welcome the Minister of State, Deputy Mary Butler, to the House. As long ago as 2018, the probability of the Drimnagh primary care centre was being mooted and referenced in published articles. In December 2019, the then Minister for Health, Deputy Simon Harris, and Minister of State, Catherine Byrne, announced the primary care centre for Drimnagh on the site of the Mother McAuley Centre and they projected a timeline of final design in 2020, with construction to commence in 2021. I accept that in the meantime all of our lives and everything about us was hijacked by Covid. However, primary care centre is overdue for the community of Drimnagh. They welcomed that it was to be located locally and that they would have a focus and place to go to where all of their healthcare needs could be met. The demand for this centre still exists. The population of Drimnagh is large. As I speak, there are hundreds of apartments under construction in the Drimnagh area, with many more in the planning process, all of which will increase that population. Any delay to the provision of the primary care centre will have a major impact on their lives. A primary care centre is part of the necessary and integral provision of services, infrastructure and supports within any community.

The facilities that were promised for the Mother McAuley Centre were to be located on the site of the demolished HSE health centre. The proposal includes a rebuild of the Alzheimer's unit, a community centre and crèche and the construction of a state-of-the-art primary care centre. Last week, the Minister of State, Deputy Rabbitte, brought us up to date on the significant strides forward in dealing with the long waiting lists in the provision of care to children with additional and special needs. Primary care centres are necessary to her plans and the plans under the programme for Government in addressing the needs of children. If the Drimnagh primary care centre is not built, speech and language services, and services for all of the other multidisciplinary therapies that are required for children prior to going to school, will be delayed. In our major steps forward, there will be a blackspot in primary care centre provision such that children will have to move outside their areas for service provision. It is necessary that we move this project on as quickly as possible.

Shortly after my appointment this time last year, I wrote to the Minister for Health, Deputy Donnelly, seeking an update on this matter. It is a big deal and an urgent need in the Drimnagh community. I wrote to him in July and I received a reply at the end of September. The reply confirmed that the project is on the books, but it also referenced the phrase, "it is a dynamic process". I have had sleepless nights in relation to that phrase. I understand Covid, but a dynamic process indicates to me that this is going to be stretched out for some time to come. That is not okay. This is an urgent need in the here and now.

The Minister of State representing the Minister. I would appreciate an update on this matter. The people of Drimnagh desperately need to hear it.

As this is my first time in the Chair since my re-election, I take this opportunity to welcome the Minister of State to the House on what is almost the anniversary of her appointment.

Senator Horkan and I have not been in the Seanad at the same time since his re-election. I congratulate him on re-entering the Seanad. It is fantastic to see him in the Chair. Well done.

I thank Senator Seery Kearney very much for raising this issue and giving me the opportunity to outline to the House the position on the plans for the development of the primary care centre in Drimnagh, which is most important for the people living in the area.

The development of primary care is central to the Government's objective of delivering a high quality, integrated and cost-effective healthcare system. The primary care centre programme not only continues to be a key anchor in the longer term reform of the health sector, but also aligns with the objectives of Project Ireland 2040. Primary care centres have a key role to play in delivering the vision for a reformed health service set out in Sláintecare, by facilitating the shift from acute care to primary care and supporting the provision of a range of multidisciplinary services in local communities. In this regard, it is important to note that primary care centres provide accommodation for services beyond those commonly identified as primary care, including: community mental health services; disability services, as the Senator indicated; environmental health services; accommodation for Tusla; ambulance rapid deployment points; and civil registration.

There are clear benefits in bringing healthcare professionals together to operate as a multidisciplinary team, out of a purpose-designed, well-equipped and high-quality modern facility. They can act as a single point of access for the community to healthcare services and resources, while also becoming a focal point for local health initiatives. A total of 14 primary care centres have been delivered by public private partnership. Where appropriate accommodation is not available, new primary care centres are being procured through lease agreements and through Exchequer capital funding. The majority of primary care centres will continue to be developed by means of operational leases.

Regarding the Senator's specific question, the Drimnagh primary care centre will be located on the existing site at Curlew Road. Funding has been allocated to progress the appointment of a design team, and the tender process for the services of a design team has commenced. Services to be provided include older persons day-care services alongside public health and community nursing, physiotherapy, occupational therapy, speech and language therapy, dietetics, and counselling. These services will be integrated with the proposed on-site GP service and will provide an integrated service to the public under one roof.

At present, in order to meet the primary care needs of the local area it is the intention of the HSE to use the new Armagh Road, Crumlin primary care centre and the Rialto primary care centre, both of which are operational. In addition, the Old County Road health centre and the Limekiln health centre will be retained as satellite units. To reiterate, funding has been allocated to progress the appointment of a design team, and the tender process for the services of a design team has commenced.

I thank the Minister of State for her kind words and her response.

It rhymes. That makes it easier. The Boyd Barretts and the Healy-Raes never have my problems.

I will not compare the Senator to them.

I thank the Minister of State. I am delighted that we are now on the road to the delivery of this primary care centre. I would appreciate it if she has any update on a timeline of when the people of Drimnagh can walk through the doors to go to see their GP and avail of the services which are crucial to the community there.

There are extensive changes going on in Drimnagh. A group representing all the residents' associations, which calls itself Dynamic Drimnagh, has fantastic ideas for the area. In the context of the creation of Drimnagh village we may need a complementary service to complement the primary care centre. There is probably room for discussion with the group in the near future. I am delighted with the news and any update on a timeline would be really appreciated.

The Senator stated at the outset that the final design was due for 2020 with construction to commence in 2021. In fairness, she pointed to Covid and the challenges we have had. I do not have a specific timeline or dates but Senator Seery Kearney will appreciate the importance of the fact that the funding has been allocated to progress the appointment of the design team and that the tender process for the service has commenced.

The construction programme for primary care centres will continue throughout the period of the national development plan. We all know what an important role they play in communities. The HSE has been successful in developing a network of primary care centres. We now have 142 primary care centres operational throughout the country. In line with national requirements of appraisal, design, planning, tender and construction, this programme will continue into the future, including the development of a primary care centre in Drimnagh, as I have outlined.

State Examinations

This is my first opportunity in this venue to welcome my good colleague and friend, the Minister of State, Deputy Madigan.

I thank the Minister of State, Deputy Madigan, for coming in to respond to this issue. We saw that the leaving certificate classes of 2020 and 2021 both experienced enormous difficulties. It was through the leadership of the Department and the Minister, Deputy Foley, and the Minister of State, Deputy Madigan, that we were able to reach an accommodation. I pay tribute in particular to the work of the Irish Second-Level Students Union which engaged very closely with the Minister and her officials in a spirit of collaboration in order to reach an accommodation for this year's leaving certificate. Well done to all of those who managed to survive this year.

Those who were in fifth year last year experienced significant disruption. A lot of students are concerned about the fact that the curriculum may not be covered by the end of the year. Even though teachers made valiant efforts to cover the course remotely, some students had difficulty being online all of the time due to insufficient broadband and home environments may not have been supportive. The online learning experience is not as good as that in the classroom.

It is important that there is clarity as soon as possible and certainty that the students who will sit the leaving certificate next year know what they will face over the academic year 2021-22. They require clarity on what is happening with the leaving certificate next year, what allowances might be made and what supports will be put in place for students. Will there be adjustments to the exam? I am aware that the Department is in discussions on this matter. The hallmark of the Department's engagement to date has been to place students at the centre of this process and to ensure that the welfare and education of students is to the fore. They have lost out on a hell of a lot, including aspects of their education. As legislators, we have an obligation to try to ensure that they are supported in whatever way we can during their leaving certificate year, but in particular that they have clarity on the type of exam they will face and what supports and allowances will be made.

I am very conscious that the Government has expanded the number of places in higher education and also in apprenticeships, which means that for the leaving certificate classes of 2021 and 2022 there are more post second-level school opportunities than ever before. However, the Minister of State will understand the enormous worries that those who are entering into sixth year now face, having lost out on so much over the past year. I hope certainty will be provided this summer before those students go back to class in September so that they and their teachers know what they will face in the following academic year.

I thank Senator Byrne. The issue he raises is quite timely given that today is the final day of the leaving certificate exam. In one minute's time students will be starting Japanese, politics and society - very appropriately, Arabic and physical education is the final exam this afternoon. I again welcome the Minister of State and invite her to proceed.

We wish all those students the best of luck today. I also take this opportunity to congratulate you personally, Acting Chairman, on your recent election back to the Seanad.

I thank the Minister of State very much.

The Seanad is a better place with you in it. I thank Senator Malcolm Byrne for raising this very important issue. As he is aware, this is a matter under the remit of the Minister for Education.

She is acutely aware of the disruption caused to students as a result of school closures resulting from the Covid-19 pandemic. From 11 January 2021 until their return to school all students, including fifth year students who are due to sit their leaving certificate examinations in 2022, engaged in a programme of remote learning with their schools. The public health restrictions which resulted in the closure of schools in March 2020 highlighted the absolute necessity for schools to be agile in providing for continuity of schooling in the future.

As a contingency measure against the possibility of partial or full school closures, the Department of Education provided a suite of guidance materials, agreed with the education partners to enable schools to mediate the curriculum safely for all students in a Covid-19 context. These materials are available at www.gov.ie/backtoschool. They include information on well-being supports, coping with uncertainty and managing stress and anxiety, which have been developed by the National Educational Psychological Service to support students.

The webpage has links to more individualised supports for students to access, should these be needed. The Department also worked with the Department of Health and the HSE to ensure the most appropriate services and resources are clearly signposted for students. These resources are updated regularly and provide links to a number of other support websites for students and young people.

The nature of distance learning which was necessitated during the unprecedented closure of schools last year and early this year required educators to take on a range of approaches to support their pupils' continuity of leaming during that period. Schools and teachers demonstrated great innovation in adapting to the situation in using digital technologies and online learning platforms for teaching and learning.

Extensive guidance and supports have been made available by the Department and its support services to support schools to plan for the transition to online and remote learning. As part of a circular issued by the Department, it became a requirement for schools to have in place a communication-learning platform that supports them to respond in the event of a partial or full school closure in the future, including the facilitation of live or recorded video lessons where practicable.

As I say, there are a number of different elements to this guidance. I have to say to the Senator also that I have a personal interest in this matter as my own son is doing his leaving certificate in 2022 and he is in fifth year at present. He has already started the senior cycle and the fact that the national advisory group is meeting tomorrow on this and other issues is very important. The advisory group I expect will make recommendations based on the loss of learning and I note all of the comments made by the Senator in respect of the students being placed at the centre of this process and many of them - and I have seen this with my son and his schoolfriends - have lost motivation and confidence. Those who struggle and have had difficulty in particular subjects have found it extraordinarily difficult to catch up. Indeed, whether the curriculum will be finished or not is something that will be considered by the Department. I am comforted, however, by what the Minister for Education has said in this regard and the fact that the advisory group is meeting tomorrow. Gabhaim buíochas.

I thank the Minister very much for her reply. I obviously wish her son and the 60,000 other students who are going into leaving certificate year the very best in the year ahead. I know that the advisory group is meeting and that there is student input but the earlier that certainty can be provided to that student group, the better.

There has been, as the Minister of State has rightly pointed out, a great deal of anxiety. Students have felt that they have lost out on aspects of the curriculum. It is going to be difficult to get the motivation back and some have have learned in a different way.

I appreciate that there are many complex issues here and that schools have been doing their best but it is very important that before the academic year starts students are informed about the exact supports that will be in place and what will happen in 2022, and that they are consulted throughout this process. I would greatly welcome such an assurance.

I thank the Senator. The fact that there has been a detrimental effect on fifth year students means that we very much need that clarity as soon as possible, preferably before the school term starts in September. As you know, fifth year is the start of the senior cycle. I have seen my son and his friends struggle with the amount of months of the senior cycle that they have missed. They are asking me on a daily basis what is happening and whether we know if accommodation is going to be made for the leaving certificate next year. The fact that we have student representatives on the advisory group is a good thing, along with parents, teachers and other groups. All of that will feed into making the proper decision that is required in this instance during these unprecedented times.

Again, I extend my best wishes to all the leaving certificate students finishing up today.

Common Agricultural Policy

I thank the Acting Cathaoirleach and welcome Minister of State, Deputy Noonan, to the House.

The Common Agricultural Policy, CAP, as the Minister of State will be aware, was originally established to ensure food security and has been a great success in that regard. Indeed, it has provided an income floor to farmers across the country through its supports and many farms would not survive without farm payments .

Ireland has unique farm systems. It has farms that are small, mixed, large and intensive, arable, grassland, hill and commonage, and with designated and Natura 2000 lands. The challenges presented by a new CAP to satisfy all of these various farm types was and is immense. At the heart of demands for reform were fairness, quality and viability. Farm organisations such as the Irish Farmers Association faced a difficult balancing act as the issue of convergence raised concerns about farm viability. The Irish Natura and Hill Farmers Association were supportive of full convergence. All of this in the context of convergence means a redistribution of moneys within the farming sector. For those farmers who will win, there will, of course, also be farmers who will lose.

A deal had been reached at the Council of Ministers that will go before the European Parliament for ratification. I ask today that the details of what has been agreed be set out on the floor of the Seanad. The negotiations up to this have recognised the increasing and correct demands by society for a greener CAP, a more climate-friendly farming model, that the value of carbon-rich soils such as such peatlands be recognised, for eco-schemes and green interventions. It is important that while peatlands have been rightly recognised as carbon stores, they continue to be seen as a crucial part of eligible farmland. There were concerns in the run-up to these negotiations that peatlands would be discontinued or be ineligible as farm areas. That could not happen and I acknowledge the work of the Irish Natura and Hill Farmers Association for their work on highlighting that and the work of the Minister, Deputy McConalogue, for his interventions on that.

I also welcome the income of €60,000 that has been agreed as part of these negotiations. This is important in recognising that CAP is not just about supporting larger farmers and that putting a cap in place will set a tone and a bar as to payments. It will also recognise that farms are of various land types, quality and sizes across the country and the new CAP has recognised, to a degree, the importance of redistribution, convergence and providing a basic payment for all farmers irrespective of the challenges they may face. It also recognises the unique role that our commonage, hill, disadvantaged, Natura 2000 and protected lands play in society. If one looks at the range of areas, from blanket bogs to the unique landscape of the Burren, these are all recognised as part of a new CAP. These supports are important to protect farm viability in these areas and to keep farmers on the land.

Perhaps that is not recognised. Without farmers, the Burren would not be the Burren. Without farmers, our blanket bogs in Connemara or elsewhere would not be as they are. I look forward to the Minister of State's reply.

Gabhaim comhghairdeas leis an Seanadóir. I thank Senator Kyne for raising this important issue. I am pleased to announce that after three years of negotiation, a final political agreement on the main elements of the next Common Agricultural Policy was agreed by the Council of Ministers in Luxembourg yesterday. This has been a long and challenging negotiation. The overall agreement will provide member states with flexibility to take account of national circumstances as they implement the new Common Agricultural Policy.

It has been clear that the next Common Agricultural Policy would aim to support farmers undertaking greater environmental actions. Some 25% of the direct payment envelope will now be dedicated to eco-schemes. These schemes will support farmers to undertake additional environmental actions. Work is under way on the preparation of these proposals and for Ireland, a key objective will be to create eco-schemes that will engage as many farmers as possible to effectively deliver environmental change. There will be new conditionality requirements including a good agricultural and environmental condition, GAEC, for the protection of wetlands and peatlands, as the Senator referred to. Ireland has been clear throughout the negotiations that the standards to be set for GAEC 2 cannot prohibit agricultural activity on these lands and I am pleased to state we have secured this in the final text. Member states will be able to define their national standards for each GAEC, tailoring them to specific local needs and characteristics. Ireland's Pillar 2 measures already include a high level of support for environmental actions and this is expected to continue in the next CAP. Farmers have clearly demonstrated their desire to undertake such actions and they will be offered appropriately designed schemes.

The Commission's original proposal included a number of redistribution elements and the European Parliament equally has strongly supported compulsory redistribution. This is a complex issue and the farming bodies have different views on it. Under the next CAP, a set redistribution of 10% has been proposed. The proposal agreed will also allow member states to consider if there are other ways of achieving the redistribution needs identified nationally and to demonstrate this in the national CAP strategic plan. This type of flexibility is important. We need to have time to consider this complex issue nationally.

The proposals will also provide member states with broad flexibility to implement capping of payments. Ireland has sought greater flexibility in this regard throughout the negotiations. The proposals provide for 100% capping for any payments above €100,000 and for the ability to further reduce any payments above €60,000.

The process of internal convergence which exists in the current CAP will continue bringing every farmer up to a level of 85% of the national average entitlement value. Young farmers will continue to be supported under the next CAP. An amount equal to 3% of the direct payment envelope will be allocated to support them. Ireland already provides considerable national support for young farmers through the taxation system which provides strong support for transfers and farm partnerships.

Under the new CAP, farmers and other beneficiaries receiving direct payments who do not implement proper employment conditions as set out in the relevant EU legislation may be subject to an administrative penalty. This is the first time that EU agricultural legislation will include a social dimension. In reality, very few Irish farmers employ external labour and there will be a two-year lead-in period before commencement to allow for implementation of the new proposals.

The new CAP will also change to a more performance-based model. There will be a greater emphasis on the results and outcomes from the expenditure and this will bring greater clarity with regard to the considerable achievements of the CAP policy. For some time, especially as we move forward with the preparation of the national CAP strategic plan, we have been engaged in a process of intensive national consultation. This will continue and intensify as we develop our plan. It is vital to have this national engagement. I believe that farmers are ready and willing to engage. It will be our job to explain all of the new possibilities for farmers and to encourage them to participate in the new schemes in the next CAP. I believe that all parts of the farming community will be ready to participate in this debate in an open and transparent way. The market and consumers want farming and food production to meet higher environmental and climate expectations and the next CAP will be ready to help farmers with this challenge.

I thank the Minister of State for the comprehensive reply. It is a significant change from what farmers have been used to over the last years. I have concerns about the design of the eco-schemes. It is important that no farmers are left outside that. There were concerns about the recent results-based environment agri pilot programme, REAP, which excluded commonage and Natura land. It is important that any eco-scheme does not discriminate against those. They have every right and provide much more biodiversity that should be rewarded as part of an eco-scheme. I welcome and acknowledge the work on peatlands because there was significant concern that peatlands which have been actively farmed would be excluded from being eligible for payment. Due to the work of Government, that has been changed. I acknowledge the work of the Irish Natura and Hill Farmers Association, INHFA, on that issue. I thank the Minister of State for his reply.

I confirm to Senator Kyne that the discussions that have been ongoing between our agri-ecology unit in the National Parks and Wildlife Service and the Department of Agriculture, Food and the Marine have been positive in designing a CAP strategic plan that is fit for purpose for nature and for people, because this is ultimately about the needs of people and of farming communities. I have had positive engagement with the Irish Natura and Hill Farmers Association, most recently during a visit to Connemara. There is acceptance and willingness to participate in schemes that will benefit biodiversity in particular. We have set highly ambitious targets for nature in the EU biodiversity strategy. Farming communities are willing to play their part in that.

The Senator referred to the Burren. The work being done by Brendan Dunford and the BurrenLIFE programme have been instrumental in informing results-based payment schemes that will be part of the design of the next CAP strategic plan. I am confident that we will achieve a high level of protection of nature and good results-based schemes for farmers in the west of Ireland and right across the country.

Energy Conservation

As we know, the just transition objective is to fund innovative projects that contribute to the economic, social and environmental sustainability of those especially impacted by the move away from carbon. My county is impacted both with regard to employment and those who used the bog as a source of fuel for their homes. We were happy when Kildare was one of the counties where the retrofitting pilot project was to be rolled out. Eligible residents in four different parts of Kildare, in local authority estates, were chosen for this roll-out. Their homes were to be retrofitted to increase their energy efficiency. That would reduce costs associated with heating their homes.

There has been significant frustration with the first programme rolled out in my home town of Rathangan. Residents are incredibly disappointed that the retrofitting programme they were promised is not the one that they are receiving. Originally, a commitment was made to residents that the funding would support retrofitting, including the replacement of windows and doors which, in this housing estate, which is not new, would be important for energy efficiency. The residents have now been told by Kildare County Council that the funding for the scheme is not sufficient to fulfil those commitments. The fact that the doors and windows are now not included in the scheme has seen interest in the scheme fall by one third.

We all know that draughty windows and doors are a significant source of heat loss. It does not make sense to retrofit a home, cause significant inconvenience to the family living there by turning their home upside-down, and then leave the old doors and windows in place. This fund was made available to people through the just transition.

It is vital that the programme is delivered as promised and that the scheme meets the expectation of all of the residents within the particular housing estates that were chosen for it.

Will the Minister of State clarify who is responsible for the inconsistency? Will sufficient funding be made available to retrofit properly the homes of those who have applied to join the scheme? It is not just about the residents of Rathangan. The scheme in that area was the first to be put in place. It is also about those in Derrinturn and Athy in County Kildare. Will the Department fully engage with Kildare County Council to ensure the promises made to the people of Rathangan and to the residents of the three other schemes are fully delivered?

I thank the Senator for raising this issue and for the opportunity to provide an update on the midlands retrofit pilot programme, which is a Government initiative under the just transition programme. The midlands retrofit pilot project is an important part of the just transition programme, which needs to be facilitated in the context of Bord na Móna's exit from peat and the direct impact that is having on the midlands.

The counties that were most affected by reductions in peat harvesting were included in the programme, namely, the eight counties of Kildare, Offaly, Westmeath, Longford, Laois, Roscommon, Tipperary and Galway. As part of the just transition proposals for the midlands, budget 2020 provided an additional €20 million to fund energy efficiency upgrades to local authority houses in the affected midland counties. The pilot scheme was focused on ensuring the energy efficiency upgrade of a minimum of 750 local authority homes in the midlands. It prioritised the upgrading of larger batches of homes in distinct, compact geographical areas and sought to build on the heretofore shallow retrofit programme in which local authorities were engaged in a deeper retrofit to achieve a B2-cost optimal building energy rating, BER, and promote the use of heat pumps where appropriate.

My Department worked with the Department of Communications, Climate Action and Environment, the Sustainable Energy Authority of Ireland, SEAI, the national retrofit task force and the relevant local authorities on the design and roll-out of the pilot programme. Unfortunately, the programme was interrupted by the onset of the Covid-19 pandemic. That was further exacerbated by the shutdown of construction in 2020 and the further shutdown in the early months of 2021. With the lifting of the construction shutdown, the pilot programme is now back on track and the expectation is that the targeted minimum of 750 local authority homes for retrofit under the pilot programme will be completed in 2021.

As of now, four homes have been completed, a further 60 are on site, 217 are at contract award stage and 373 are at tender stage. The remaining homes are under survey. In respect of County Kildare specifically, 91 local authority homes are being progressed for retrofitting. The schedule of eligible works under the programme includes the replacement of windows and external doors where it is required to achieve the required heat loss indicator and to ensure the home is heat pump ready and can achieve a BER rating of B2-cost optimal. All decisions on the homes selected for the programme or the works to be completed on each home are a matter for the relevant local authority.

I give a commitment that we will engage with Kildare County Council specifically on this issue. I have the schedule of works with me, which commits to the replacement of windows and doors, as required, to bring the homes up to a BER of B2.

I thank the Minister of State for his response. He mentioned the delays caused by the Covid-19 pandemic, which are completely understandable. I accept his Department will engage with Kildare County Council on the matter. The Minister of State mentioned the 750 local authority homes in the midlands across the eight counties included in the programme. If a third of participants have dropped out, as we have seen in the area of Rathangan, then only 500 local authority homes will be part of the programme. The Minister of State noted that in Kildare, 91 local authority homes are being processed for retrofitting. With the dropouts, what figure is reduced to 60. That is not good for a pilot project.

The Minister of State has spoken of trying to achieve a B2 BER. That is not going to happen if windows and doors are not replaced. I take on board the Minister of State's point that the Department is fully committed to replacing doors and windows. There is an anomaly, because Kildare County Council is asserting the Department has capped the funding and it will not be able to replace doors and windows. However, the Minister of State has stated today that according to the Department, the replacement of doors and windows is very necessary.

Will the Minister of State come back to me after he was engaged with Kildare County Council and update me on the results of that engagement? It is vitally important, not just for this project but for all of the other projects, that there is an effective and efficient roll-out. I hope we see also a roll-out of grants for retrofitting in respect of private homes.

As I stated, all the decisions relating to the selection of homes and for the programme of works to be completed are a matter for the local authority, in this case, Kildare County Council. I have stated that the replacement of windows and doors, airtightness and the taping of sealant to windows is part of the programme.

The issue needs to be resolved between my Department and Kildare County Council. It is our objective to achieve the maximum level of participation possible if we are to meet our climate targets and to deal with issues of fuel poverty throughout the country and the just transition programme. It is vitally important we achieve maximum participation of households in the scheme. I also confirm to the Senator that grant schemes will be announced for private dwellings later as part of this programme. It is vitally important we get it right. I will take the points raised by the Senator back to the Department and seek a response.

Rail Network

Senator Chambers has been unavoidably detained, so I will be taking the Commencement matter on behalf of both of us. Senator Chambers and I raised this issue on the Order of Business and the Leader suggested that we jointly raise a Commencement matter. I am representing both of us. I know the issue is one Senator Chambers feels passionately about for her own county of Mayo. For me, it is about climate, the economy of the north west and joined-up thinking on transport.

I believe, fundamentally, that we can have a rail link and a greenway that goes along the western rail track. I ask the Minister of State to seek to progress phases 2 and 3 of the western rail corridor development. The most recent report on this project, authored by Dr. Bradley, is 200 pages long. I hope the Minister of State has read it. I am sure he has. The report has highlighted many discrepancies and inaccuracies in the EY report on the western rail corridor that was commissioned by the Department. West on Track, a group of volunteers from counties Galway and Mayo, looked at the EY report in February, as the Minister of State might recall. The group found there were 324 numerical errors, 31 typos and 23 errors of fact, some of which were very serious, in the report. The latest report by Dr. Bradley shows that the capital costs of the reopening are 50% lower than those quoted in the EY report.

Will the Minister of State outline what the Department is going do to on this issue and how we can move forward? The development of western rail corridor is not just about how many people are there currently. It is fundamentally about taking a transport-first and town-centre-first approach to planning. The transport needs to be put in place to deliver the planning and development the Government wants. It is very much Green Party policy that if there is rail and that rail is viable, it should be developed first. Otherwise, we will see a continuation of sprawl, which we do not want.

I know the Department is putting funding into the double-tracking of the Athenry to Galway rail link. The western rail corridor would link that double-tracking with Claremorris and the Mayo-Dublin line.

From many points of view, therefore, this is important. It is important to the economy because tourists come to Galway. How do we move them up to the north west? We have three regions in this country, and the north west is the only one that is designated as a region in transition economically by the EU. The other two regions are seen as doing very well economically and the north west is not. Many will disagree with how well some of the regions are doing, but this is a European standard. If we want to get the industry and the tourism, we have to put in place the infrastructure. Quite apart from that, this report showed there would be 5.5 million km less in road trips per annum by 2030. Therefore, from a climate point of view, we would see a reduction in the number of cars. We would also see a 2.8 million km per annum reduction in HGV traffic because that line could take a lot of haulage.

I would love the hear what the Minister of State will say about this, how the Department will rectify the errors and the moving forward with phases two and three.

I thank Senators O'Reilly and Chambers for bringing forward this matter. As Senator O'Reilly quite rightly said, this is about town centres, sustainable transport, balanced regional development and tackling climate change. This is an important matter.

As the Senators will be aware, the Minister is a firm believer in the positive potential of increased and expanded sustainable mobility options, whether walking, cycling, bus or rail. The Senators referred to a new report on the western rail corridor, a copy of which I understand the Minister received in the past few days. This report is the third such report published this year on the corridor, although it is the first produced by those campaigning for a reopening of the line between Athenry and Claremorris. As one might reasonably expect from a campaign group, the report is positive about the potential reopening and the benefits it might bring.

As I said, this third report on the western rail corridor was published this year. The first report was the EY report referred to by the Senators. That report was commissioned by Iarnród Éireann and conducted by EY consultants with the assistance of specialist engineering experts. It was commissioned in line with the decision of the previous Government and was a financial and economic appraisal of the potential reopening of phases two and three of the western rail corridor. I understand there have been some criticisms of the EY report, as Senator O'Reilly stated, particularly by those campaigning for a reopening of the western rail corridor, who, in turn, commissioned this most recent report in response. However, there was, in fact, an independent review commissioned by the Department of Transport upon its receipt of the EY report and prior to the Minister, Deputy Ryan, bringing the issue to the Government last December. The second report, known as the JASPERS review, was carried out by the agency known as JASPERS, which was established by the European Commission and the European Investment Bank to assist member states in making investments in European regions such as the west of Ireland. The JASPERS review concluded that the findings of the EY report were not unreasonable. Specifically, as regards the projected cost and demand, the areas of the EY report that have been criticised by this new report, the review found them to be within reasonable ranges, although perhaps based on a design solution and an operational plan that might be considered overly optimistic.

More important than that, however, are the four key observations of the JASPERS review which are fundamental to the future development or otherwise of the western rail corridor and indeed our rail network generally. The JASPERS review noted that the proposed reopening of the western rail corridor did not address any identified social or transport constraint, did not fit with any broader strategic framework for the development of rail in Ireland, did not contribute towards our climate action challenge and would not attract EU funding in its present form. In response to these issues, the Minister has committed to an all-island strategic rail review to examine all aspects of inter-urban and inter-regional rail on the island of Ireland, including lines such as the western rail corridor. The review will also consider where it might be appropriate for high-speed or higher speed rail on the network. In addition, it will examine the role of rail and freight and how best to decarbonise Intercity and inter-regional rail services. It is this strategic rail review that will provide the strategic framework for the development of rail in Ireland, identify the social and transport constraints that rail can help to address, set out how to move towards net-zero railway in the future and ensure that our rail investments are fully aligned with EU policy in this area. I understand the review will commence very shortly, and the Minister looks forward to its completion.

I thank the Minister of State for his response. The main issue I have with the EY report, which he has outlined in part, is on what premise it looked at the western rail corridor. Fundamentally, public transport is about a public good, and that is what the reopening of the western rail corridor and the advancement of phases two and three are about. This is about a public good, a social good and a benefit to the planet. We need not necessarily to put aside all economic constraints but we do need to look at transport as being not about how much money we can bring in but about how much of an economic development, quite apart from the line itself, will be brought about by putting in place this rail line. It is not necessarily always about the number of passengers but rather the number of passengers the line will bring in and deliver in the future. It is also, as I said, about how many fewer car journeys we can expect from this line. I look forward to the review. I hope the Minister will engage more on this over the coming months.

Senator O'Reilly made excellent and valid points about this. I am of the view, as is the Minister, that the strategic rail review will be conducted on an all-island basis, will identify those needs the Senator has spoken about and will be carried out with the support of the Northern Ireland Executive to provide a much more holistic overview of what is required. It will seek to address the shortcomings identified in the JASPERS review and will mean that individual projects put forward later for consideration can be linked back to a strong strategic framework. Importantly, it will also identify how we will move our inter-urban and inter-regional rail services off fossil fuels and towards a decarbonised future, as we must do by 2050. It will also examine the potential role of freight rail, which the Senator mentioned and which is critical. The points made about balanced regional development towards that social gain that will be accrued from having an expanded rail network in Ireland are critical. I am confident that the review being carried out by the Minister will seek and identify those objectives, particularly for the west.

Sitting suspended at 10.08 a.m. and resumed at 10.30 a.m.