Nithe i dtosach suíonna - Commencement Matters

Employment Permits

I welcome the Minister of State, Deputy English, to the House and thank him for taking the first matter, which has been raised by Senator Robbie Gallagher.

Ba mhaith liom fáilte a chur roimh an Aire Stáit go dtí an Teach seo inniu. Ba mhaith liom fosta buíochas a ghabháil leis as a bheith anseo mar tá a fhios agam go bhfuil sé faoi bhrú agus go bhfuil a lán oibre á déanamh aige. The Minister of State is very welcome to the House this morning.

He knows that Monaghan's local economy is deeply dependent on the success of the agrifood sector. There are data to support this. Monaghan has the highest agricultural export value per hectare outside of Dublin, made up mainly of poultry, as 52% of the country's entire flock is located in County Monaghan. It is also the largest producer and exporter of mushrooms in the country. Local company, Monaghan Mushrooms, is the largest exporter of mushrooms in Europe and the second largest in the world. To put this in perspective, the mushroom industry has a farm gate value of €119 million, of which approximately 85% is exported to the UK. It employs over 3,500 people and we produce 70,000 tonnes of mushrooms each year, of which 80%, worth €120 million, is marketed to UK multiples. These are world leaders in the field and we are very proud of the industry in County Monaghan.

If anything was to damage the sector, it would have serious implications for the whole economy of the county. Unfortunately, the sector is currently facing a number of threats, including in the case of the mushroom sector, the issue of peat harvesting. I am sure the Minister of State is well aware of that and although it is a different matter, it is connected to what I am speaking about today. I ask the Minister of State to bring the message that this needs to be sorted urgently back to the Government. There should be a common sense approach to that matter.

Today, I am speaking about a labour shortage threatening not just the mushroom industry but the poultry sector, meat processing and hospitality. In the mushroom industry the labour shortage is at crisis levels and is continuing to deteriorate every month. For both the poultry and meat processing industries, an increase in imported labour is vital. These industries were hopeful of an announcement of a new horticulture worker permit quota in September but they are still awaiting official word on where exactly that stands. Compounding matters is the fact that the employment permit application process is currently taking over ten weeks. With respect, that is too long and adding to the stress being felt by these employers.

These delays in the application process, along with problems I mentioned in peat importation, climate change, Brexit and currency fluctuation that we in Border counties must live with on a daily basis are combining to potentially create a perfect storm in Monaghan's agribusiness sector and in the sector generally. This matter needs urgent attention so I ask the Government to give it such attention. I look forward to the Minister of State's response.

It is good to be back in this House and see everybody back in their home. I thank Senator Gallagher for raising this important matter, which has been topical over the past couple of months. The matters raised today are directly important for Monaghan and its mushroom and poultry sector. Agribusiness is extremely important for Monaghan, as it is for my county of Meath. The matters raised here have been brought to me directly by the industry as well, along with the Minister, Deputy Humphreys, earlier in the year. The Senator is right to call this out and it is a big issue to work on for the country and the sector. It is really important for Monaghan that we find solutions to the labour difficulties in the area.

The Senator mentioned mushrooms and poultry and I have engaged directly with some of the companies involved in trying to work with them on solutions. I will certainly outline where that journey is as well. I agree with the Senator that we must find a common sense solution to the peat harvesting question. Peat is required for the domestic horticultural sector and it is only 1% or 2% of what would have been harvested or used in the country over the past couple of years. There has been a massive gain already so we should try to find some way to make that work. I know the Minister of State, Deputy Malcolm Noonan, is working very closely with a group trying to make this a reality. I hope we can find a solution that works for everybody. Through innovation, research and development we will find solutions in the years ahead, and this will take a little bit longer, so in the meantime it makes sense to find some way to source the peat locally in Ireland rather than having to import it. I agree with the Senator and I hope a common sense solution can be found. I expect it will and the sector is working across numerous Departments and agencies to that end.

The employment permits system is designed to facilitate the entry of appropriately skilled non-European Economic Area, EEA, nationals to fill skills and labour shortages in circumstances where there are no suitably qualified Irish or EEA nationals available to undertake the work and the shortage is genuine. The system is managed through the operation of the critical skills and ineligible occupations lists, which are subject to twice-yearly evidence-based reviews, which is what the Senator referred to. That generally happens in the autumn, in October or November, and we are trying to ensure much of the work is now carried out during August and September, with results to be published in October. The decisions would be made at that stage. The Senator mentioned how people are waiting to see what happens in that respect and we are in the middle of that work.

In May 2018, a pilot quota-based scheme was introduced to remove certain agrifood occupations from the ineligible occupations list. The scheme provided for 2,500 general employment permits for the meat processing industry, 500 for horticulture and 150 for the dairy sector to address the immediate needs of the sectors in sourcing labour. In addition, a quota of 300 permits was granted in respect of meat deboners. To date, this pilot scheme has proved very successful for a range of employers in the sector, including those mentioned by the Senator. The difficulty is that all quotas expired in December 2019.

A review of the occupation lists is currently under way and all submissions are under active consideration, including those from the agrifood sector. I have met many of those representatives. It is envisaged that the review will be finalised in the autumn, and we are targeting early October if possible. We are working through the submissions, with over 26 such submissions from the various sectors and quite a few from agrifood businesses.

Applications for employment permits have seen a significant increase over the course of the year. As of the end of August, some 14,600 applications were received, representing a 35% increase over the same period in 2020 and a 19% increase over 2019, which itself represented an 11-year high in applications. Recently, processing times have been impacted by this significant increase in demand and by the HSE cyberattack, as has been well documented. These factors resulted in a significant additional administrative burden in dealing with applications associated with the July doctor rotation, which were submitted either manually or by other non-standard methods.

That has added to and delayed processing times, which are now above ten weeks and, in some cases, above 15 weeks. We are trying to deal with that. We are putting in place extra staff to process the permit applications that are needed urgently for certain sectors. We try to operate that urgently along with trusted partners.

It is important to point out that when set against other international employment permit regimes, Ireland continues to compare extremely favourably. We managed to keep our schemes open throughout the Covid pandemic. However, my Department is conscious of the recent lengthening of timeframes for processing applications and is taking a range of measures to clear the current backlog as quickly as possible. My Department advises employers to take current timelines into account as part of their recruitment plans. That is something we discussed with the sector earlier in the year. We will make every effort to reduce the timelines as well as dealing with the review of the lists in the next couple of weeks.

I welcome the comments of the Minister of State regarding peat. I know he is well aware of the urgency of the issue. We need a common-sense solution to this issue today. That is how urgent it is. I am not over-emphasising the seriousness of the situation. I welcome the fact that he is allocating additional staff to deal with the backlog for permits. I look forward to the backlog being cleared sooner rather than later.

I again thank the Senator for raising the issue. I assure him that we recognise it is extremely important. An efficient and responsive employment permit system is a critical lever in addressing the economy’s skills needs and in ensuring that talent is attracted to Ireland from non-EEA sources. Its success in this regard is reflected in the flow of skilled non-EEA professionals to the country and the critical role they play in the continued growth of the economy.

The reviews to which I referred are guided by research undertaken by the expert group on future skills needs and the skills and labour market research unit of SOLAS. A public consultation is included. Account is taken of education outputs, sectoral upskilling, training initiatives and known contextual factors such as Brexit and Covid-19. Input is provided by the relevant policy Departments, including the Department of Agriculture, Food and the Marine, and the economic migration interdepartmental group chaired by the Department.

I welcome the opportunity to underscore that Ireland is a leader in linking labour market intelligence to policy development. In our discussions with all the sectors that are experiencing labour issues, I fully explained to them that we expect that, where at all possible, labour is sourced locally from within Ireland, then from within the EU and thereafter moving on to the permit scheme. As part of that, industry and the various sectors have to make every effort to engage with our education partners through all our stakeholders, such as SOLAS, education and training boards, institutes of technology and so on, to try to find new programmes and initiatives to bring forward skills and to upskill staff. In addition, they need to work with Intreo offices through the Department of Social Protection under the pathways to work strategy to access supports to enable them to find new talent, such as among people who are currently on the pandemic unemployment payment or jobseeker's benefit. If there is a genuine need and shortage despite all that effort, we will work with the sector and respond. It should be borne in mind that we have to try to put in place more initiatives to upskill people living here in order to enable them to take up those jobs in the long term and I expect all sectors to work with us on that. The majority of them do so and are trying. It needs an effort from all of us to make this happen in the long term.

Flood Risk Management

The Minister, Deputy Foley, is welcome. I am disappointed the Minister of State, Deputy O'Donovan, is not present but I appreciate the Minister, Deputy Foley, being here to answer my question on flood defences in Galway city. I am sure that in every county there are incidents of flooding in towns or rural areas and I am sure the Minister has visited scenes of helplessness either in the aftermath of or during a flood. It is very difficult for residents or businesses that are dealing with a surge of water and wondering when the day will come that it will not happen again.

As all present are aware, climate change and global warming are increasing the unpredictability of storms. Galway suffers from flooding from the River Corrib, high tides, storm surges, wave overlapping and storm water drains. In conjunction with Galway City Council, the Office of Public Works has funded studies under the catchment flood risk assessment and management, CFRAM, programme, relating to mapping exercises of the area. The previous Minister of State with responsibility for the OPW, Kevin Boxer Moran, announced an allocation of more than €9 million for flood defences. Since then, Arup consultant engineers have been appointed to progress the project and further the identification and development of a preferred scheme. We were told that will take approximately 24 months, which will bring us up to the end of 2023. Planning and development consent will take approximately 18 months, which will bring us up to early 2025, while detailed construction, design and tender will take approximately eight months, bringing us to early 2026. Construction will take up to 36 months, which will overlap with the handover of works that will take approximately 15 months. That will bring us up to the end of 2029 before the works in Galway city will be completed. With the way things are, one could add another year or two to that, depending on processes.

Realistically, can anything be done to speed up that project? There are important requirements under the public spending code, but is there anything that the city council or the Arup consultants can do to speed up that process? Taking, effectively, the guts of a decade before flood defences will be in place in Galway city is too long. I refer to processes around the country. I note the Minister of State, Deputy O'Donovan, has expressed his frustration at the processes and the delays, whether due to planning, judicial review or anything else. In the meantime, the city of Galway is at the mercy of water and the unpredictability of storms. The impact that has on residents and businesses is so distressing and frustrating. I look forward to the reply of the Minister on behalf of the Office of Public Works. Realistically, is there anything that can be done to speed up the process?

I thank the Senator. I will read into the record the reply that has been provided by the Minister of State, Deputy O'Donovan, on the issue raised by the Senator. I appreciate the importance and significance of this issue for the people of Galway. I am pleased to provide an update on the Coirib go Cósta - Galway City Flood Relief Scheme.

Galway City Council, as project sponsor and contracting authority, is leading the development of the Coirib go Cósta - Galway City Flood Relief Scheme for the city, with technical advice and funding being provided by the Office of Public Works. Following a tender process undertaken by the city council, an engineering and environmental consultant was appointed in November 2020 to review and build on the initial proposals in the flood risk management plan, which were developed, as the Senator noted, under the CFRAM programme.

The objective of the Coirib go Cósta project is to assess, design and deliver a viable, cost-effective and environmentally sustainable flood relief scheme for Galway city. The Coirib go Cósta - Galway City Flood Relief Scheme has a preliminary total project budget estimate of €9.5 million and has the objective of protecting more than 940 properties from tidal and river flooding. Among the areas of Galway city that will be protected are the Long Walk, Spanish Arch, Eglinton Canal, Merchants Quay, Raven Terrace, Salthill and the Claddagh. The project website, www.coiribgocosta.ie, provides up-to-date information to those interested in the progress of the scheme.

The project name, Coirib go Cósta - Galway City Flood Relief Scheme, was developed to give the project a sense of identity and place. The title and logo, which appears on the website, identify the link to both river and sea which are part of the fabric of Galway city. The logo includes visuals of Galway cathedral and the Galway hooker to ensure the unique character of the city is central to the project and signifies how the project aims to promote and protect this character.

The scheme has been broken into five distinct stages with indicative timelines, subject to no major technical, planning or legal challenges arising. Indeed, the Senator referred to that. Stage 1 is the options assessment and scheme development. The options assessment and development stage has an estimated completion date of mid-2023. The project is currently at stage 1. Stage 2 is planning and consent. This is when the preparation and submission of planning documentation to An Bord Pleanála will be undertaken, along with the completion of all required environmental assessments and consents. This stage has an estimated completion date of early 2025. Stage 3 is the detailed design and tender process. The detailed design of the preferred scheme will be completed in stage 3, followed by the procurement of contractors for the construction of the scheme. It is estimated that this stage will be completed by late 2025. Stage 4 is scheme construction. The construction stage of the scheme is estimated to take approximately two and a half years and is estimated to run from early 2026 to mid-2028. Stage 5 is handover and completion and is estimated to be finalised in mid-2029.

As stated, the project is currently at stage 1 where options development and initial scheme development take place. Work to date on this stage has consisted of collection and review of available data relating to the scheme and study area, for example, historical flood data, CFRAM data, Irish Water data and Galway City Council data, and additional data collection in the form of surveys. These surveys include invasive species, threshold levels, a wave overtopping study, culverts and drainage, hydrometric gauges and surveys of existing flood defences. The hydrological method statement is currently being finalised. This will form the basis for the hydrological design and hydraulic modelling required for the scheme. Significant work has also been undertaken on stakeholder and public engagement.

A scheme-specific communications strategy has been developed to ensure best practice is implemented for stakeholder and public engagement throughout the project. The opening public engagement process has already been undertaken, beginning on 1 June and finishing on 7 July 2021. This event was widely advertised and was held online due to current Covid-19 restrictions.

I have a quite in-depth reply. Do I have the opportunity to continue?

Perhaps you could provide it to Senator Kyne because I can see there are a number of pages to go.

I will ensure that the Senator gets the reply. However, from my experience in my county, I appreciate the importance of projects of this nature and also the importance of speed, as the Senator outlined. I understand that, so I will certainly communicate that to the Minister of State.

I thank the Minister for the response. I will take this up again with the Minister of State, Deputy O'Donovan. I appreciate the timeline, the work that Galway City Council is doing and the information provided on the Coirib go Cósta website, but it is frustrating. It is quite clear that this project will take the guts of a decade to complete, which is hard to believe and fathom given that it is so important. The city council is on standby to install buffers to prevent flooding, with temporary inflatable devices to prevent the overlapping of the Corrib. The city can be on tenterhooks on occasions when there is a yellow storm warning that might coincide with high tide, so it is very worrying for residents and businesses. However, there is no quick fix unless the entire process can be streamlined.

As the Senator and the general public can appreciate, there has to be a staged process, which is an important process in terms of delivery. However, I appreciate the urgency that is necessary to benefit the immediate difficulty that people are experiencing. I will communicate that to the Minister of State.

Special Educational Needs

I am delighted the Minister is in the Chamber today. As she knows, families and children who depend on school escorts know the importance of that role in ensuring children can go to school in a semi-independent way. School escorts are low-paid workers and many of them have to engage in other work to supplement their income. Often they are special needs assistants, SNAs, or in other work. It has only come to light in the past fortnight to three weeks that the impact of circular 0024/2021, which was issued last April, by my measurement and the measurement of some of the school escorts and school principals who are administering the pay for school escorts, is a unilateral pay cut imposed on many school escorts. Anybody working 230 or fewer hours per term or, on average, 4.6 or fewer hours per day will be worse off because of this new pay arrangement. The new pay arrangement is, effectively, to get rid of the rolling up of the holiday pay, the additional 8% which was incorporated into the basic hourly pay, and to set aside days in respect of holidays.

The Department set out in the circular that this had to be in line with the European working time directive. To be frank, it is not at all apparent why this would be the case. Of course, school escorts were going to get holidays anyway at Christmas, Easter and during the summer. One school principal said to me that the impact of this pay cut for the school escorts in his school amounts to just short of €500 per year, which is a large amount of money for a low-paid worker. I am seeking answers today with regard to the rationale behind the circular and the impact of the circular on school escorts. I note that within the circular there is an assurance that no school escort will be worse off, yet when we do the figures we know that some escorts working 230 or fewer hours per term will be worse off. Very serious questions are being posed here and I am seeking reassurance that no school escort will be worse off because of this change in how school escorts are paid.

I thank the Senator for raising this matter. I support the comments she made about the importance and significance of the work that is done by school escorts. However, before I address the specific issue, I will provide an outline of the extent of the school transport system.

The school transport scheme is a significant operation managed by Bus Éireann on behalf of the Department. In the 2020-21 school year over 114,100 children, including over 14,700 children with special educational needs, were transported daily to primary and post-primary schools throughout the country, at a cost of over €224.7 million in 2020. There exists within the special needs transport scheme the appointment of a school bus escort where a child's care and safety needs while on school transport are such as to require the support of an escort. The purpose of Circular 0024/21 is to inform hourly-paid bus escorts in recognised primary, secondary and community and comprehensive schools of the changes to pay arrangements for hourly-paid bus escorts with effect from the commencement of the 2021-22 academic year.

The hourly rates paid to bus escorts have heretofore included an element in respect of annual leave. This practice is known as "rolled-up holiday pay". The effect of the circular is to cease the practice of paying rolled-up holiday pay to such staff and to introduce a separate payment in respect of holiday pay. This change is being made to bring the method of remunerating such staff into line with the European Union working time directive, following a decision of the European Commission. It is important to note that the change should not result in the overall remuneration of such staff being changed. The pay of a staff member under the new arrangements set out in the circular in respect of any period of employment should be equal to the pay which the staff member would have received for the corresponding period of employment under the pre-existing arrangements.

However, the Department has recently received a number of queries from school authorities who are experiencing anomalies in terms of pay and annual leave when trying to implement the criteria set down in circular 0024/2021. In response to these queries the Department has carried out a full review of the circular and has identified that the calculation method in the circular was based on previous similar circulars for other school staff. However, as bus escorts can work outside usual school hours, this results in an incorrect calculation. The Department apologises for any inconvenience or confusion that has arisen in schools as a result. The Department is currently amending Circular 0024/2021.

It is expected that the revised version will be published next week to ensure the correct approach is followed.

I thank the Minister for her reply. I am most relieved to hear that the issue has been identified and acknowledged within the Department. My only question now concerns the fact that by the time the new circular is circulated and implemented within schools, a number of weeks will have passed. It needs to be ensured that no school escort is out of pocket from the beginning of the school year. I am seeking that reassurance form the Minister.

I thank the Senator again for raising the matter. It is an important matter because there is valuable work ongoing. I can confirm that as this is amended and corrected, no one will be disadvantaged as a consequence of how it arose in the first place.

Public Transport

I thank the Minister for joining us in the House, although I must say it is a real pity that the Minister for Transport is away on business because of the serious nature of the leak that we are discussing today in respect of the MetroLink project.

We are all aware, based on the last presentation from TII which was only two weeks ago, that the MetroLink project was supposed to be completed in 2027. Last Sunday, the Irish Mail on Sunday reported that work on the MetroLink project will not commence until 2027 and will not be completed until 2034. Some of us are old enough to remember when MetroLink was first mooted for north County Dublin. It was officially announced in Transport 21 back in 2005 when the Fianna Fáil-Green Party Government was promoting efficient transport, probably before its time. Now, in 2021, instead of cutting the ribbon to mark the start of work on this particular project, the people of Dublin North are finding out from a leak in a Sunday newspaper that the project is now not going to be delivered until 2034. To be honest, there is no explanation that would make it acceptable to have a delay on top of the delays that we have experienced before.

Public transport is not just a response to the current climate crisis that we are in; it is an immediate need for the people in north County Dublin and north Dublin. We have been waiting on it for bloody well donkey's years. If there is one thing that we have all learnt in the last 18 months in respect of the positives from the pandemic, if there ever were any, it is about the quality of life and how much it has improved. We have learnt that getting back the time we previously spent commuting in the last number of years, because we have been able to work remotely, has enhanced our quality of life. Many of us have also realised that what is important in life is our children, friends and family and spending quality time with them. The hardworking people of Dublin North deserve the opportunity, after years of promises, to be able to avoid what we have seen for many years as the gridlock that starts at CityNorth Hotel just outside Gormanston. From 7 a.m., people are sitting in their cars waiting to get onto the M50 right back up to County Louth. The hard-working people who are travelling to and from work deserve an efficient transport system sometime in the 21st century.

MetroLink is about the efficient movement of people. As far back as when I bought my first house in Swords in 1996, it formed part of the sales brochures of what was to come for Swords. Here we are now, 25 years later, being told by a Sunday newspaper that decisions have been made to push the project back to 2034. We heard a statement from the Minister yesterday that he is committed to providing high-quality public transport in the greater Dublin area, that the national development plan includes these projects and that following consultation with his Government colleagues, a report will be published in the next few weeks.

I spent four years sitting around a Cabinet table and I know the kind of language that is designed to avoid giving bad news. The kind of language that was used yesterday does not provide us with the confidence we need that the MetroLink north project is on track for completion within a reasonable timeframe. If it genuinely is the Government's commitment to deliver top-notch public transport, we need somebody to come out and tell us definitively that what was reported in the Irish Mail on Sunday is wrong and inaccurate. We need dates of when the new development plan is coming out and an absolute commitment to the timelines that we are working on currently, which is a commencement this year or next year of a planning application and an actual live, working, physical metro train running from Swords, through Dublin Airport and into Dublin that will be active in 2027.

I thank the Senator for the opportunity to address this issue in the House today. As the Senator has already acknowledged, I am reading this into the record on behalf of the Minister, Deputy Eamon Ryan.

Improving public transport services and infrastructure is central to improving citizens' quality of life and addressing our climate action challenge. This Government is committed to a fundamental change in the nature of transport in Ireland. As a Government, we need to provide more options to people so that they can make the switch to sustainable mobility. Within the greater Dublin area, MetroLink is certainly one of these options. It will facilitate the development of a better integrated public transport system - a system that will enable people to switch between bus, light rail, metro and rail, all under the umbrella of a revamped and integrated fare structure. We know this challenge will be an enormous effort and in many ways, MetroLink as a project represents that enormity. It will likely be the largest ever publicly funded project in the history of the State.

I have seen the media reports of recent days and I think it is useful to clarify what the current position is in relation to MetroLink. There has been no Government decision to defer the project. Actually, the project faces two imminent and important milestones in the coming months, and these milestones will determine its progress in the coming years. First, there is Government approval of the preliminary business case, and second, there is the submission of a railway order application to An Bord Pleanála. There has not been any impact on either of these two hugely significant milestones over recent days.

On the first milestone, the Department of Transport has received the preliminary business case. This represents decision gate 1 under the public spending code. That preliminary business case is currently under review. For major projects like MetroLink, the public spending code requires a Government decision. The Minister for Transport expects to seek such a decision in the near future. If this is approved by the Government, it will allow MetroLink to move into the statutory planning system, subject to the completion of the necessary planning and environmental documentation. The second impending milestone is the submission of a railway order application for MetroLink. That application requires the finalisation of an extensive set of documentation, including environmental impact assessment reports. That work is ongoing in relation to both projects.

The Minister for Transport informed the House last week of his understanding that an extensive body of work remains in relation to finalising the preliminary design, completing the required environmental impact assessment reports and closing out property referencing issues. The Minister stated his understanding that this work would be completed during the first quarter of next year. Subject to the Government decision I mentioned earlier, the project will then be ready to seek planning permission. An indicative timeline was published in the very early stages of the public consultation on MetroLink, which indicated a railway order application could potentially be made by 2019 and construction could commence by 2021. However, as I have explained, it is the case that no railway order application has been made yet and work is still ongoing to finalise the application. Clearly, therefore, construction work will not commence in 2021 and realistically, any objective timeline for the start of construction must await greater certainty on planning permission.

I can reassure the Senator that the key focus at project level is to get the necessary documentation finalised to allow for a planning application and the key focus at departmental level is to conclude the review of the preliminary business case. I am happy to confirm that work is continuing in relation to both, with important progress expected in the coming months.

I do not want to be disrespectful to the Minister for Education and I thank her for coming in to deliver the message from the Minister for Transport. Given that confidence has been shaken so badly in the last few days, what we need is something more definitive than ambition. We have been listening to ambition since the 1970s. The Minister laid out the timelines and how they have slipped already, long before the Irish Mail on Sunday told us what they think they know.

The railway order application was supposed to have first been applied for in the third quarter of 2019. We are now being told that the work for the application is still not finalised. You would have to wonder what, in God's name, is causing the delay. I know that when the public consultation finished in 2018, there were objections raised by concerned residents about small issues that needed to be tweaked, hence the report that we got from TII only two weeks ago on its response to those concerns. I commend TII, because it really did listen and it is acting on people's concerns.

Here we are now, two full years after we were supposed to be applying for the railway order, saying that the work is not complete and we cannot submit a planning application until that work is complete. What we need to hear from the Minister for Transport, and we need to hear it soon, is when that application will be finished. When will the business case actually be accepted so that we can move to the stage where we know we are secure with money? When will the planning permission application actually be submitted to An Bord Pleanála? I am not talking about some wishy-washy hopefulness for the future. I am asking for actual dates so we can restore the confidence that the people of north Dublin have in delivering this project on behalf of this Government.

I thank the Senator for her comments. There has been no Government decision to defer MetroLink. It is the intention of the Minister, Deputy Eamon Ryan, that construction would commence in the lifetime of the Government, noting the requirements of planning permission and the necessary Government approval. As I said earlier, I understand an extensive body of work remains to finalise preliminary design, completing the required environmental impact assessment reports and closing out property referencing issues before the railway order application will be ready for submission to An Bord Pleanála.

Aspects of this work were impacted by Covid-19 restrictions earlier in the year. I understand it is now likely to be quarter 1 of 2022 before the railway order application will be ready with submissions to An Bord Pleanála expected shortly thereafter. At the moment, the issues relating to finalising the application are separate from the review of the preliminary business case as is required under relevant legislation and the public spending code. However, Government approval is required to allow the application be submitted to An Bord Pleanála. On the basis of the current timeline it would appear likely that Government will consider the matter well in advance of the railway order application being ready for submission. Again, I thank the Senator for the opportunity to address the House on this matter and for her ongoing interest in and support of MetroLink. I will communicate to the Minister, Deputy Eamon Ryan, the urgency the Senator apportions to this issue.

International Agreements

I take it the Minister, Deputy Eamon Ryan, will not be here to respond to my matter either. This is not my first time questioning the Government and being unable to address the Minister responsible.

I again ask about the Government's position regarding the Energy Charter Treaty. I was disappointed by the response I received the last time that Ireland is happy to continue to throw its lot into a reform process that is going nowhere and that fails to address the core problems in the treaty.

Putting aside the fact that change to the treaty requires unanimity and Japan has ruled out any changes to it, the proposals brought forward by the EU Commission fall way short of what is needed. The EU amendments will lock in protections for gas plants, biomass and biogas. There are no proposals for a climate carve-out from investor protections. The EU is leaving the tribunal process, the lack of transparency, the conflicts of interest of the arbitrators and the high awards to the parallel process of reform being undertaken by the UN for which again there is no consensus internationally.

Since I last raised this matter in the House, the European Court of Justice has confirmed what those of us who follow these matters expected which is that following the earlier Achmea ruling, investor state dispute tribunals are not compatible with EU law. Does Ireland still want to continue to spend the critical time we should be using for climate action on negotiating changes to the Energy Charter Treaty?

To date, the investor-state dispute settlement, ISDS, tribunals have ignored the previous European Court of Justice rulings and dismissed member states' claims that the tribunals have no jurisdiction on intra-EU disputes. Since the earlier Achmea ruling, despite an agreement by all EU governments to object to ISDS in intra-EU disputes, 48 ISDS cases have been taken against Spain and it is facing €880 million in compensation awards from renewable energy firms. The Netherlands is facing multi-billion-euro compensation claims by EU investors including RWE which is currently investing in the energy sector in Ireland. Law firms are chomping at the bit to exploit Brexit so that companies can bypass the intra-EU ruling.

Surely it is time for Ireland to follow Italy and leave the Energy Charter Treaty. It has a 20-year zombie clause that ties governments to its provisions even after they leave, but Italy is now five years into its 20-year sunset clause while we are shackling our wagon to a reform process that is going nowhere and losing critical time to act on climate change. All the reports from the reform process suggest that there is no progress. France and Spain have called for withdrawal to be considered and are looking for support from their EU counterparts. I cannot understand why the Minister, as a member of the Green Party, which is completely opposed to ISDS, is not leading the charge for Ireland to leave the Energy Charter Treaty.

The nationwide smoky coal ban was delayed because of legal threats on behalf of foreign investors by the Matheson law firm, despite approximately 1,300 people dying prematurely every year as a result of air pollution. I believe the treaty was used to delay that action. While the ban will now be introduced because it has been extended to other fuels, the truth of the matter is that the treaty had a chilling effect on the Government's right to regulate.

I ask the Minister to outline what Ireland’s position is following the ruling of the European Court of Justice this month. Has it changed? Will it support leaving the treaty?

I thank the Senator for raising the issue. The Energy Charter Treaty is a political declaration on international energy co-operation with 53 signatories and contracting parties, including all EU member states, except Italy. It was signed in 1994 and entered into legal force in 1998. I regret that the Minister, Deputy Eamon Ryan, is not present, but I read into the record for the Senator's benefit the reply he has issued.

The treaty's provisions focus on four broad areas: the protection of foreign investments, based on the extension of national treatment or most-favoured nation treatment, whichever is more favourable, and protection against key non-commercial risks; non-discriminatory conditions for trade in energy materials, products and energy-related equipment based on World Trade Organization, WTO, rules, and provisions to ensure reliable cross-border energy transit flows through pipelines, grids and other means of transportation; the resolution of disputes between participating states, and in the case of investments between investors and host states; and the promotion of energy efficiency, and attempts to minimise the environmental impact of energy production and use.

The treaty is, therefore, designed to promote energy security through the operation of more open and competitive energy markets, while respecting the principles of sustainable development and sovereignty over energy resources.

Negotiations to modernise the treaty are currently under way, led by the European Commission, primarily to align with Paris Agreement objectives by reforming the protections provided by the treaty to carbon-intensive energy infrastructure.

The recent ruling by the Court of Justice of the European Union referenced by the Senator has since determined that the arbitration system under the treaty cannot be used to claim compensation in intra-EU disputes.

The court confirmed that despite the multilateral character of the treaty, and the fact that it also governs relationships with non-EU countries, "the preservation of the autonomy and specific character of EU law precludes the Energy Charter Treaty from being able to impose the same obligations on the Member States among themselves".

Since the ruling would likely not preclude the use of the treaty arbitration process for intra-EU cases heard elsewhere in the world, there have been further calls from several member states for a co-ordinated withdrawal from the treaty. It should be noted, however, that there is a 20-year sunset clause under which treaty terms would continue to apply. A co-ordinated withdrawal would, therefore, need to manage this risk.

Ireland's position remains to support the Commission's efforts to negotiate meaningful reform of the treaty in the first instance, while reserving the option to support a co-ordinated withdrawal should these efforts fail and if considered appropriate by Government to achieve our national renewable energy and climate ambitions.

I thank the Minister. I say this with no disrespect to her - I appreciate she came in to read the statement - but it is deeply disappointing that Ireland will continue to push ahead with the reform process that is going nowhere. Japan is not for moving and change requires unanimity. The European Commission's proposals, which are supported by the EU Council, meaning that our Minister would have been part of those proposals, do not address Article 16 of the Energy Charter Treaty, which clearly states that irrespective of other international agreements to which a country may be party, including the Paris agreement, the provisions of the treaty, if they are more favourable to the investor, are the provisions that must apply. When it comes to intra-EU disputes, arbitration has dismissed those rulings. Brexit presents an opportunity for investors to set up in Britain and bypass the intra-EU process. Every minute that we spend on a modernisation process, which does not even address the systemic issues in the Energy Charter Treaty, is a minute that is wasted and lost to climate action. I appeal to the Government to show the leadership we need on climate action and to leave the treaty.

I again thank the Senator. The issue she has raised will be communicated to the Minister, Deputy Eamon Ryan. I appreciate the points she has raised and the conviction with which she delivered them. I have every confidence that the Minister will revert to her in due course.

Childcare Services

I thank the Minister for coming in to respond to my Commencement matter which concerns the national childcare scheme. This scheme has a stated objective of improving children's outcomes, supporting lifelong learning, making work pay, reducing child poverty and tangibly reducing the cost of quality childcare for thousands of families throughout Ireland. They are very noble objectives and I know the Minister is very passionate about delivering on them. I thank him not just for coming in here today but for meeting me and early years childcare service providers from my constituency in Dublin Central.

Apart from supporting children and parents, the national childcare scheme is at its core a labour activation scheme. While that is an important objective as well, it is doing a disservice to some of the most vulnerable and disadvantaged children in our society and my constituency. I thank the Minister for meeting the Dublin City Community Co-op. This involved the Community After Schools project in Dublin 1, the Daughters of Charity St. Mary's Early Years Service in Dublin 1, Lourdes Youth and Community Services in Dublin 1, the North Wall Community Development Project in Dublin 1, and the Robert Emmet Community Development Project and the South Inner City Community Development Association from the south inner city. The Minister has given a lot of his time and has listened to them and commissioned a review of the national childcare scheme, which is very important.

However, those six services are already catering for approximately 300 young people and have a waiting list of more than 200. Estimates are that a minimum of 50% of the children attending those childcare services come from significantly disadvantaged backgrounds. The disadvantage can be multiple challenges. It can be everything from housing poverty to the extremes of housing homelessness to mental illness to physical illness to systemic intergenerational disadvantage. The Minister is passionate about breaking that cycle of disadvantage. I know he understands and values the potential power of changing people's lives that early childhood education can provide and that these childcare service providers are not providing a babysitting service. They are not even just providing an education service; it is a whole social infrastructure and social wrap-around service.

As the national childcare scheme applies to them, the funding model and accessing the funding is not equal for all children. There is an advantage in terms of the way the funding is distributed to the children of parents who are in employment because, at its core, it is a labour activation model. The Minister and I know the right supports during these early years can make life-determining outcome changes for these children. I commend the Minister on providing support through the employment wage subsidy scheme, EWSS, this year but we are looking at a cliff edge. We are looking at the end of the EWSS. Longer term, we need real sustainable funding. I believe we need a DEIS-type model for the early years sector and childcare services. We need to see it as part of the formal education system. I hope the Minister can provide the House with an update on how his work is progressing in this area.

I thank the Senator for raising this issue, which my Department and I are monitoring on an ongoing basis and through formal reviews. I have met with the Senator and services in her area and I know she is particularly engaged on this issue.

The national childcare scheme, NCS, represents the first ever statutory entitlement to financial support for early learning and childcare. It marks a shift away from previous schemes, which were based on medical card and social protection entitlements, to a progressive system of universal and income-based subsidies. Under the NCS, significantly more families are eligible for support. The NCS is designed so that those on the lowest incomes receive the greatest support. It is also designed to ensure access provided is at a level necessary to support positive child development outcomes regardless of whether parents are in work. This approach is taken in other jurisdictions.

Where parents are not engaged in work or study, the NCS subsidises up to 20 hours per week. Where parents are engaged in work or study, the NCS subsidises up to 45 hours per week. The definition of work or study is broad, covering all forms of work or study arrangements - full-time, part-time, week-on, week-off, and zero-hour contracts - making the scheme as flexible as possible. Indeed, the minimum hours required to engage in work or study to qualify for enhanced hours is very low at just two hours per week. With this design feature, the NCS attempts to strike the right balance between enabling access to early learning and childcare services, given the benefits this confers on children, and supporting parents to engage in work or study, given the impact this has on alleviating the poverty that impacts so many children.

I understand there will be children in exceptional circumstances for whom these supports are not enough. This is why we have the sponsorship process. Under the sponsorship arrangements, these children's families can avail of up to 45 hours free early learning and childcare with no work or study requirements to be met. I know there were some issues in the initial roll-out of the sponsorship process. I have engaged with Tusla and some of the other sponsorship bodies. We now know that more than 2,000 children are sponsored in services throughout the country. I expect this number will continue to grow.

The NCS is designed to be dynamic and responsive to decisions of Government. The scheme has been in place for almost 22 months. This has been during Covid when everything has been so badly disrupted. My Department has engaged an external consultant to review the first year of the scheme. This includes its usage by socioeconomically disadvantaged families and providers serving socioeconomically disadvantaged communities. I specifically asked for this element to be included in the review in light of the concerns raised with me by the Senator and others over the past year. This review is almost finalised and I will be considering its findings with a view to ensuring it meets its policy objectives and functions in the best interests of families and children.

A separate but related piece of work involves the expert group that has been meeting in respect of designing a new funding model for the sector. This is due to report in November. This group has been tasked with designing mechanisms to deliver additional funding to ensure greater levels of affordability, accessibility and quality of early learning and childcare and sustainability. This is also looking at the issue referenced by the Senator, namely, the introduction of a DEIS-type model for childcare. That review will arrive in November but I am very conscious of the upcoming budget. I am aware of the high-level recommendations this review will bring forward, and I am engaging with the Department of Public Expenditure and Reform. I have told it that childcare is my priority in terms of my Department's budgetary bid this year. I continue to engage with the Department of Public Expenditure and Reform on the wider funding question.

I thank the Minister for his response. It is certainly encouraging, especially his personal commitment to the early years childcare sector. I welcome his broader review of the sector. The NCS resulted in a funding cut of more than 30% for them. I know this will be captured in the review and report, and I acknowledge the funding that has been put in place during Covid. It is critical. We need to raise this with the Leader and possibly have her write to the Minister for Public Expenditure and Reform on this issue. We need to ensure adequate funding is provided to the Minister for Children, Equality, Disability, Integration and Youth and his Department to ensure every child has access to adequate and appropriate early years childcare. The difference it can make to the outcomes in a child's life is enormous.

Those providing childcare services are organisations that go way beyond what the State could ever pay them in terms of care, investment and support, not just in education but in the social welfare of these children and their families.

Throughout Covid we have supported all services and through the employment wage subsidy scheme we have also had a specific sustainability fund for services facing issues due to Covid or due to unintended consequences of some parts of the national childcare scheme. This fund has been providing additional supports to some services, particularly in areas of disadvantage.

The State puts a significant amount of money into the childcare sector, at €630 million every year, but we all know that compared with other European countries this is not enough. My determination is to continue to grow the investment we put into that sector. We have to ensure we are getting results in terms of quality, a reduction of cost for parents, the sustainability of services and the pay that childcare professionals get. I am looking to address this wider issue in the budget. I am particularly conscious of the difficulties faced by providers in areas of disadvantage. This specific issue is also a matter on which I am engaging with the Department of Public Expenditure and Reform.

On behalf of the House I congratulate the Minister on his recent engagement to his partner, Ray. Every good wish for the future.

I thank the Acting Chair. I appreciate it.

Sitting suspended at 11.42 a.m. and resumed at 12 noon.