Nithe i dtosach suíonna - Commencement Matters

Defective Building Materials

I welcome the Minister to the House to discuss the mica and pyrite redress scheme. I thank him for the time and attention he has given us thus far and I also thank the Taoiseach and other parties to Government. The report of the working group released last week has caused an awful lot of distress to families in County Donegal and probably County Mayo. The Minister is well aware of the mental health issues and grievances of and difficulties faced by families and this seems to be adding to them in terms of the sum of €3.2 billion that has been put out there, which had not been discussed within that forum. I spoke to some members of the working group earlier. There is a feeling within the group that it is some effort to make this extortionate, which it in no way is.

All they are seeking is what other members of the public received in the past and to have their homes rectified. That is the first thing I want the Minister to address in that regard.

There are many other issues in the scheme that have to be addressed, such as the regulations that currently exist and also with respect to HomeBond. This is something I want to Minister to keep at the back of his mind. They need to be addressed to ensure this does not happen in the future. There is also mention of €350,000 in the report last week. Building costs in Donegal have increased by 40% to 50% in the last nine months alone. If one were to incorporate that increase against the old ceiling of €275,000, the sum of €350,000 would not address the cost required in Donegal. I hope any new proposals in the scheme take cognisance of that.

Could the Minister inform the House when he expects to meet the three party leaders? Can he inform us of any timeline regarding any changes in the scheme that he intends to make and announce? Will planning exemption be a part of the scheme? If so and if a family wishes to downsize to a smaller scale of the same house within the original print of the house, will they be part of any such exemption? With regard to the square footage caps of the old scheme, is there an intention now to set them aside and to go purely on a cost basis? As I said, I understand the difficulties with the budget over the next week or so, but I believe the Minister can alleviate many of the fears people have with regard to, first, the timeframe for the announcement and, second, the report last week and the difficulties it has caused.

I thank Senator Blaney for raising this important issue. First, I commend the residents and their representatives on the input they had into the working group. I inherited the original scheme. The scheme was agreed and launched in 2020. One of the first visits I made when I was appointed Minister in summer 2020 was to Donegal, where I visited homeowners. I met residents in Buncrana, where I announced that the scheme the previous Government had brought forward would be a multi-annual scheme. I want to assure people that whatever changes happen will happen across the board.

I also said in Buncrana that day, and the Senator was there, that any scheme I have seen in the past has always evolved. It is only by engaging with the scheme that we find out what the deficiencies are and, indeed, if there are positives in it in some areas. That has occurred. I said in a statement last week after I met the residents that the scheme as it is currently constituted does not work as intended and must be greatly enhanced. As Minister, I committed to doing that. When residents of Donegal and Mayo came to Dublin in the summer I met them. I committed to setting up a time-bound working group, and I did that. The working group was to get their views on board by meeting with the most senior officials in my Department, from Secretary General, assistant secretary general to principal officers, to go through every aspect of the scheme and the issues the residents had found with it. We did that. The residents asked for an extension to the end of September, which we were happy to give, to get separate engineering advice. I brought the Housing Agency into the process. I have said from the start, even in Donegal in July 2020, that I believe the Housing Agency should have a role in this, and I still believe that. I believe it will.

The working group report was published last Friday. It was circulated to all Opposition spokespersons on Monday seeking the input of other parties into it. I am acutely aware that residents have been disappointed with aspects of the report and some of the commentary on it. I committed to the residents that their full request, as in the residents' submission, would be one of the options that would go to the Government as well and would be published as part of the working group. The other aspect was effectively a summary of the discussions that were held to date. That is there, and I wish to reiterate to all Senators that nothing is off the table. Our job now, which I said directly to the working group when I attended the meeting on 29 September, is to work through the options and through the enhancements. I will do that. In what I will bring forward to the three party leaders and to the Government I will be proposing significant enhancements to the scheme that was brought forward by the previous Government, which committed at the time to a projected expenditure of approximately €1.4 billion. Any increases or enhancements to the scheme, and this is understood by the residents too, will lead to a further increase there, and I will have to get that agreed by the Cabinet. I am committed to doing that. We are working through the details now.

The Taoiseach is in Slovenia at present. I expect to meet with the party leaders, the Taoiseach, the Tánaiste and the Minister, Deputy Eamon Ryan, in the coming days. We are preparing a submission and a memorandum to bring forward to the Cabinet. There are a number of issues on which we have made real progress. For example, removing upfront costs has been agreed, including rent cost, as well as clarifying storage. Planning exemptions have also been agreed and, importantly, a guarantee on second grant access, something that was sought, and the role of the Housing Agency. Very significant progress has been made on many of the serious issues that were raised directly by the residents and Members of the Oireachtas, such as Senator Blaney, in Donegal and Mayo. I will bring the defective block arrangements for improvements for the scheme to the Cabinet in the coming weeks. I have to get agreement for that at the Cabinet. It is not a decision I can make alone. However, I have kept the Taoiseach, the Tánaiste, the Minister, Deputy Eamon Ryan, and the Ministers for Finance and Public Expenditure and Reform abreast of the work we are doing and they all have been very supportive of that.

I want residents to be able to get on with their lives. I want them to have hope and trust in a scheme that they can actually access, and for them to know that in the terrible tragedy that they have been living through, which is not of their making, the Government is here to help them to get their lives back on track. I am committed to doing that. Again, I thank the Senator for raising the matter this morning.

I thank the Minister for his comprehensive reply. It is very welcome, as is the Minister's first-hand engagement on the scheme from day one. It is very much appreciated. I do not believe we would be where we are today without his input and dedication. I wish to refer again to the planning exemption. Is there any further detail about that, particularly whether somebody who is downsizing can be part of it? Lastly, can the Minister give any timelines at this stage regarding the final outcome?

On the timeline, I do not want to delay the process at all. We have a great deal of work to do on foot of receiving the working group report. I have sought submissions and views from the Opposition parties, which I believe is important. I did that with the Housing for All plan, and many other parties sent in submissions. It is important to know that we have a consensus on this and how we are approaching it because whatever scheme is put in place will be with us for a number of years and will endure past the term of this Oireachtas into the next one. It is important to do that. I am hoping and aiming for the next two to three weeks, but I have to get Cabinet approval as well. We are working through that and I will keep the Senator and the residents fully informed of how we are going on that. I again thank them for their engagement.

With regard to planning exemptions, they are for same homes. We are looking at homes that are smaller as well. If people are right sizing for a smaller home than they had already, we are looking at being able to exempt that. We have given a firm commitment on planning exemptions for same builds. There are no upfront costs now. I will take this opportunity to say that any changes we bring forward, which are going to be significant, will apply to anybody who currently has an application in the scheme and will apply to any county that comes into the scheme. Finally, I believe this will also require legislation. I have said that to the residents' group. We cannot just keep adding counties to it. We are going to look at a wider approach because, unfortunately, it is not just Donegal and Mayo. Other counties are affected by this, and I am also mindful of others who have defects in their homes.

I will keep the Senator and the Seanad fully informed of progress. It is an absolute priority to get these changes through and to bring them to the Cabinet.

I thank the Minister for coming to the House to answer that important question.

As he said, many thousands of families need a resolution to this to allow them to get on with their lives and move forward. I thank the Minister for coming in.

Housing Provision

I thank the Minister of State for coming to the House to take this Commencement matter. The Minister of State at the Department of Housing, Local Government and Heritage, Deputy Peter Burke, was unable to attend due to prior commitments in his schedule but I appreciate the Minister of State, Deputy Feighan, taking this Commencement matter. What I am proposing is a sensible, proactive and reasonable measure which would increase the supply of smaller homes to enable individuals and couples to right-size into them. The Housing for All policy document commits the Government to, "Increase the housing options available to older people to facilitate ageing in place with dignity and independence, including policies and operational supports for older people considering right-sizing to smaller housing homes". It goes on to state that there will be a specific focus on the delivery of housing which is appropriately sized and in line with age friendly and universal design principles.

Naturally the policy position around right-sizing will be optional. Unfortunately many scaremongering narratives seem to take hold when discussing this topic, which can be emotive for some people and understandably so. Nobody will be forced to move homes but incentives may become available which would make it financially attractive for some to do so. That being said, not everybody is interested in the financial side of things. I have spoken to many older individuals and couples in recent times who have told me they are ready to right-size because the house they are in has become too big for them to manage and maintain but they cannot find a suitable smaller property to move into. This has the impact of not being able to free up larger housing stock for families.

One of the barriers which has been brought to my attention by two builders in Waterford is the density requirement, which is being rightly requested by planners in line with national policy. Waterford has been designated as one of the five main centres for 50% to 60% population growth out to 2040 and much of that will result in compact development within the outer ring road. However, 35 units to per hectare is not always conducive to the delivery of appropriately sized housing schemes that are specifically geared at older persons. That is why I am asking for a circular to be issued to all local authorities to inform them that the density requirements can be relaxed for land zoned for residential use when purpose built housing for older persons is being proposed.

I also want to acknowledge the Trojan work done by my Fine Gael colleagues, including former Minister of State, Jim Daly, and the Minister of State, Deputy English, for their work on the development of the Housing Options for Our Ageing Population policy document. That policy acknowledges that as people age, their housing needs are likely to change. It states:

A key principle underpinning the Government housing policy is to support older people to live in their own home with dignity and independence for as long as possible. The aim is to ensure that older people will have greater choice by developing a range of housing options that are suited to their needs, so they can plan ahead and, insofar as possible, choose the right home for them.

However, in order to achieve those goals we have to look at giving specific guidance to local authorities to relax the density requirements where such proposals are forthcoming, particularly for our urban areas. I hope that request can be acceded to.

On behalf of the Minister for Housing, Local Government and Heritage, I thank the Senator for raising this matter. It is important to clarify that current planning guidance seeks to ensure that the diverse needs of our society are catered for by facilitating a greater mix of housing typologies. This includes a choice of accommodation types for older people. It is a key objective of Government to encourage a shift in the pattern and format of future development towards more compact urban growth to support proper planning and sustainable development and to address climate change. Compact growth is the first national strategic objective in the national planning framework and the national development plan.

Guidelines on sustainable residential development in urban areas were originally published by the Department of Environment, Heritage and Local Government in 2009 to build on density guidelines that date back to 1999. This is to enable more sustainable patterns of development, also taking into account the critical need to ensure the availability and choice of housing, including for older people as the Senator said. The efficient use of urban land, existing service amenities and infrastructure and issues such as traffic congestion, competitiveness and public health also need to be taken into account.

In terms of the issues raised, it may be helpful to set out some key information. Guidelines require net housing densities of more than 50 dwellings per hectare in central urban areas and 35 or more dwellings per hectare in larger towns, especially those close to cities and in the suburban areas of cities. Achieving 35 dwellings and over per hectare is essential to cater for the needs of a more diverse range of households, including smaller households such as older couples trading down or younger people who may wish to live in apartments, thereby creating choice and flexibility for people to continue living in their communities as their housing requirements change. The guidelines also provide scope for densities below 35 dwellings per hectare, especially in smaller towns and villages. To emphasise this, the Department of Housing, Local Government and Heritage issued a circular to all planning authorities early this year to provide clarity on the interpretation and application of the guidance and to enable lower residential densities in certain circumstances. This is in advance of issuing updated density guidelines that will address sustainable residential development in urban areas and which is progressing in the Department. Updated guidelines will allow for a greater range of densities and housing typologies relative to context and location. This is to provide for greater diversity in urban and regional contexts as elements of the housing building sector have tended to remain focused on the more traditional housing formats, rather than developing new products tailored to changing demographic needs.

Providing a range of housing options is a Government priority and for older people who are committed to ensuring that they are supported to stay in their homes and communities for as long as possible. This is in line with the vision for an age friendly Ireland in which older people can live long and healthy lives, participate in their communities and have a range of housing options and health supports available to them to make this possible. Housing for All, launched earlier this month, targets the delivery of more homes of all types for people with different housing needs. The housing needs of older people are specifically addressed in several actions in Housing for All.

I acknowledge that densities of below 35 per hectare are permitted in smaller towns and villages and I welcome that circular the Department issued. The point I am making in this Commencement matter is that 35 per hectare is not conducive to attractive housing units for older persons. I am talking about the likes of a group scheme of 15 bungalows with shared garden areas and community spaces that are managed by a management body. I know from speaking to constituents that these are the type of developments that older individuals and couples want to move into but we have to address the density requirement.

Otherwise, all the visions and policy documents in the world will not result in units on the ground. I acknowledge that in his reply, the Minister of State said the Minister is advancing updated guidance that will enable a broader range of density and housing types. I understand that he has also met the Office of the Planning Regulator regarding this matter. I ask that updated guidance be issued to local authorities on this issue for urban areas without delay because it takes time for units to go through the planning process. If we want to see older people downsizing and having the option of rightsizing, we must facilitate that change.

I will bring to the Minister the Senator's concerns that a density of 35 dwellings per hectare is not conducive to the provision of housing for older persons. We need to provide a greater choice of housing types for older people in their communities. This includes new typologies that tie in with compact growth objectives to address the efficient use of urban land where services and supports are available.

The Senator rightly said that the current density guidelines allow for more flexibility in many circumstances. This has been clarified by the circular. The Minister is advancing updated guidance relating to a broader range of density and housing types. This is one of the many actions arising from Housing for All. As the Senator said, hopefully we can address the housing needs of older people. This can be another key to ensuring we can deliver under Housing for All.

I thank Senator Cummins for raising this important issue. Unless we build these facilities, we cannot downsize in the first place. They must also be attractive enough for people to want to move into them.

Electricity Generation

The cost of energy is going through the roof, mainly due to the rising cost of gas. Curiously, several energy suppliers that claim to offer 100% renewable electricity are also raising their prices. How are companies that are supposedly 100% renewable exposed to the volatility in the gas market? At least part of the answer has to do with the fact that they are not 100% renewable at all. For that reason, I will talk about greenwashing by electricity suppliers in this country. When a person signs up with a 100% renewable supplier, he or she is probably expecting that his or her electricity will be generated from wind, solar or hydro power but in reality, 100% renewable involves suppliers getting electricity from whatever dirty fossil fuel source they like and buying pieces of paper to offset the non-renewable electricity. These are called guarantees of origin. One guarantee of origin corresponds to a megawatt hour of renewable electricity. It is a financial document. If a supplier wants 100% renewable electricity, it simply buys from a producer that offers the guarantees alongside the sales. It seems straightforward, but it is not because there does not seem to be a link between the physical electricity and the guarantees. An energy supplier offering 100% renewable can simply buy the guarantees from anywhere in Europe but the actual electricity delivered will still come from the power plants in Ireland. For example, a consumer on a 100% renewable tariff could be getting coal-fired power from Moneypoint. On paper, it will read as 100% renewable because the supplier has bought a guarantee from as far away as Greece, regardless of the fact that there is no interconnector between Greece and Ireland. It is this unbundling from actual usage that lets companies greenwash dirty electricity.

It is a hugely damaging practice because people have a right to know where their energy is coming from. If they want to avoid fossil fuels, there is no way of knowing which energy company does not use them. Several of the 18 suppliers whose fuel mixes were disclosed this week by the Commission for Regulation of Utilities, CRU, claim to be 100% renewable but this is simply not true. Customers are being misled. This system disincentivises real investment in renewable energy. Why would a supplier bother investing in actual renewable energy when it can invest buttons in pieces of paper in order to claim to be 100% renewable? It can cost as little as 30 cent to greenwash a family's annual consumption of 3 MWh. Some generators enjoy the trickle of income but according to the UK regulator Ofgem, there is no evidence that 100% renewable tariffs materially support the production of renewable energy over and above what is already in place so it is bad for consumer confidence. We know we need a lot more renewable energy in this country but in many parts, its reputation is already in tatters so playing games with bits of paper brings the renewable energy industry into further disrepute.

Big tech companies like Amazon are also buying these guarantees of origin to cover the non-renewable energy they use in Ireland while their web services support logistics for greater and faster extraction of fossil fuels. These practices are also bad for those suppliers that are actually making a stand and buying more from renewables. Regardless of what efforts they make to buy actual electricity from renewable sources, there will always be others that will simply greenwash by buying these certificates. This is a murky problem that has to do with how energy suppliers are taking advantage of loopholes in the way they report their annual emissions in the fuel mix disclosure. There is a dire need for clear definitions and transparency. What is the Government going to do to address this in the interests of transparency for customers?

I thank Senator Boylan for raising this very important issue. I listened with interest to the points she raised. The Government will continue to monitor the issue of greenwashing to allow businesses and consumers to make informed choices. The CRU plays a very important role in ensuring that electricity companies are transparent on the source of their electricity through the publication of their annual fuel mix information paper and through the requirement that electricity suppliers publish their own fuel mix on all bills issued to customers.

As we aim for a climate-neutral economy by 2050, the low-carbon transition has become a defining force for business. For Irish companies, this means opportunities to compete and grow as global investment in a greener future accelerates. Enterprises that make the move early to reduce their carbon footprint will be more resilient to climate change impacts, including the rising costs of mitigation against transition risks such as policy changes, reputational impacts, shifts in customer preference and evolving supply chain requirements. Businesses that take action to mitigate the risks of climate change and those with environmental credentials can benefit from increased access to environmentally conscious customers, markets and workers; green equity and loan funding; and support from local communities. The European Commission proposal in April 2021 to amend the non-financial reporting directive and to introduce a corporate sustainability reporting directive was welcome. The Department of Enterprise, Trade and Employment is engaging with the EU regarding these developments.

Companies giving a false impression of their environmental impacts or benefits make it difficult for businesses and consumers to make informed decisions and increase the uncertainty about how to best tackle the climate crisis. The 2009 internal market in electricity directive contained a provision, which, following transposition into Irish law, required the CRU to ensure electricity suppliers provide reliable fuel mix information on all bills and promotional materials issued to customers. The 2019 internal market in electricity directive underpins the fuel mix disclosure. The CRU publishes an annual information paper setting out the fuel mix disclosure and the CO2 emissions for suppliers licensed in Ireland and operating in the single electricity market. It includes an all-island fuel mix.

Electricity suppliers publish their own fuel mix information, as well as the all-island information, on all bills no later than two months after the publication of this information paper. This provides consumers with information on the recent environmental impact of electricity from the supplier compared with the all-island average. A supplier's fuel mix information must be presented on bills in accordance with certain requirements. Where fuel mix information is presented on the back of a consumer bill, reference must be made to it on the front of the bill. CO2 information should be given in units of grams of CO2 per kW. In addition to fuel mixed disclosure requirements, the CRU's decision paper on the regulation of green-sourced products in the electricity retail market governs the display of fuel mix information for suppliers who offer green-sourced products.

Suppliers may use a guarantee of origin certificate, which is an instrument defined in the renewable energy directive that certifies that electricity is generated from renewable energy sources. In relation to advertising promotion products, suppliers should also follow the CRU's code of practice on marketing and advertising from the suppliers' handbook.

I thank the Minister of State for his response. Unfortunately for consumers, they are not engineers or experts in electric provision. Therefore, it is hard for anybody to understand in terms of their bill. Even the CRU fuel mix disclosure is not transparent. It is not good enough to hide behind the regulator because the Government can change the remit and legislate for what the regulator does. We need greater transparency. Consumers need to assured that the 100% renewable guarantees of origin match the electricity that was bought and sold by the energy suppliers.

I respect that the EU is moving on this issue. However, I would say to the Minister of State that we do not have to wait for the EU. Austria has already gone ahead and done what needs to be done, namely, ensuring customers have transparency about the type of energy they are buying. If we want to bring people, who are trying their best, along with us in this transition, then we cannot undermine their confidence in the system that when they think they are buying 100% renewable, that is what they are getting.

The Senator spoke about transparency and the need for legislation, and mentioned countries like Austria. I will bring that back to the Minister. The CRU does play an important role in ensuring electricity companies are transparent. I have noticed it on my own bill and I would not be technically minded. It it is interesting to see where your electricity is coming from.

There have been several developments in ensuring information being presented in the energy market is accurate and transparent. They place obligations on the electricity fuel suppliers to detail the fuel mix. Companies that give a false impression of the environmental impact or benefits make it difficult for businesses and consumers to make informed decisions. It does increase confusion over how to better tackle the climate crisis.

The CRU has published an information paper on the topic, with up-to-date information on fuel mix disclosures. Officials in the Department of the Environment, Climate and Communications are reviewing the paper, which was published this week. The Senator is right that it is vital both consumers and businesses are well informed about the composition of the electricity supply. A lot has happened but I take on board the Senator's point about the need for transparency and legislation. Certainly we can look to Austria as an example.

Further and Higher Education

I thank the Minister of State for coming to the House to take this matter. He will be aware the Cassells report was published in 2016. For five years, it has been kicked to touch, but having sought advice at European level, we did get an assurance from the Minister for Further and Higher Education, Research, Innovation and Science that we will finally come to crunch time - I believe the phrase he used was "this is the year" - and that there would be an update published this autumn on how we are proceeding with implementing the report. My question and that of most of the sector is when we will see that update this autumn. Will we clearly see, either as part of the budgetary process next week or in the very near future after that, a clear timetable to ensure we have a sustainable model for funding of higher education?

Higher education has been underfunded, as I am sure the Minister of State is aware, but during the pandemic the situation became even more critical. Higher education institutions and students responded very well in difficult circumstances, but the financial challenge facing those institutions grew even more. As the Minister of State will be aware, the income from international students effectively collapsed and the opportunity to gain income from commercial activities also disappeared. We also saw a significant increase in the number of higher education places in terms of the number of students coming through the CAO system, which was most welcome. I think it is something we should be very proud of in this country that we have one of the highest participation rates in higher education in the world. Even though all those additional places were made available, and students will talk about this, the additional staffing and resources behind it were not there to match it.

Therefore, I am asking the following questions. Will we see the publication of the report quite soon? In the budget, or soon after, will we see a sustainable plan for the long-term funding of higher education? The Minister has also promised we will have a national strategy on research, which will be crucial for this country's long-term development. The current Government allocation for research and development is 0.94% of GDP, which is well below the EU average of 1.4%. There is also a commitment to undertake a review of SUSI, which is particularly important to students. Students are experiencing enormous financial difficulty at the moment. This is feeding into the funding crisis in higher education. I would appreciate an update soon on where we are with the SUSI review.

During the course of the pandemic, we saw the operation of a number of very inclusive working groups for the higher education institutions and those in the sector to try to resolve the problems. It has been a tradition in higher education that the approach would always be collaborative. This makes sense. I understand the group dealing with student accommodation is now being reconvened. It is important that all of the players are involved. However, in terms of this country's long-term development, everybody accepts our investment has to be in education, training and research. We have been kicking this can down the road for far too long. I am hoping the Minister of State will be able to provide us with some kind of update today on what is happening with the Cassells report and whether we will see a long-term strategy to ensure a sustainable higher education sector.

I thank Senator Byrne for raising this important matter.

The expert group report of 2016, entitled Investing in National Ambition: A Strategy for Funding Higher Education, confirmed that higher education makes a hugely positive contribution to the development of individuals, employers, society and the State. The report concluded that the approach to funding at the time was unsustainable and that substantial increases in investment in higher education must be made to ensure the sector can remain viable and provide the capacity to meet the major increase in student demand projected up to 2030.

In advance of and since the publication of the 2016 report, my Department has been working hard to deliver a significant programme of reinvestment in higher education. It is important to acknowledge that, since 2015, a very significant programme of reinvestment in higher education has been implemented. Over that period, current public expenditure allocated to the higher education sector has increased by in excess of half a billion euro or almost 40%.

Funding and policy developments taken in recent budgets have taken significant steps to address the funding needs of the sector. Most notably and in line with the recommendation of the Cassells report, a new stream of employer funding was introduced upon a review of the National Training Fund. This level of investment responded to demographic pressures and underpinned a range of initiatives in the higher education sector, including a substantial investment in the evolution of technological universities and significant skills-enhancing opportunities for individuals, sectors and regions.

In 2021, excluding additional Covid supports, total planned current expenditure funding for the higher education sector, exclusive of research provision, is in the order of €1.98 billion.

This significant allocation of public resources is a clear demonstration of the Government's commitment to meet the funding needs of the higher education sector to realise more fully its potential in contributing to economic and societal priorities which are central to this country's long-term sustainability.

Regarding ongoing work to implement the recommendations of the Cassells report, the development of a sustainable funding model for higher education is essential in light of the centrality of higher education to our progress as a country. In this regard, my Department's statement of strategy, which we published on 8 March last, contains a commitment to put in place a sustainable funding model for higher education.

In that context, I am very encouraged by the recent completion of a comprehensive economic evaluation of the funding options presented in the report of the expert group on future funding for higher education as supported under the European Commission Directorate General for Structural Reform Support, DG REFORM, programme. The key aim of this review is to investigate methods of increasing the sustainability of higher and further education provision in Ireland, including an examination of the funding options. My Department has commenced its examination of the report's analysis, findings, conclusions and recommendations to develop proposals to bring to the Government to seek its support for a sustainable future funding model and transformed further education and training, FET, and higher education, HE, sector as contained in the statement of strategy. This will be brought to the Government for consideration in advance of its publication.

I welcome the fact that the Department has that report but my question is when we will see publication. It is important we have an open debate on this and that all the stakeholders are involved in the process. The Minister, Deputy Harris, has previously promised that the report would be published this autumn. Given the critical nature of investment in this sector, as the Minister of State himself outlined, that report needs to be published quickly.

As for Ireland's very specific international offering, our economic strategy was based for a long time on tax and talent. We now know we will no longer base our arguments solely on tax, perhaps rightly so. This country will rely very heavily on its talent offering. As the Minister of State will be aware, that is part of the reason our party ensured the established of the Department of Further and Higher Education, Research, Innovation and Science as something to drive that, but you cannot have the driver unless the sustainable funding model is addressed. I therefore ask the Minister of State that this document and the strategy to follow be published this year and that we commit to the necessary serious investment in higher education and research.

Unfortunately, I am not in a position to give the Senator a publication date today. Suffice to say that, apart from my previous opening remarks, there is a serious commitment in the programme for Government on addressing the sustainability and the funding model of our higher education sector. That has also formed part of the negotiations and the discussions between the Department of Further and Higher Education, Research, Innovation and Science and the Department of Public Expenditure and Reform in advance of budget 2022 in the context of providing a multi-annual funding stream for our higher education sector, which I think will drive a lot of Government discussion and consideration quite shortly.

The Department will continue to work with stakeholders on this comprehensive analysis of funding options for higher education and the assessment of the appropriate balance in provision across the tertiary education system. Our Department is committed to ensuring we will utilise the opportunity provided by the independent and comprehensive report, which has now been completed. The sustainability of the further and higher education system is a critical issue which will enable extensive transformation and responsiveness to central Government priorities. This requires a sustained commitment to investment and transformation, and we are actively engaged in the Estimates process for 2022, which I have outlined to the Senator.

In addition, my Department is continuing to address the demographic pressures on the sector through the provision of additional places in further and higher education, to which the Senator himself has alluded. We are also seeking additional funding for sectoral pensions. There is quite a large and serious pensions issue right across our universities.

Through the recent publication of the national development plan, we welcome additional Exchequer investment of nearly €2.9 billion in further and higher education infrastructure, research and innovation over the five-year period 2021 to 2025. The overall objective of this investment is to support a knowledge-based, resilient and innovative society and economy in which all citizens will have the opportunity to reach their full potential.

While I cannot give the Senator a specific date, this is a key priority within both the Department and the Government and I hope we will hear more about it in the not-too-distant future.

I thank the Minister of State and thank the Senator for raising this important issue. I am sure my fellow constituent and colleague, the Minister, Deputy Harris, will not let us down.

Sitting suspended at 11.26 a.m. and resumed at 11.33 a.m.