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Seanad Éireann debate -
Thursday, 27 Jan 2022

Vol. 282 No. 5

Nithe i dtosach suíonna - Commencement Matters

Energy Policy

I thank the Cathaoirleach for accepting this matter for discussion. It relates to a very pertinent contemporary issue, and I appreciate the fact that he recognises this. I thank the Minister of State for being here to answer questions on it and to inform the House of any developments.

We can be thankful that the debate on the science of climate change is effectively over. There are very few naysayers left. It is now a matter of implementing solutions and deciding how to address the problem. To be technical, there is what is called blue hydrogen and there is green hydrogen. Green hydrogen has potential as an energy supply that involves no carbon emissions. It could be very productive in that regard. It was recently recognised at a very high level in a speech by an Taoiseach at a meeting of the shared island forum held in Dublin Castle on 9 December 2021 when he said:

We will [...] work to develop with [...] the UK Government a cross-border pilot project on green hydrogen for the road network. We stand ready to resource an agreed project

That commitment was made. Will the Minister of State tell me what steps have been taken in that regard?

The main source for what I will say here is a report commissioned by Green Tech Skillnet in partnership with Wind Energy Ireland and Skillnet Ireland. That report forms the basis of my comments today. It says that long-term strategies for the use of green hydrogen have been developed in jurisdictions as diverse as Canada, Chile, Colombia, the Czech Republic, France, Germany, Hungary, the Netherlands, Norway, Portugal, Spain, the UK and the EU and notes that, following COP26, green hydrogen targets in these regions were raised. The background is that this is a live issue that needs to be advanced.

The main possible source of green hydrogen in this country is wind turbines. Our domestic wind turbines, which are mainly on-land wind turbines, are not enough. We need to take advantage of the great potential for offshore wind turbines, particularly off the south-west coast. We have some of the greatest potential in Europe in this regard. There should be a surplus of wind energy. We should ultimately be able to supply the domestic market while also having the potential for exports, according to this report.

There is a definite role for green hydrogen in meeting Ireland's energy needs. The report tells us we now have the technology to utilise it and the economic and political will is there. It is, of course, easier for the larger industrial countries but green hydrogen could potentially be used for power generation here in, for example, Moneypoint or Whitegate. It could also be used as aviation fuel or shipping fuel. There is also the potential to export it. Ultimately, it will be possible to use it in lorries. Injecting a blend including 20% green hydrogen into the national gas pipelines is technically achievable. That is something we should be doing. We need to get a pilot project up and running in order to collect evidence. I am running out of time but those are some of the main issues. I will come back in with some figures at the end. In essence, I want the Minister of State to tell me where we are with regard to moving towards green hydrogen and creating the modus operandi in that regard. Where do we stand and where do we plan to go? What steps are being taken?

I thank the Senator for raising this important matter, which is of great interest to me. Scenarios for net zero emissions by 2050 include a potentially significant role for the use of zero-emission gases, including green hydrogen. In planning for the longer term, we will ensure that they can meet their potential.

The Climate Action Plan 2021, published in November, identifies green hydrogen as having the potential to support decarbonisation across several sectors, including: high temperature heat for industry; transport, including aviation and marine fuels and some limited heavy and long-haul ground transport; and, in Ireland, for long-duration electricity storage. The Climate Action Plan 2021 already includes actions relating to green hydrogen in the electricity, enterprise and transport sectors. It also sets out how green hydrogen could address some of the challenges faced by the energy sector, such as providing a backup for intermittent renewables. A key target set out in the climate action plan is to carry out a work programme to identify a route to deliver 1 to 3 terawatt, TW ,hours of zero-emissions gas, including green hydrogen, by 2030.

It is the intention of the Minister, Deputy Ryan, to publish a consultation on the development of a green hydrogen strategy in the first half of this year. As part of this strategy, the Department will first look at the areas of demand where we think green hydrogen will be necessary, competitive, efficient and where better alternatives do not exist. Displacing fossil fuel-derived hydrogen in industry would be a clear and sensible use of green hydrogen. We will not look to incentivise green hydrogen in areas where direct electrification or efficiency would be better solutions. As an example of this, direct hydrogen gas heating would require five to seven times more renewable electricity than a heat pump.

We will also look at supply of green hydrogen, identifying the potential for both dedicated hydrogen production from renewable electricity, but also using curtailed energy from grid electricity. There is a need to rapidly develop green electricity to displace fossil electricity first. However, there may be areas where, through constraints on the grid, green hydrogen may be a more efficient route to decarbonisation of our energy use without the need for additional grid infrastructure.

There are several companies already looking at this opportunity in the midlands and the west. I welcome the recent publication of Wind Energy Ireland’s report, compiled in conjunction with Green Tech Skillnet, on green hydrogen. I also welcome the support of Sinn Féin and its Private Members’ Bill on the development of a hydrogen strategy for Ireland.

The climate action plan is a living document and will be updated on an annual basis to reflect ongoing developments and targets achieved. My Department continues to work with the relevant Departments, agencies and stakeholders to carry out research and develop policies to support the uptake of green hydrogen. I expect a strategy focusing on the development of green hydrogen to be included in the climate action plan 2022. An extensive public consultation process was undertaken as part of the development of the Climate Action Plan 2021. In the future there will be ongoing dialogue with citizens and stakeholders, including public consultation.

In the context of the transport sector, a very important aspect of green hydrogen is its potential to support the decarbonisation of transport. It is envisaged that green hydrogen can contribute to the decarbonisation of those hard to abate sectors, such as those relating to heavy goods vehicles, HGVs, shipping and, potentially - as a synthetic fuel - aviation during the second half of this decade. It also has the potential to be used in the manufacture of synthetic fuels for transport. I am very keen to see Ireland, as an island, lead with decarbonising aviation. We have a significant aviation leasing sector, and I was happy to see its report published recently on the decarbonisation of air travel. It realises that there is a significant risk of stranded aviation assets if it are not at the forefront of decarbonisation.

As part of the renewable fuels for transport policy statement that was published in November of last year, the Minister for Transport announced that from 2023, subject to legislation, renewable fuels of non-biological origin, such as green hydrogen and synthetic fuels produced from it, will be eligible for credits as part of the renewable fuels obligation scheme. Further, in recognition of the need to incentivise their development, they will be awarded multiple credits. Also, under the shared island dialogues, the Department of Transport, together with the Department of the Taoiseach, are progressing projects that will explore the topic of safety regulation for hydrogen as a transport fuel and they will set out a roadmap for the installation of hydrogen refuelling infrastructure servicing travel between Ireland and Northern Ireland.

In addition, the Department of Transport is supporting green hydrogen development through the provision of policy advice for projects looking at the development of green hydrogen infrastructure, such as the Galway green hydrogen hub and Hydrogen Mobility Ireland projects. It is also supporting it through the introduction of the alternatively fuelled heavy-duty vehicle grant in March 2021 and through working with the Minister for Finance to announce, in budget 2022, the expansion of accelerated capital allowance scheme for natural gas propelled vehicles and related equipment to include hydrogen vehicles and equipment.

I thank the Minister of State for that response. It is a very positive and encouraging response because one of the things people outside this building will be wondering about is where the action is. The Minister of State indicated that the Minister has committed to publishing a consultation on the development of a green hydrogen strategy in the first half of this year. He also stated that as part of this strategy the Department will look at areas of demand where we think green hydrogen will be necessary, competitive and efficient. The Minister of State further noted that there are several companies already looking to take up this opportunity in the midlands and the west. I humbly suggest that contact be maintained with those companies and that they be kept on the pitch in order that they will continue with their work in this area.

The report we both cited is very encouraging. I take the point that the big thing is to increase the amount of wind energy being produced. Will the Minister of State comment on the offshore wind energy element?

In a very concrete way, three buses have been put in place and are operating. They are giving us the experience of knowing what it is like to run longer heavy-duty services. Of course, they do not give rise to pollution or emissions. When hydrogen is burned, all one gets is water. Therefore, it is a very clean fuel. That is giving us some experience.

Hydrogen can be used for all of these different things, but it will not be commercially appropriate in every sector. In fact, we can make a hierarchy of least appropriate to most appropriate. Electricity is something that can be generated but it is very hard to store. Hydrogen gives the ability to take when in excess and then use it when in deficit. It allows us to balance the variability of wind. If it is a very windy day and we cannot use all the electricity being generated, it can be stored somewhere until we can reuse it. In some of the hard to decarbonise sectors, such as the long-distance shipping, aviation and heavy trucking, there is a great deal of potential, even if it is not ideal. For example, for heating a home, it appears that direct hydrogen gas heating is not likely to replace natural gas. As a result, we will be looking at the use of heat pumps instead.

There is an EU hydrogen strategy, which means that this matter is being talked about in Europe as well. The strategy was published in 2020 and it comes with an important new legislative package for hydrogen and decarbonisation. That was completed in December 2021. These two initiatives seek to create the conditions for a shift from natural gas to renewable and low-carbon gases and, in particular, hydrogen and biomethane. We have a very undeveloped biomethane sector in Ireland in comparison with Germany. There is a great deal of room there for what are considered to be alternative gases that do not involve as many climate change aspects and that give rise to much reduced pollution.

Healthcare Infrastructure Provision

I am delighted to welcome the Minister of State, Deputy Feighan.

Gabhaim buíochas leis an gCathaoirleach as an ábhar seo a chur ar an gclár oibre inniu. Cuirim fáilte roimh an Aire Stáit go dtí an Teach. I wish to speak briefly today about two very important projects in the Galway-Roscommon region in relation to our health service. One is the building that is now being built at Portiuncula hHspital.

If I am not mistaken, it received planning permission in 2017. The building is badly needed for patient accommodation.

The second project is at the Sacred Heart Hospital in Roscommon. The Minister of State has often spoken up for it. The hospital has been an important part of our health services for many years. The Government has given the go-ahead for a 50-bed unit there.

I will once again pay tribute to the staff of both hospitals. We must acknowledge that hospitals must still be alert and careful because Covid can, unfortunately, come and go. I hope that it is coming to an end.

I am asking for an update on both projects. I understand that the deadline for opening at Portiuncula Hospital in Ballinasloe is mid-summer. Is it on schedule? Planning permission has been extended. Once completed, will there be a quick opening date? The Minister of State and I will accept that the hospital's staff have been working in terrible conditions. In that regard, I express my thanks to the Minister for Health, Deputy Stephen Donnelly, the Minister of State, the Minister for Further and Higher Education, Research, Innovation and Science, Deputy Harris, who visited us and pushed this project on when he was the Minister for Health, and the Minister of State with responsibility for older people, Deputy Butler. Without doubt, their support has been vital.

Considerable work has been done on the Sacred Heart Hospital project. I acknowledge not only the Government's support for the project in this year's budget, but the Minister of State's support through the years. I understand that a planning application for the project was to be submitted to Roscommon County Council in December but it has not arrived. I have no reason to believe there is any problem or that the project has been delayed. It may just be a matter of Covid holding things up. I look forward to the planning application being put before Roscommon County Council in the near future.

Clarification on these two projects would be welcome. I thank the Minister of State for attending the House to deal with my queries.

I thank the Senator for raising this issue and giving me the opportunity to outline to the House the position on capital commitments at Portiuncula Hospital in Ballinasloe and Sacred Heart Hospital in Roscommon.

Portiuncula Hospital is an acute general and maternity hospital that delivers a patient-centred, quality-driven and quality-focused service and provides a wide range of diagnostic and support services. The hospital's catchment area includes patients residing in east Galway, Roscommon, the midlands and the mid-west.

The construction of the 50-bed ward block is an important project for the hospital and will deliver replacement accommodation in line with current standards. A contractor was appointed for the enabling works contract and work commenced on 11 August 2020. The enabling works project was completed in May 2021 and dealt with a number of legacy issues as well as preparing for the 50-bed project. As part of these works, the entire electrical and natural gas network has been upgraded and the medical gas infrastructure has been modified and upgraded. Tender documents for the 50-bed ward block project have been issued to the shortlisted contractors and were returned in December 2021. It is intended that the contract for this development will be awarded in quarter 1 of 2022.

The HSE's capital programme provides for the construction of a 50-bed long-stay facility at the Sacred Heart Hospital in Roscommon. The Government's overarching policy objective is to support our older population in living in dignity and independence in their own homes and communities for as long as possible. The standard of care delivered to residents in public units is generally very high, but we recognise that many of our community hospitals are housed in buildings that are less than ideal in the modern context. Without them, though, many older people would not have access to the care they need. It is important, therefore, that we upgrade our public bed stock. This is the aim of the capital investment programme for community nursing units.

The Sacred Heart Hospital is currently a 95-bed older persons care home and rehabilitation hospital situated in Roscommon town. It provides 80 older persons' long-term care beds and 15 short-term palliative, rehabilitation and respite care beds. The development of the new 50-bed long-stay facility is at detailed design stage. The project's design process has commenced and will take approximately 12 months to complete, including securing planning permission for the development. At that point, the project can move to the next stage of the public spending code. All capital development proposals must progress through a number of approval stages in line with the public spending code. The delivery of capital projects is a dynamic process and is subject to the successful completion of the various approval stages, which can impact on the timeline for delivery.

That was a positive response on the crucial developments at Portiuncula Hospital and Sacred Heart Hospital. I was delighted to hear the Minister of State say that, as part of the works on the former, the electrical and natural gas network had been upgraded and the medical gas infrastructure had been modified and upgraded.

I hope that we can move the project at Sacred Heart Hospital ahead as quickly as possible. I expect the planning application to be before Roscommon County Council shortly, after which it will be full steam ahead.

I pay tribute to all the staff at both hospitals. I also pay tribute to the HSE staff who are bringing these projects forward. We have had many meetings, some arguments and lots of discussion, but both projects are proceeding well. It is important that we get them in place as quickly as possible.

As the Senator knows, the Government is committed to ensuring that Portiuncula Hospital can continue to deliver patient-centred, quality-driven and quality-focused service and provide a wide range of diagnostic and support services to meet the needs of its catchment area. The construction of the 50-bed ward is good news for the people of east Galway, Roscommon, the midlands and the mid-west.

Strategic reform in the model of delivery of care for older people is under way in pursuit of the policy goal of supporting older people in living independently in their own homes and communities for longer. Community nursing units will continue to play a vital part in an overall continuum of care for older people over the coming years as our older population increases in line with demographic trends. The continued implementation of the community nursing unit programme, including the 50-bed long-stay facility at Sacred Heart Hospital in Roscommon, will contribute to achieving that.

I thank the staff at the two hospitals for their great work and I thank the Senator for raising this very important issue.

Emergency Departments

I thank the Cathaoirleach for choosing this important Commencement matter for debate. I welcome the Minister of State, Deputy Feighan. I have raised this matter a number of times in the past 18 months. This is probably the third or fourth time the Minister of State has been before me. The Minister of State, Deputy Niall Collins, has appeared before me as well, but I have yet to meet the senior Minister in the Chamber to discuss this matter of importance to Galway and the wider west.

As the Minister of State has pointed out previously, a temporary emergency department is under construction. The situation is confusing because some people believe that it is actually the new emergency department. It is not, of course. I am told that phase 1 is scheduled for handover in April and the internal replanned area will be handed over in July. Thereafter, a planning application for the permanent emergency department will be progressed.

This situation has been ongoing for a number of years. A welcome decision was made that the new building would include full paediatric and maternity services as well as the emergency department. That was a positive move.

While there have been internal and decanting work in respect of the temporary emergency department, the planning application for the emergency department has still not been lodged. I do not see why that cannot be done in conjunction with the work that is going on but instead, it seems that Saolta University Health Care Group must wait for the works to be completed.

I know that there is a process regarding the public spending code. I ask the Minister of State to confirm if that is being assessed. Has it been completed or it is with the Minister for Public Expenditure and Reform or the HSE estates national unit at the moment? I ask all that because it is important that that is confirmed, that permission is granted and that Saolta can progress to the lodging of the planning application.

As I have said on numerous occasions, nothing can be built without planning permission. It does not matter what the project is; planning permission must be granted. In this case, Saolta University Health Care Group has not lodged its planning application for a new emergency department in University Hospital Galway. This is vitally important.

The staff in the emergency department do Trojan work day in and day out. Also, the number of people on trolleys varies. Sometimes the hospital has the highest number of people on trolleys in the country, as it had for a long period last autumn and other times it has the second highest numbers. That is not good enough for patients, staff or those who want to visit their loved ones. Obviously people could not visit their loved ones during Covid periods or visiting opportunities were limited but things are getting back to normal now and it is not good enough for anybody that such a situation remains.

We need to give hope to people that an emergency department is definitely on its way. The most important stages are the lodging and granting of the planning application. We will still have a long way to go in terms of tenders, constructions contracts and all of that. I seek confirmation from the Minister of State on timelines, the next stages of the project and when a planning application will be lodged by Saolta University Health Care Group for an emergency department for University Hospital Galway, which is a centre of excellence for the region. I hope that he can provide some information on behalf of the Minister for Health, Deputy Stephen Donnelly, and that he will confirm dates and a timeline for this vital project.

I thank Senator Kyne for raising this issue and giving me the opportunity again to outline to the House the position regarding the new emergency department at University Hospital Galway. I will also convey his concerns to the Minister.

University Hospital Galway provides regional services for a wide range of specialties. It serves a catchment area in the region of 1 million people along the west from Donegal to north Tipperary. University Hospital Galway is a model 4 hospital that provides 24-7 acute surgery, acute medicine and critical care. This project for a new emergency department at University Hospital Galway, which is part of a larger development incorporating maternity and paediatric services, is included in the HSE's capital programme.

Approval was granted to complete a temporary extension to the emergency department, ED, to provide additional accommodation. This includes segregated waiting areas, segregated treatment areas, isolation rooms, additional resuscitation spaces and additional support accommodation to take account of requirements to treat Covid-19 patients, as well as improved infection control and prevention requirements for the ED.

The temporary emergency department extension building will be single storey and have a rooftop plant room. It will be connected to the main hospital block at the existing emergency department entrance. This project is expected to be completed in early 2022. The temporary emergency department project and associated works will also serve as an enabling works project for the proposed permanent emergency department by helping to free up the site required for the proposed new block.

The main emergency department and women's and children's block development at University Hospital Galway is a complex project and is in the early stages of design progression. The project is of significant scale and must progress through the stages outlined in the public spending code. The full accommodation scope for the entire development has been agreed following an internal HSE review and it is proposed to progress the full block as one single project.

There is no date yet for the planning application for the main building as the project is still proceeding through the initial stages of the public spending code. There are several enabling works projects to be completed on site before the main building can go ahead. On that basis, the design team has had pre-planning meetings with the local authority on two of these enabling works projects. The preliminary business case is under review with the HSE and pending board approval.

All capital development proposals, as Senators know, must progress through a number of approval stages, in line with the public spending code. The delivery of capital projects is a dynamic process and is subject to the successful completion of the various approval stages, which can impact on the timeline for delivery.

I thank the Minister of State for that response. I am afraid that it sounds like the project is going backwards as he referred to the "initial stages of the public spending code". There is still no date for the planning application to be lodged and the Minister of State referred to works that must be completed before the main building can go ahead. We know that the site must be cleared before a building can be built but a building cannot be built unless we get planning permission and we cannot get planning permission unless a planning application is lodged. It seems that this project is going backwards. The month of handover has not been confirmed. That was supposed to happen in April and it is now early 2022. When will the handover happen?

There are no timelines for this project that is of such vital importance to the people of Galway and the region and that is an absolutely frustrating situation for staff. I have heard reports that emergency department staff have resigned due to the pressures of their job and the Minister of State's reply is not going to lift their spirits or those of anyone else. The people of Galway deserve a lot better than the information that has been provided here.

I will convey Senator Kyne's concerns to the Minister, the Department and the HSE. As he knows, the project is of a huge, significant scale and it is progressing through the stages outlined in the public spending code. The preliminary business case, as I said, is under review with the HSE and pending board approval. I hope that we will get board approval as quickly as possible.

This project is part of a larger development that incorporates maternity and paediatric services. It is included in the HSE capital programme. In advance of permanent arrangements, approval was granted to complete a temporary extension to the emergency department to provide additional accommodation, which is expected to be completed in early 2022.

The main emergency department and women's and children's block development at University Hospital Galway is, as the Senator said, a complex project and it is in the early stages of design progression. While there is no date yet for the planning application for the main building, the HSE is actively engaging with the local authority as the project proceeds through the initial stages of the public spending code. Again, I will convey the concerns of the Senator to the Minister and to the Department of Health, and to see can we get all of the various stakeholders to progress the project as quickly as possible because the Senator has articulately raised his concerns. The Senator been in here many times trying to push on the project and I hope that we will push it as quickly as possible.

I thank the Minister of State and Senator Kyne. I know that this project is important to all who live in the western region.

National Parks and Wildlife Service

I welcome the Minister of State at the Department of Housing, Local Government and Heritage, Deputy Noonan.

I thank the Minister of State for coming here directly. He is very conscious and proud of the National Parks and Wildlife Service, NPWS, as am I, and I thank him for taking time out of his busy schedule to deal with this matter.

I want to put a few points about the National Parks and Wildlife Service on the public record. I believe that it is always important to set the scene for the people looking in at these proceedings because when we are in here, we sometimes talk in a bubble. The role of the National Parks and Wildlife Service is to secure the conservation of a representative range of ecosystems, and to maintain and enhance the populations of flora and fauna in Ireland.

According to the NPWS website, it is also "to designate and advise on the protection of habitats and species identified for nature conservation", including natural heritage areas, special areas of conservation and special protection areas, "having particular regard to the need to consult with interested parties". It is also responsible for making "the necessary arrangements for the implementation of National and EU legislation and policies for nature conservation and biodiversity including the EU Habitats and Birds Directives, and for the ratification and implementation of the range of international Conventions and Agreements relating to the natural heritage." Its role is also to "manage, maintain and develop State-owned National Parks and Nature Reserves" and "promote awareness of natural heritage and biodiversity issues through education, outreach to schools and engaging with stakeholders". I have set out that framework. I am sure the Minister of State knows it well. As I said at the outset, he is very proud of the NPWS. I, too, am very proud of it. It is an extraordinary organisation.

However, I am also conscious that it needs resources and practical support. It has a huge role in education. I did not touch on the point to any great extent, but the organisation does amazing work with schools in outreach and education. I want to acknowledge that important work. An article was published in The Sunday Times on 13 December 2021. I do not believe everything I read in every newspaper, but I will quote from the article. It states: "An unpublished government report on the National Parks and Wildlife Service (NPWS) has found it is unable to fulfil its current obligations due to limited resources and 'major' structural problems." It continues: "The highly critical report was commissioned by Malcolm Noonan, the Green party minister for heritage, under a commitment in the programme for government to review the nature protection agency’s remit, status and funding to ensure it was playing an 'effective role'." The Government made a commitment to review the agency's remit. That is fantastic. The article suggests that there are serious issues regarding funding and the agency's capacity to carry out its functions and work. I will not mention the names of people who may or may not be on the committee, because that is hearsay. I am not privy to that information.

In essence, what I am saying is that it is in our interest that we have a good, well-resourced NPWS. I know the Minister of State is committed to that. However, when members of the public read articles such as those published in The Sunday Times, they are concerned. I understand that a 114-page report is sitting on the Minister of State's desk. It has been suggested to me that it makes certain recommendations and sets alarm bells ringing regarding a number of issues I have raised. Perhaps the Minister of State can touch on some of the contents of the report, if it is appropriate to do so. However, there is no pressure, because there are processes and consultations that the Minister of State has to go through. I fully understand and respect that. Perhaps sometime in the future the Minister of State can bring that report, or the key recommendations from it, to us. I ask the Minister of State to respond to some of the issues that I have raised.

I thank the Senator for raising this Commencement matter. I will try to outline the trajectory in terms of the report referenced in The Sunday Times and where it fits into the bigger piece of work that we have been doing over the last number of months. My portfolio as Minister of State with responsibility for heritage and electoral reform is an expansive one. The top priority for me on becoming Minister of State was to restore heritage funding, placing nature, heritage and biodiversity at the heart of what this Government does well, taking a whole-of-government approach.

As the Senator has outlined, the NPWS is a crucial and important service that is mandated with the protection, conservation and presentation of our natural heritage, including the variety of birds, mammals, invertebrates, fungi and plants that combine in the dynamic ecosystems that give us vital services that society and the economy depend on, such as soil fertility, water purification, carbon sequestration and storage, and of course, that sense of peace and wonder that so many of us enjoy when we experience nature. In 2019, we learned that globally many of our protected habitats were of poor or inadequate status and that almost half were declining. That same year, the Dáil declared a climate and biodiversity emergency. At that time NPWS resourcing was not sufficient to address the challenge that lay ahead with the level of urgency that was required.

I determined that a hallmark of my tenure as Minister of State would be to leave a positive legacy for biodiversity in Ireland, to deliver on the Government's unprecedented ambition for nature and respond comprehensively to the programme for Government commitment to strengthen the NPWS, improve its effectiveness and make it the voice for nature that we need it to be. The primary determinant in all of that is resourcing. I secured additional moneys in the 2020 July stimulus, significantly increased NPWS funding by almost 50% in budget 2021, and in October 2021 as part of the budget, I announced that NPWS funding would increase yet again to over €47 million in 2022, a total increase of 64% since I became Minister of State. That brought it back up to pre-financial crisis levels in terms of staffing and resources.

I will be brief. I thank the Minister of State for his comprehensive response, which I will consider later. What jumps off the page, and what I want to congratulate the Minister of State on, is the 64% increase in funding for the NPWS since he became Minister of State, and his absolute commitment to keep the NPWS focused. I am also particularly interested to learn today, because it is news to me, of the establishment of the wildlife crime unit, a cohort of new conservation rangers and the recruitment of ecological and scientific experts, field staff and additional administrative staff. That is really positive.

I note the Minister of State's commitment in terms of the review, reflect, renew strategic action plan. That is also welcome. It is very positive to hear that the Minister of State is working closely with the Minister for Housing, Local Government and Heritage and his colleagues and that we will have the strategic action plan for the future of the NPWS. I thank the Minister of State for that and for his stewardship and ongoing engagement. It is great when one has a personal interest and a hobby as well as a political vision and mission. I wish the Minister of State well and thank him.

I thank the Senator for such positive comments. As I said, it our intention to try and get the strategic plan for the future of the NPWS to Cabinet towards the middle or end of February. We know it has been an expansive piece of work. It has taken us longer than expected, but I think it will be worth it.

I wish to reiterate the comments the Senator made about the NPWS as an organisation. Since I was appointed, I have visited all of our national parks. It is down to the general operatives; the district conservation officers. The teams on the ground are made up of phenomenal people who are doing incredible work. They have carried this work out through Covid because our parks and nature reserves have been open during that time.

The resourcing element that the Senator spoke about is important. I do not think it is enough; it needs to go further. We have a huge ambition for nature over the next decade and beyond. In that regard, I am encouraged by the work we have done to date. I am thankful to people for their patience, because I know it has taken longer than expected. I am also very grateful to the Senator for raising this Commencement matter. It is important to outline the timeline for this work and how it moves forward. When we deliver the plan to Cabinet, the next phase will be the serious phase around its implementation. It will require additional resources and a collective effort across government. I thank the Senator for raising the matter.

That was a most interesting discussion. I thank the Minister of State and the Senator. I also wish to thank the Minister of State, Deputy Feighan, and the other Senators involved in the Commencement matters. As always, I thank the staff.

Sitting suspended at 11.20 a.m. and resumed at 11.30 a.m.
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