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Seanad Éireann debate -
Thursday, 5 May 2022

Vol. 284 No. 11

Nithe i dtosach suíonna - Commencement Matters

I welcome the Minister of State, Deputy English, to the House. I call Senator Mark Wall, who has four minutes.

Regional Aid

I welcome the Minister to the House. I also want to thank the Cathaoirleach for choosing this important matter.

Regional aid is an enhanced form of aid that can be provided to enterprises in more economically disadvantaged areas. It incentivises SMEs and large enterprises to invest in growth and expansion. Most important, it increases the attractiveness of these areas for investment. It is an important aid measure for enterprise agencies and to support Irish enterprises to grow and to expand as they attract foreign direct investment into this country. Grants and other state aid under the regional aid map are funded by the Exchequer. There is no EU or external funding.

I have asked the Minister of State to come before the House today because the Athy municipal district was previously in the regional aid map from 2014 to 2022. Unfortunately, in the map that has been most recently presented to us, the Athy municipal district, along with some municipal districts have been removed. The explanation as to why that may have happened is beyond many people in the region. There has been no great enterprise. There has been no great investment into job creation by the Government in that area since the 2014 announcement. Indeed, the regional aid, as I have said, is enterprise to encourage investment and job creation in an economically disadvantaged area.

The Athy municipal district has seen investment in a long-awaited road. We have been waiting over 40 years for it, but thankfully it has started. It will revitalise the area of south Kildare. There is also the issue right across the bottom of south Kildare that we are lacking investment in job creation and we are lacking the criteria to attract investment into that area. This is the case both for existing businesses and for attracting new businesses into the area. Over the last period of time, I have been contacted by a number of people who would like to invest in Athy. I have also used this regional aid map previously to show that there will be something there for there them when they come there. The fact that Athy has been removed from the regional aid map is worrying to say the least.

There can be no doubt that American Fruits & Flavor's recent announcement that it will invest in Athy is a positive move. We also have a number of attractive heritage trails, including the Shackleton Museum and the Athy Blueway, which will see potential for tourists coming to the town. Unfortunately, though, Athy still has much social deprivation. It still has many social indexes that we are concerned about. They should have shown up on the assessments that were done on this regional aid map.

I worry, too, that the announcement stated that any part of the county that had been previously on the map would still be included on the new map. However, that has not been the case for the Athy municipal district. It is also not the case because they have not actually been scored in the new map. This is because the Government policy is that they are seeking regionally balanced investment.

I would like to the hear the Minister of State talk today about what the Government is doing regarding investment in that particular area of south Kildare. What incentives are the Government planning for the area of south Kildare? We are surrounded by Portlaoise and Carlow. Both of those electoral areas are included in the regional aid map. That will cause serious problems for us in attracting investment into the area in which I live. I look forward to the Minister of State’s reply, which I am sure will encourage people to invest into south Kildare. I thank the Minister of State again for taking this Commencement matter.

I thank Senator Wall for tabling this Commencement matter for discussion. I am happy to address it and to explain to him the reasons and the rationale behind this, as well as to discuss what we are doing with working with the local enterprise offices, LEOs, in Kildare.

As the Senator will know, the mid-east regional enterprise plan brings together the three counties of Wicklow, Kildare and Meath, to work together with all the business development agencies, LEOs, local authorities, education systems and chambers of commerce. All of these are involved in promoting counties such as Kildare, Meath and Wicklow in the area of job creation. It is working with existing companies and with new companies coming in. I know that the Senator probably read the committee’s regional enterprise plan. I would encourage him to go through it again so that he can see all of the various actions that are set out within it to help to develop jobs in the sector. He should also look at the plans by Enterprise Ireland and the IDA to bring investment and jobs right throughout the country, hitting all of our counties.

At the outset, it should be pointed out that the regional aid map is decided by the European Commission and not by the Government.

In negotiations with the Commission, the Government sought the inclusion of much more of the country. We will do so again at the mid-term review in 2023 when the data from the census are available.

As Senator Wall indicated, it is true that regional aid does not involve any European money or grants and should not be confused with Structural Funds, which Ireland qualified for in the past. Rather, it limits the amount of regional State aid that the Irish Exchequer can provide to certain geographic areas based on specified criteria. That is where the issue arises in regard to Athy in County Kildare in terms of the criteria that are set down by the European Commission.

The regional aid map for every member state must be developed within coverage levels set by the Commission and criteria laid down in the European Commission's regional aid guidelines, issued in April 2021. Ireland's economy has shown strength and improvement since 2014, including Senator Wall's county of Kildare. As a consequence, the European Commission initially proposed to reduce the overall coverage of Ireland's map, as a proportion of total population, to 25.6%. Following intensive negotiations with the Commission, this was increased to 35.9%. Of course, we would like it to be higher, but it was a significant improvement on the proposed 25.6%. This is, however, still a significant reduction of almost one third from the 51.3% which applied previously. This adjustment was part of a European-wide review and Ireland was not unique in facing a reduction in coverage.

With a more limited population coverage, and the strict criteria set by the Commission, it was important that the optimal allocation was achieved. To achieve this, the Department of Enterprise, Trade and Employment, working with stakeholders, including Enterprise Ireland and IDA Ireland, developed a multidimensional model that provided a depth of analysis within the Commission's set criteria. This was an objective and impartial approach, although final approval of the map, for Ireland and for all member states, rested with the European Commission. The Commission announced its decision on 22 March 2022.

It is important to note that areas can only be included on a regional aid map if they meet the Commission's strict criteria. Conformity to the criteria must be supported by socioeconomic data. The criteria must be met for contiguous areas at NUTS 2 or NUTS 3 level. To meet the Commission's criteria for inclusion on the regional aid map, an area needs to have a GDP per capita below or equal to the EU-27 average, an unemployment rate above or equal to 115% of the national average, be undergoing major structural change or in serious relative decline. The socioeconomic data available for Kildare indicates that the county does not meet these criteria.

It is important also to recognise that regional aid is only one form of assistance available to enterprises. Only approximately 7.4% of Ireland's state aid is in the form of regional aid. There is still plenty of opportunity to work with other companies that want to bring investment and jobs to the Athy area. Athy can benefit from all other types of state aid that remain available to enterprises, irrespective of their location. We want to be very clear on that.

Senator Wall says he spoke to other companies and interested bodies. I am very happy to engage with them with him. If he wishes, he may bring them to the Department or the development agencies, which are very proactive when it comes to any opportunity to create jobs or investment for any part of the country, and they target various areas as well. From talking to the Minister of State, Deputy Heydon, as well about Kildare in general and Athy, I know that there is every opportunity to create jobs there. Recently, there were some very significant announcements in Athy, and the food hub is very important too. We must build on the success of those announcements and continue to provide jobs in the area as well. I thank Senator Wall for his time.

I thank the Minister of State, Deputy English, for his reply. I worry when I see that the indicators for Kildare show an unemployment level that does not conform with the criteria set down. I am asking about the Athy municipal district, where unfortunately the unemployment rate is higher. Once again, we have a departmental reply which encompasses the entire county rather than the part of the county to which I refer today. I am worried about the south of the county. Parts of County Kildare have terrific employment. Unfortunately, in the main, we have become a commuter county. The part of Kildare I am worried about is the Athy municipal district. We need to attract employment to it. There is a high unemployment rate there at the moment.

I have gone through most of the nine criteria set down by the Commission. I ask that it would look at them again. The Minister of State referred to the census. Perhaps in his reply he would indicate that he will look again at the issue when the information is available. I know that it only equates to 7.5% funding, but every cent of funding for the Athy municipal district would be welcome. We need to create every job that we can, given the current factors and the need for jobs in the area. I again thank the Minister of State for coming to the House, but I ask him to review the decision based on those criteria.

I again thank Senator Wall for raising this matter and giving me a chance to explain to him and the people of Athy what the situation is. The bottom line is that the area would not have met the criteria. We do not set the criteria; they are set by the European Union. The evidence on which the criteria are judged is not made up either. It is based on facts and data gathered in Kildare and in Athy. The bottom line is that it would not have passed the test. Senator Wall might have a different version of the facts, but I am afraid we must work with the facts as they are gathered.

I will provide the Minister with the facts.

While it is a positive for Athy that the county is doing so well, I accept that in County Kildare, as in all counties, there are particular areas where we want to see more jobs growth and more opportunities. There is no denying that. However, when we are dealing with European state aid rules, we must fit the criteria and in this case Kildare scores too high, which is a positive in one way, but a negative when we want to secure the funding Senator Wall talks about. Thankfully, it is only one part of the funding, and it is less than 8% of possible supports to businesses that want to invest and create jobs in Athy. I have been through this with the Minister of State, Deputy Heydon, because he was also concerned.

As I have said to Senator Wall, we can work with him on a number of other supports to develop and create jobs in the area, right throughout Kildare and in Athy. We are very conscious that the situation outlined was before the census. The census will be complete this year when we have all the data and there will be a review in 2023. If the evidence has changed and is different - not according to Senator Wall's opinion, my opinion or anyone else's opinion - that will give us an argument to make a different case. That is what the Department will do, because that is our job, but we must work with the evidence and facts as they are. We cannot make them up.

I ask the Senator to write to me about the point he made that the question he asked was not answered.

I intend to do that and to work with the Minister of State.

Was the question answered?

If I am correct, Senator Wall made the point that the reply did not relate to the municipal district.

I made the point very clearly that the Kildare data, including the data for Athy, would not fit the criteria. That is the bottom line. I have been very clear on that. I cannot be any clearer.

I look forward to discussing the data. I am aware that we have exceeded our time. I appreciate the Minister of State's reply, but they are not the facts and figures I have. I look forward to sharing them with him.

It would be great if Senator Wall could share the facts and figures.

I will share the facts and figures with the Minister of State-----

There are different facts-----

-----because the disposable income on that does not fit with the Athy municipal district.

To be fair, in the context of this debate, if Senator Wall has evidence contrary to what we have, perhaps today was the chance to present it.

Unfortunately, I wanted to hear what the Minister of State would say first.

That is fair enough. It is important that the House would know-----

I am conscious that when Members make a request for a Commencement matter they may not get the answer they want, but they should get the answer to the question they asked.

I want to be very clear. The question I have before me has been very clearly debated and answered. It was to ask the Minister for Enterprise, Trade and Employment to explain why the Athy municipal district in County Kildare has been removed from the recently announced regional aid map. I have answered that question in great detail. I take exception if the claim is that I have not. What I am saying very clearly is that we all agree-----

I am sorry, but I have not said the Minister of State has not answered the question. I am disputing what he says about data. I think the data are different from the data he has.

With respect-----

I will submit the data to the Minister of State.

That is a very different situation. I want to ensure what is said in the House is correct. To be clear, and in defence of my departmental officials, they have worked extremely hard on this for a long number of years. They went to great length and in detail to try to protect and get back as much area as we possibly could. If somebody says they have different evidence, I would like to see it presented.

I will. I have no problem submitting it to the Minister of State.

Primary Medical Certificates

Thank you very much, a Chathaoirligh, for selecting this all-important Commencement debate. I thank the Minister of State, Deputy English, very much for coming here today to represent the Minister for Finance. I have been working with a number of individuals who have applied for a primary medical certificate. This is a very important certificate for people, especially if they have an accident or they are impeded from driving properly and they want to get an automatic car, for example. I have a lady in her 80s who had an accident and has plates in her arm. She applied to the HSE for a primary medical certificate and was refused. That is fine, but then she appealed it and there is no appeals officer in place at present. She applied at the start of November 2021 and she was refused in mid-November 2021. She was sent a form to appeal the decision to the adjudicator if she so wished. It is now the month of May, and nobody has yet been appointed. I have spoken to somebody else who is in the same situation.

This lady has had to spend money on taxis. If she could qualify, she might be able to get a car adjusted to her needs. The kernel of the problem is that she does not know whether she qualifies. A number of other people in similar situations have contacted me. It is really important that this assessor or adjudicator be appointed as soon as possible because it is putting extra strain on people, especially older people, in terms of whether they qualify for the primary medical certificate.

I thank Senator Maria Byrne for raising this issue. I hope I have the right answer to this question because we might have misinterpreted the question here. If I have the wrong understanding of the question, I would be happy to come back with another answer. We took it from the question that the Senator was asking about the appeals board and the appeals adjudicator. If that is not the case, I can certainly come back to her with an updated position. We worked with both the Department of Health and the Department of Finance to prepare a detailed answer on the matter.

The Senator mentioned a specific case, although I know she is raising the issue in general for all the people in her area of Limerick.

The disabled drivers and disabled passengers scheme provides relief from VAT and vehicle registration tax up to certain limits, an exemption from motor tax and a grant in respect of fuel on the purchase of an adapted car for transport of a person with specific severe and permanent physical disabilities. The relief from value added tax and vehicle registration tax can in some cases be quite generous and rightly so because disabled people need additional assistance, amounting to up to €10,000, €16,000 or €22,000, depending on the level of adaptation required for the vehicle.

Members of the scheme may claim payment of a fuel grant based on a per litre rate in respect of the mineral oil taxes applying to these products. An annual maximum of 2,730 l applies in respect of a driver or passenger, and 4,100 l in respect of an organisation. The fuel grant covers the excise tax elements of petrol, diesel and liquefied petroleum gas, LPG.

In order to qualify for relief, the applicant must hold a primary medical certificate issued by the relevant senior area medical officer in the HSE or a board medical certificate issued by the Disabled Driver Medical Board of Appeal, DDMBA. To qualify for a primary medical certificate, an applicant must be permanently and severely disabled and satisfy one of the conditions as set out in the Finance Act 1989. I will not go through them all as I am sure the Senator is aware of them anyway.

A new Disabled Drivers Medical Board of Appeal is being established following the resignation of all five members of the previous board. An expression of interest seeking suitable candidates for the board closed on 29 April. Applications have been received and an assessment process is under way. Suitable candidates will be recommended to the Minister of Health for nomination and the Minister for Finance will consider any nominees for appointment to the new board.

Requests for appeal hearings can be sent to the DDMBA secretary based in the National Rehabilitation Hospital. New appeal hearing dates will be issued once the new board is in place, which will be very soon.

Claimants already accessing the scheme can continue to do so and assessments for the primary medical certificate by the HSE are continuing to take place. The Minister for Finance has no role in the granting or refusal of primary medical certificates. The HSE and the Disabled Drivers Medical Board of Appeal must be independent in their clinical determinations.

In addition, the Minister for Finance gave a commitment that a comprehensive review of the scheme, to include a broader review of mobility supports for persons with disabilities, would be undertaken. The Minister is working on this matter with the Minister for Children, Equality, Disability, Integration and Youth, Deputy O’Gorman. They have agreed that review should be brought within a wider review under the auspices of the national disability inclusion strategy, NDIS, to examine transport supports encompassing all Government-funded transport and mobility schemes for people with disabilities. The Ministers believe that this is the most appropriate forum to meet mutual objectives in respect of transport solutions and mobility supports for those with a disability.

In this regard, it should be noted that the NDIS transport working group, chaired by the Minister of State with responsibility for disability, Deputy Rabbitte, had its first meeting on 26 January 2022. A stocktaking exercise of existing transport and mobility schemes currently supporting people with disabilities is ongoing ahead of the next meeting of the group. The issue was also discussed at the most recent meeting of the NDIS steering group on 13 April, which included input from stakeholders. The outcome of this review and any recommendations will be brought to the Government for its consideration. I hope that will happen soon and we can get some movement in the area.

With all that, I hope I have covered the answer the Senator was looking for.

I thank the Minister of State for his detailed response. I am delighted to hear that the assessment board, the adjudicating committee, will soon be in place. I understand that it is not the Minister's responsibility; it is the adjudication board's. The big problem was that no board was in place and it has taken so long. I understand that a process needs to be followed to fill these positions, but people have been waiting since last November. We are now in the month of May and there is still no decision. I am glad to see that the board is being put in place. I hope it will be put in place quickly because so many people are waiting for decisions.

I also welcome the full review of the criteria because they are very restrictive. People are literally required to have no arms or no legs to qualify. Many people may have had accidents resulting in debilitating injuries. If the criteria are relaxed somewhat, they might be able to qualify. A number of them need an adapted car. I welcome that a full review is going on and that the board will be in place shortly. I will be keeping an eye to see when the board is put in place.

I again thank the Senator for raising this issue, which is important to all of us in both Houses who represent people who need the extra assistance to be able to avail of these supports. We are all glad that the wider review is under way. Hopefully it will change the criteria and make it possible for someone to be able to be assessed not just on the criteria that we have all been used to in recent years. I also welcome the work on that in recent months. Hopefully that will be answered quite soon.

I am taking this issue on behalf of the Department of Finance. I cannot give an exact date for the appointment of the board, but we are very close to that. Applications closed on 29 April. Hopefully there will be movement on this very soon. I understand the urgency. It has taken a bit of time since last November, but as the Senator knows, the board resigned and needed to be replaced. We should be able to have that up and running pretty soon, allowing progress on some of the applications the Senator is concerned about and which she raised today.

The scheme works extremely well and provides relief from VAT, VRT as well as providing the fuel grant which is of great assistance to a number of families. It involves significant tax expenditure and it is important that we get that right. Between the vehicle registration tax and the VAT forgone, and the fuel grant, the scheme cost €50 million in 2015. It cost about €67 million in 2020, the year for which we have the most up-to-date figures. It is a significant amount of money. In most cases it is money well spent and of great assistance. All involved would like to see it progressed further

Construction Industry

I welcome the Minister of State to the House. The Construction Instruction Federation has highlighted the considerable impact hyperinflation is having across the building industry. The Society of Chartered Surveyors Ireland has shown that the annual rate of construction inflation was 13.4% during 2021. Increasing materials and energy prices have been the driving forces behind the increasing costs since early 2021. When there appeared to be a brief decrease in inflation at the end of last year, the war in Ukraine swiftly caused prices to soar again and it is believed the prices will continue to rise throughout this year.

A multitude of issues, including the pandemic, high demand, supply shortages, delivery delays, the long-lasting impacts of Brexit and the war, have led to an increase in materials costs, a shortage of materials and a labour shortage for the construction industry. Ultimately, such inflation increases the possibility of contractors being unable to tender for projects and even in some cases becoming insolvent.

There is a case to be made for an effective price variation clause to be included in all new public works contracts and a mechanism to be applied retrospectively for projects that are under way. No one who signed a contract two or three years ago could have foreseen the level of cost inflation that has taken place in the interim. There are implications for projects already under construction. It may become uneconomical for some contractors involved to complete their work without becoming insolvent. There is a possibility that contractors will be unwilling to tender for public contracts because of this issue.

I will give a few examples of price inflation in construction.

The cost of a tonne of rolled steel has risen to €1,500, which is up by €600 since mid-February, an increase of 65%. There has been a 50% rise in the price of rebar, which has jumped from €900 to €1,350 per tonne in just the last four weeks. The cost of copper cable has increased by 31% while certain types of steel are simply no longer available. The cost of some deliveries, particularly of electronic controls and lighting equipment, has increased by up to 100%. These extra costs may have serious implications for future and current public works projects including the national development plan and Housing for All. With regard to the national retrofit scheme, it is estimated that the cost of insulation products has increased by 35% in recent times. That puts a question mark over that entire project.

Apart from the Government-backed schemes under Housing for All, the retrofit scheme and the national development plan, inflation in the cost of building materials has the potential to stall many one-off housing projects, as I mentioned in the House last week. Builders seem to have reached a point at which their budgets simply cannot go any further. Housing associations also need help. They need a bit of flexibility to ensure that contracts are fulfilled and much-needed housing delivered.

I understand the importance of protecting taxpayers' money. It is public money and the Minister of State and the Government have a duty to ensure it is not wasted. However, perhaps some flexibility could be shown as a result of the €2 billion capital underspend in 2020 and 2021 that arose because of the pandemic. That might allow for some space to manoeuvre on price variation clauses. It is clear that something needs to be done in this regard. It is not a question of whether we can afford to do this, but of whether we can afford not to.

I thank Senator Gallagher for raising this issue. It is very important. We can all see the effects of inflation in costs in every part of construction throughout the country. We also want to protect the public capital investment plans we have made and rolled out under Housing for All, Project Ireland 2040 and others. There is to be a great amount of capital expenditure, over €10 billion a year, for the next ten or 11 years. It is important that we get the most out of that funding, stretch it and get the infrastructure delivered.

I am taking this debate on behalf of the Minister for Public Expenditure and Reform, Deputy Michael McGrath. I will outline some issues in response to the Senator's raising of the issue of construction inflation. There have been significant and sustained increases in the prices of a broad range of commonly used materials in the construction sector throughout 2021 in the aftermath of the pandemic. The Senator has outlined some of these. Energy prices also showed marked increases in 2021 and have further escalated in response to the Russian invasion of Ukraine. Both represent significant input costs for construction projects and inflation is a risk that contractors have been expected to bear under capital works management framework public works contracts for a defined period.

These inflationary provisions have operated effectively over the years since their introduction, albeit in times of relative price stability. However, the price movements experienced on construction materials over the past 12 months have arisen suddenly and with no warning. In response to this challenge, the Minister and the Office of Government Procurement, OGP, introduced a series of measures in January of this year to address the risk posed. The OGP issued procurement guidance in November 2021 to assist public bodies in managing the challenges they face in concluding live tenders. With reference to future tenders, the OGP published interim amendments to the provisions in the public works contracts on 7 January 2022. Within certain parameters, these amendments will reduce the level of risk of exceptional materials price inflation that contractors will have to bear, while also enabling the Exchequer to obtain cost reductions should exceptional price reductions occur during the course of the works. The measures are designed to encourage confidence in the tender process and to mitigate overprovision for price inflation in tender prices. However, as the Senator has said, these changes do not fully cater for the fuel and energy price increases and supply chain disruptions which have arisen since the Russian invasion of Ukraine. The pre-existing provisions for inflation contained in the public works contracts published prior to 7 January 2022 continue to apply as these were the terms entered into by the parties.

The OGP has been monitoring the inflation pressures faced by contractors, particularly with respect to the recent sharp increase in energy prices, and is engaging with stakeholders, including industry and public sector contracting authorities. The Minister, Deputy Michael McGrath, recently had a meeting with representatives from the Construction Industry Federation, CIF, at which the issue of contracts that were awarded prior to January 2022 was raised. The CIF advised that contractors who tendered with no knowledge of the inflationary pressures which have arisen since February 2021 are particularly exposed and are not in a position to absorb the increased cost of materials which have, in some cases, more than doubled in price since they submitted their tenders. In addition to its impact on energy prices, the war in Ukraine will further increase the cost of building materials. At the conclusion of the meeting, I understand that the Minister asked his officials in the OGP to prepare options to mitigate the risk posed to projects where contractors can no longer bear the increased cost of materials. In reviewing the options, the Minister will consider the available evidence and the potential impacts they will have on costs and the ability to deliver the wider national development plan while maximising value for money for the taxpayer.

It is vital that public works contracts remain a viable proposition for contractors with whom we partner in the delivery of the plan, whether in respect of housing, roads or any other infrastructure. The Minister is also engaging with key capital spending Departments and bodies to gain their perspective on the issues that are being raised with him. I see that we have a school group with us so I will note that this includes investment in our educational facilities across primary, secondary and third level because, while a large sum has been set aside to be invested, it is very important that all projects can be fulfilled and delivered. We must protect our investment in the infrastructure we want, including schools, hospitals and roads, but we must also help to protect the jobs and companies involved. That is the work the Minister, Deputy McGrath, in involved in. I will be able to update the Senator at an appropriate time in the coming weeks.

I welcome our visitors to the Gallery today.

I also extend a céad míle fáilte to our visitors. I hope they enjoy their day. I thank the Minister of State very much for the response. He outlined a number of the public projects that are being affected, which include housing projects. We all know that there is a chronic need for housing. As I said earlier, many contractors entered into contracts two to three years ago not knowing what was ahead of them as regards inflation in construction costs. I welcome the fact that the Minister, Deputy Michael McGrath, is looking into this. Coming from the Border area, I know an arrangement has already been implemented in the North based on what is called a procurement advisory notice. I hope something similar could be introduced here in the South. It is working very well in the North and has been well received by everybody. Is the Minister of State aware of a timeframe for the conclusion of the Minister's deliberations and when he will make a statement on this particular issue?

I again thank Senator Gallagher for raising this matter and for clearly putting across the issues that are at play in all of our counties and certainly in the Border region. I will certainly take a look at what he has said is happening across the Border. To be very clear, while this is not my direct area of responsibility, I will raise this matter with the Minister for Public Expenditure and Reform and his Department. He would have liked to be here himself but just could not make it. I acknowledge that what Senator Gallagher is saying is key. We are experiencing very significant increases in construction inflation and challenges as a result of the Covid pandemic and the invasion of Ukraine. As outlined earlier, the Minister's office introduced amendments to the provisions in the public works contracts in January 2022 for future tenders, which should be of assistance. The changes implemented in January have provided a degree of mitigation of material price increases but, as the Senator noted, there are still issues with contracts that were awarded prior to January this year, going back over the last two or three years or more. More recently, specific issues with fuel costs and supply chain disruptions have also been important. The Senator has asked me for a timeline. I cannot provide one just yet but the Minister is considering the options available to address the ongoing increases in construction inflation and I have no doubt that he will make those decisions quite quickly. I will ask him to come back to the Senator as quickly as he possibly can or we could also have another discussion on the issue here in the House. The Senator will receive a formal response from the Minister very soon.

Rail Network

I thank the Minister of State very much for coming to the House. I am very conscious that Government policy is to increase the number of people using public transport. Senator Casey and I come from Wicklow and Wexford respectively, for which the Rosslare rail line is particularly important.

If we want to get people out of their cars and not using the M11 when travelling through our counties to and from Dublin, we will need to have a good rail service but, unfortunately, we do not have the best rail service. If I want to travel back to Gorey by train this evening, the last train leaves Dublin at 6.30 p.m. The service beyond Bray or Greystones is still very limited.

Particularly at a time when Rosslare Europort is growing to the extent it is, something that is very welcome post Brexit, much of the focus is on freight at present but we are going to see increased passenger traffic. There is a concerted effort to attract more visitors into Rosslare Europort, with new sailings to France and Spain. If we want people to use rail when they get off at the port, we will have to ensure the facilities are there.

For the most part, it is all the same rolling stock. Generally, what happens is that when the stock is updated on other lines, Rosslare is the poor relation that gets the stock that has been left over. I am a great believer in the expression "build it and they will come". If we provide the rail services for the people of Wexford and Wicklow, they will use them. The railway staff along the line are excellent, but not enough services serve our county to ensure a significant transfer from the use of car to that of rail.

I hope the Minister of State will reflect positively on this and convey our views to the Minister for Transport.

I thank the Minister of State for taking this matter. As my colleague identified, we are talking about investment in public transport and, specifically, in the Dublin-Rosslare route, which passes through County Wicklow. Whatever additional services can be provided to Rosslare will directly improve the facilities in Wicklow. The service to Wicklow town and Arklow at the moment is a joke. It is not worth even considering it as a mode of public transport to get into and out of work. Rosslare Europort has 34 sailings going into it weekly, whereas there are only 26 or 27 train departures from the town. The service does not even match up with the ferry services that are coming in, so realistically something has to be done.

My colleague mentioned tourism. Rail has significant potential for tourism all along the east cost by getting people into our counties. I refer to towns in County Wicklow such as Rathdrum, Arklow, Wicklow town and Greystones, where people can disembark and enjoy the countryside. County Wicklow is being strangled by a lack of investment in public infrastructure, one part of which is rail. We have to stop mickey-mousing around with what we are doing. We are talking about one additional train service between Greystones and Dublin, and perhaps with hybrid technology, that could reach Wicklow town. Either we are serious about public transport or we are not. On top of all this, there will be no further investment in the upgrade of the N11-M11 in County Wicklow for another year. The national planning framework clearly indicates Bray as a growth town for Wicklow of 33%. There is no connection between national policy and what the National Transport Authority, NTA, is saying in respect of both public transport and rail transport.

I acknowledge this issue does not relate to the Minister of State's brief but he might relay our concerns to the Minister for Transport. The rail service to County Wicklow is unacceptable, both from a commuter point of view and from that of the tourism Rosslare Europort could open up for the county.

I welcome the opportunity to discuss this important topic with Senators on behalf of the Minister for Transport. I understand that the Senators' question relates to improving the service and rolling stock on the Rosslare-Dublin rail line. I have been advised Iarnród Éireann's operational fleet is currently fully deployed on scheduled services, in line with the prevailing passenger demand. The current capacity on the rail network is primarily based on demand levels pre-Covid, when rapid growth in demand resulted in the use of 100% of larnród Éireann's operational fleet at peak times. I am also given to understand there are currently four services each way on the Rosslare-Dublin rail line on weekdays and three services each way on weekend days. Post Covid, passenger demand has been suppressed in the short term, although it is showing gradual signs of improvement as we exit the Covid-19 pandemic. Significantly altered travel patterns are emerging and larnród Éireann intends to undertake an analysis of post-Covid travel trends throughout the network, including the Dublin-Rosslare line, to adapt its timetable to meet customer demands. It is expected this assessment, being undertaken in conjunction with the National Transport Authority, will take a number of months to finalise, as new travel patterns become more established with a phased return to the workplace. This process will also take into account the delivery of 41 intercity railcar carriages, commencing in mid-2022. Once this process has been completed, a timetable and capacity proposal will be prepared and issued for public consultation on larnród Éireann's website.

Further, the National Development Plan 2021-2030, which was launched by the Government in October 2021, will see the introduction of additional public transport infrastructure which will help to relieve congestion on the network while providing for new rolling stock to result in greater capacity for Iarnród Éireann, increasing passenger numbers into the future. An initial order of 95 electric and battery-electric carriages for the DART+ fleet was placed in December 2021, with up to 75 carriages to be ordered over the coming decade. It is expected the first 95 carriages will arrive from mid-2024, entering service on the rail network from 2025. These 95 carriages will comprise 30 electric carriages, which will be deployed on existing DART services, and 65 battery-electric carriages, which will be deployed on the northern commuter services. This additional rolling stock will free up existing commuter and intercity carriages for use on other routes on the rail network.

As the Senators will be aware, the strategic rail review, undertaken in co-operation with the Department for Infrastructure in Northern Ireland, will inform the development of interurban, interregional rail on the island of Ireland over the coming decades. This will be one of the most significant reviews of the rail network on the island in many years, providing a framework to develop an improved rail network for our future. The review will consider the scope for improved rail services along various existing and potential corridors of the network, including the potential afforded by disused and closed lines such as the western rail corridor. This report is due to be finalised in quarter 4 of this year.

I will convey both Senators' views to the Minister.

I appreciate that the Minister of State was reading from a pre-prepared reply, but that would be fine if we were representing the southside of Dublin and we would be glad to know about the improvement of the DART line, which is not what we asked about. We asked about improvements to the Rosslare rail line and clearly what has been provided by the Department of Transport and Irish Rail once again shows they do not understand the question we are asking. I know for a fact that of the 41 intercity railcar carriages that the Minister of State mentioned, not one of them is going to serve the Rosslare rail line, unless he can correct me on that. On the basis of the response we have received, it is clear there is no interest on the part of the Department of Transport or the Minister in the Rosslare rail line.

I, too, understand the Minister of State was handed a written reply and this issue does not relate to his brief, but the answer is totally unacceptable. DART+ does not yet exist and I do not think reopening the western coastal rail line will have much impact on Wicklow and Wexford, so it is disappointing. As my colleague said, the new carriages have not even been identified for this route. The Minister of State might relay our frustration to the Minister that Wicklow and Wexford are again being forgotten about, even in the context of this Commencement matter we submitted, which has not been satisfactorily answered.

I will certainly convey the Senators' views to the Minister. Nevertheless, subsequent fleet orders for DART+ will be deployed in line with infrastructure development under the DART+ programme. I have been advised the public consultation on DART+ Coastal South, which seeks to enhance capacity on the southern coastal route, will commence later this year. This consultation will examine options for the southside DART line to facilitate improved frequency, which will benefit Rosslare-Dublin rail services, as I mentioned.

Senator Byrne rightly said we are coming closer to France. I see the French embassy on Merrion Square has a banner up saying "France, your closest EU neighbour". There are nearly 41 direct services between Ireland and the Continent now. It makes sense for the foot passengers and people coming on bikes and so on to have a service from Dublin to Rosslare. The Senators make a very strong case and I will bring their views back to the Minister.

Covid-19 Pandemic

I thank the Minister of State for coming to the Chamber. I understand the average daily rate for Covid-19 has dropped to under 1,000 over the past 14 days. Concerns remain about future variants and the direction of the trend but we are almost three months into the Government decision to lift almost all restrictions across society and the economy. Yet, across most of the 19 maternity units, the policy restricting partners from attending some appointments remains in place. I ask the Minister of State to provide us with an urgent update on that policy. As recently as yesterday, the National Maternity Hospital announced that partners are now welcome to attend all appointments. That is very welcome.

Women have been telling us stories, particularly in recent weeks, and there is a degree of shock when people learn the restrictions are still in place. In recent weeks, we have heard of the experiences of people attending the Rotunda and Coombe hospitals, where partners were prevented from attending certain scans and appointments. One woman was told her partner could not even wait outside. In another case, a partner was prevented from attending a foetal anomaly clinic. Receptionists and sonographers are conveying different messages about whether a partner can attend at different appointments. One woman received bad news alone. Over the past two years, and up to last week, one hospital has been issuing a note to every woman coming into antenatal classes telling them they cannot communicate directly with the medical professionals or that they may not be guaranteed individual access to a medical professional. That has created all sorts of needless distress and confusion.

It is almost 12 months to the day since the Minister for Health announced that all Covid maternity restrictions would be lifted, on 11 May last year. That did not happen. Over the past two years, the Better Maternity Care campaign has very powerfully highlighted the stress and trauma associated with some of the restrictions that were put in place. It has shone a light on the restrictions that remain in place to this day. This group has been seeking a meeting with the HSE since the new year and that has not happened. There was engagement between the HSE and the campaign last year but that has fallen away since the new year.

It is important to acknowledge that many maternity units are often operating under difficult conditions, and flexibility has been afforded to some in high-risk pregnancies, but the reality is there is no clear message and there is inconsistency between one hospital and the next. While we accept that hospitals have a right to have individual visitor and infection control policies, partners are not visitors. Partners are a vital support to women when they are going through pregnancy and childbirth. I want a firm commitment from the Minister of State that, over the next fortnight, the HSE will update its partner restriction policy across the 19 maternity units and restrictions will be lifted, unless there is strong and very clear clinical evidence to the contrary.

I thank Senator Sherlock for raising an issue that has been of significant concern for women and their partners. I fully appreciate that limitations on partners accessing maternity services have been very difficult for women and their families during the Covid-19 pandemic. The current version of the HSE guidance on access to acute hospitals for nominated support partners in maternity services was implemented on 21 February 2022. The guidance recognises the central role the nominated support partner plays in supporting and advocating for a woman engaging with our maternity services. It recognises that such a support person also has a right to be present and participate in the care process to the greatest practical degree.

Maternity services are focused on maximising access for nominated support partners in the context of the current guidance. The objective of the guidance is to keep maternity services safe, support the woman and facilitate access for the nominated support partner. The clinical advice has always been focused on the potential for Covid-19 to spread in maternity services, and the highest priority is protecting the health and safety of the women and babies in our care. While guidance remains in place, it is important to recognise that it is a very different situation now from the position in the early stages of the Covid-19 pandemic. The HSE's guidance has significantly reduced limitations on access for nominated support partners.

The latest guidance again sets out that controls on access for support partners should be the minimum required to manage infection prevention and control risks, and any limitations on access must be clearly explained and should be applied with consideration for individual circumstances and needs. The guidance specifics that once a woman reaches her bed space or room, the nominated partner should have open access between 8 a.m. and 9 p.m. The guidance is quite broad in its scope, facilitating access for partners where women are attending antenatal scans, during labour and childbirth, during postnatal care and on arrival for labour or induction of labour during the initial assessment process. I am happy to inform the Senator that the HSE is currently reviewing the clinical guidance on the remaining access limitations as the recent surge in cases shows signs of reducing.

The HSE has advised that every possible effort continues to be made to provide maximum access for nominated support partners in maternity settings. Women are encouraged to raise any concerns pertaining to partner access and every effort is being made to address those concerns. Information on websites is reviewed and updated regularly to reflect any adjustments in access, and risk assessments are undertaken in circumstances where it is not possible to comply with the current guidance.

I assure the Senator that the decisions to restrict attendance in maternity hospitals were not taken lightly. The HSE has assured the Department that every effort continues to be made to maximise access for partners in maternity services and the guidance on remaining access limitations is currently under review.

I had a sense of déjà vu when listening to the Minister of State's response. We have been here before listening to a communication from the Department of Health setting out what the restrictions or policy should be, when we know the reality on the ground is quite different. Based on the stories women have told me or communicated to others and the Better Maternity Care campaign, we know the reality is different from what the Minister of State has set out. I ask that the clinical lead within the HSE for women's healthcare and Dr. Colm Henry now engage both with the Department of Health and those advocating on women's behalf on the ground to ensure, first, that what the Minister of State has set out is being implemented and, second, that there is further progress in lifting those restrictions. There is an issue as to whether the Department can stand over the guidance that has been issued.

I say that because what I have heard on the ground, compared with what the Minister of State has relayed here from the Department, is very different from what happens for a number of women in certain hospitals.

I acknowledge the difficulties and the impact that access limitations in maternity services have had on women and their partners during the Covid-19 pandemic.

While I appreciate that the support of a partner is vitally important to expectant mothers, I remind the House that maternity hospitals and units introduced these measures to protect the well-being of the vulnerable women and babies in their care. It is worth noting that maternity services have performed very well in this respect and have continued to provide quality maternity care during what has been a very challenging time.

The Senator has asked that the clinical lead in the HSE would engage, on behalf of the Department, with people who advocate in regard to these very difficult and important issues. I will convey that to the Department.

We are now at a point where access for partners has been greatly increased. Notwithstanding this, the HSE is currently reviewing the clinical guidance on any remaining access limitations in view of the recent surge in Covid-19. I hope that in the coming weeks these issues and difficulties will be ironed out. I very much welcome these advocates and assure them and the Senator that these difficulties will be raised at the highest possible level.

Health Services

I thank the Minister of State for attending. He is great for coming in here and taking the heat but he is the Minister of State with responsibility for public health and well-being so my Commencement matter is relevant to his role as well as that of the Minister for Health.

I want to raise an issue that concerns cervical smear tests. There have been improvements thanks to great pioneers like Vicky Phelan and others but we have some way to go. Several women have contacted me to tell me that they have experienced a huge amount of stress caused by delays in getting results after they had an initial cervical smear test, and they experienced further delay, in cases where there were irregularities, in getting an appointment for a colposcopy procedure or have irregular cells removed and discover the final diagnosis.

A few women have told me that they had to wait over five months. As a woman who has had a cervical smear test and irregular cells were discovered, I know that as soon as one is told irregular cells have been found one automatically thinks cancer, and one continues to think like that until one is told that it is not cancer. So that is a stressful situation.

Every year in Ireland over 12,000 women are diagnosed as having irregular cells following a cervical smear test so that is 1,000 women a month or between 30 and 40 women every day. Therefore, every month 1,000 women must endure this stress until they get a final result. Targets have been set out but I could not find out whether we have reached them. It seems to me that most women still must wait between four and five months before getting the all-clear or find out that they need a further procedure or procedures.

In Ireland, the State provides a test, which is very good. Women should get tested every three years if aged between 25 and 29 years and every five years if aged between 30 and 65 years. There is a national screening programme where 295,000 women annually are screened, which is a much better target than in previous years. Unfortunately, I was unable to find up-to-date figures and cited the figures for 2020.

People still must wait. In some cases, the consultants have the results but if they go on holidays or take a break for a few weeks, which they are entitled to do, the test results sit on their desks and there is nobody in place to convey the test results. A few women have contacted me to tell me that they had waited for weeks and I made representations on their behalf so their results were taken off the desk of the consultant, who had gone on holidays, and brought to light so the women got their results. That is not my job. I should not have to help people to gain access to their medial results. It is the job of the HSE, clinicians and consultants to deliver results to women.

I do not know who is to blame for delays and it probably is not the fault of consultants. A woman told me that the reason for the delay in her case was that her consultant had the results but went on holidays. That poor woman was in bits because she thought she might have cancer and every single day she waited for her results. Partly due to me making inquiries she got her results quicker than she would have if she had not contacted me. Speeding up medical results is not our job as politicians. We make inquiries because we want to take care of constituents although the woman I mentioned was not even from County Clare. There is something radically wrong if people are left in a situation where they lose sleep because their results are on a desk because somebody has gone on holidays. That is not right.

I want to touch on targets and ask a couple of questions that the Minister of State might answer today or follow up. How can long waiting times for such a worrying diagnosis be justified? Let us think of the day-to-day worry that these women have experienced every step of the way. What is the procedure for continuing the CervicalCheck workload for consultants when they go on leave so that test results do not end up sitting on a desk? How many people await screening results? How many people await colposcopy results? Who conducts the tests for the State? Is it private companies? Who does the tests? Is the testing conducted inside or outside the State? If the State is paying can faster turnaround times be demanded?

The HSE and the Government have set target times as follows: the results of smear tests should be four weeks; an appointment for a colposcopy should be eight weeks, which is still a long time; and results for colposcopy should be four weeks. So the waiting time should not be five or six months. Have these targets been met? I ask because I could not find out that information. I look forward to the response of the Minister of State to this worrying issue that affects half of the population.

I thank the Senator for giving me the opportunity to update the House on this important matter on behalf of the Minister, Deputy Stephen Donnelly. Both the Minister and I are fully committed to supporting our population screening programmes which are a valuable part of our health service. I am pleased to say that the CervicalCheck programme is back screening at pre-COVID-19 levels. Furthermore, by the end of 2021, CervicalCheck had screened the same amount of people as in any other two-year period. I take this opportunity to acknowledge the effort made by the staff in CervicalCheck, primary care services and GPs along with the laboratory services in achieving this level of activity despite the difficulties they faced. This positive situation is also testament to the women across the country who took up their screening invitations and attended for this important test. Importantly, the focus of the resumption of cancer screening services includes the management of capacity across the whole of the screening pathway, which includes follow-up assessments and treatments.

In terms of colposcopy, it is important to acknowledge the effects that Covid-19, the May 2021 cyberattack on the HSE and the December 2021 cyberattack on the Coombe Women and Infants University Hospital had on these clinics. I am pleased that the latest data on colposcopy attendance, from March 2022, show that the majority of people are being seen within the programme's target timeframes. In terms of colposcopy attendance at University Hospital Limerick, the latest figures in March 2022 show that this applies here also, with 100% of urgent and high-grade referrals seen well within the set targets. There is ongoing work to continue to build capacity in the services to ensure that this remains the case, and further improve timeframes for low-grade referrals that are currently slightly outside national targets.

While it is understandable that waiting for any test results is a worrying time for anyone, it is important to emphasise the fact that colposcopy identifies abnormal cells and is not a cancer diagnosis in the first instance. In most cases, it takes between ten and 15 years for a human papillomavirus, or HPV, infection to cause abnormal cells to develop into cervical cancer. In addition, cervical cancer is a rare outcome of a HPV infection.

The Minister for Health and I want to ensure that we have world-class cancer screening programmes in which the people of Ireland can have confidence. This commitment was shown with the allocation of an additional €10 million in 2021 for cancer screening services in the HSE national service plan, and continues this year to progress with service developments. This investment represented a real dedication to improving cancer outcomes in Ireland through the early detection of disease.

The Government is committed to ensuring that Ireland has a robust cervical screening service, which will enable our progress towards the ultimate goal of eliminating cervical cancer. Importantly, CervicalCheck made the technical transition to HPV cervical screening in 2020. This means that Ireland has joined a small group of nations that employs best-in-class testing to screen their populations for cervical cancer. Ireland can look forward to a significant reduction in the incidence of cervical cancer cases over the next ten to 20 years.

The Senator mentioned that issues arise when consultants or whoever go on holidays. It is unacceptable that women must wait a little bit longer as that causes huge stress and strain.

Within the HSE, with its clinical staff and consultants, there should be a system in place that would prevent these longer waiting times. If somebody goes on leave, there should be a mechanism in place. I will bring this matter back to the Minister.

The Senator raised many questions about leave, screening results and testing. If she sends me an email on those issues, I will to try to get an up-to-date answer as quickly as possible.

I thank the Minister of State for his response. He stated we were reaching the targets, yet I have evidence to show that, in the case of a woman who had an initial test in November and was told in December that she had abnormalities, it was not until last week, five months later and following my intervention, that she found out she will be okay. Despite what the Minister of State is being told, we are not meeting the targets.

There is no problem with getting the initial cervical smear done, thanks to brilliant CervicalCheck services and GPs around the country doing a great job. The first part is no problem but, unfortunately, while there is good uptake, all of those women must then wait on results. As I said, 12,000 women have a diagnosis of irregular cells every year. While most of those cases do not involve cancer, women cannot help but worry. When a woman is told she has irregular cells she cannot remove that knowledge or the worry about the possibility that these cells are cancerous.

As the Minister of State said, early intervention is key. It is very important that we give women the confidence to go ahead and start the experience. They are afraid to start in case they find out something negative and must wait in worry for six months. We need to build up confidence in cervical smear checks. I understand that we have had Covid and so on but it is now 2022. We need to make a conscious effort to let people know we are on our game and that this is being done properly and we are meeting our targets, so that people like me do not have to intervene on behalf of individuals to get test results off a desk because someone has gone on leave.

Senator Garvey has made some very interesting and valid points. I thank her for giving me the opportunity to update the House on this important matter on behalf of the Minister for Health, Deputy Stephen Donnelly. The Minister for Health and I are fully committed to supporting our population health screening services, which are a valuable part of our health service.

It is good to see that CervicalCheck screenings are back to pre-Covid levels. I acknowledge the effort being made by the staff at CervicalCheck, primary care services, GPs and laboratory services in achieving this level of activity, despite the difficulties they have faced. This positive situation is also testimony to the women across the country who took up their screening invitations and attended for this important test. Importantly, the focus of the resumption of cancer screening services includes the management of capacity across the whole of screening practice, which includes follow-up assessments and treatments.

The Senator has raised very difficult questions around this simple issue. If someone has a cervical check done, the results should be made available as quickly as possible and should not be on somebody's desk. If the Senator sends me details of the case, I will follow it up in the Department.

I thank the Minister of State, Deputy Frankie Feighan, for his time today.

Cuireadh an Seanad ar fionraí ar 11.43 a.m. agus cuireadh tús leis arís ar meán lae.
Sitting suspended at 11.43 a.m. and resumed at 12 noon.