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Seanad Éireann debate -
Wednesday, 13 Jul 2022

Vol. 287 No. 6

Nithe i dtosach suíonna - Commencement Matters

Public Transport

The Minister of State is most welcome.

I welcome the Minister of State. I also welcome the recent 20% reduction in fares, as I have done previously, and the introduction of the youth travel card. Both changes are helping commuters and will make a difference but, as we all know, more is needed. The reason I tabled this matter is to once again highlight the totally unfair, penal and discriminatory difference in train fare prices between train stations in south Kildare and train stations inside the short-hop zone.

I welcome the creation of a focus group by Newbridge Community Development in the past number of weeks to advocate for an extension of the short-hop zone. I have spoken with the group's spokesperson, Jennifer Caffrey, in recent weeks. I will continue to support it and her in every way I can. The group is continuing to put together data on why these prices are so wrong. Since 2018, the local Labour Party in Newbridge has run a campaign to change the pricing structure. We met with Anne Graham, the CEO of the National Transport Authority, NTA, and presented her with 8,500 signatures from commuters in the area who also want to see a change in the pricing structures throughout south Kildare. Since that meeting, I have continuously raised the issue with various Ministers with responsibility for transport, the NTA and the Government at every opportunity.

Hard-pressed commuters are bypassing Newbridge and other train stations in south Kildare and driving to Sallins station in Naas to avail of the short hop fares. Who can blame them? Many people save up to €200 per month by choosing to drive past their local station in favour of stopping at Sallins station or simply by driving all the way into the capital for work. As a result, the N7 has become a car park and the Government has had to propose additional parking spaces at Sallins and Naas station.

As I have said in the context of previous Commencement matters relating to this issue, it is the human story that paints the true picture. I want to bring a few of the stories to the attention of the Minister of State . One person tells me they moved to Newbridge and get the train from Newbridge to Connolly. They avail of the tax saver scheme, costing them approximately €185 a month, but they work with colleagues who commute from Sallins and their tickets are almost €500 cheaper per year, so they are thinking of driving to Sallins.

Another message I received reads:

Thanks for continuing to raise this. I travel from Kildare to Dublin by car most of the time because it’s cheaper than the train - even with skyrocketing fuel prices. That’s insane. So much for a climate crisis

Another says:

I’m living just outside Newbridge and work in Dublin. I always got the train from Newbridge but became so frustrated that my friend who is one stop away in Sallins paid half of what I paid each year. I now travel to Sallins twice a week because it's far cheaper.

It goes on and on. I can give the Minister of State as many examples as he requires. I have been told that an NTA review of the short hop zone pricing structure compared with the pricing structure for other stations and how these differences are impacting commuters is under way. That is to be welcomed but the CEO of the NTA is also on record as stating that, if funding was provided by the Government and the Minister, the NTA would be in a position to fix the pricing structure straight away. We are in a climate crisis. We need commuters using public transport from their nearest train station in south Kildare. It is the same case for all adjoining counties from which people travel to the capital. It is time this issue was sorted once and for all. Commuters have spoken with their cars. We need the Government to provide the funding. I hope the Minister of State has good news for the commuters of south Kildare this morning.

I thank Senator Wall for his question. I welcome the opportunity to discuss this important topic with Members of the House today on behalf of the Minister for Transport. I reassure the Senator that the Government is strongly committed to helping to combat the rising cost of living being experienced throughout the country. A cost-efficient public transport sector including affordable and accessible public transport services is vital to a functioning economy. In this context, a number of measures have been taken to ensure services remain affordable.

As the Senator noted in his contribution, earlier this year, the Government announced the introduction of an average fare reduction of 20% on all public service obligation, PSO, services until the end of 2022, with the Government allocating €54 million in Exchequer funding to support this initiative. The first phase of the fare reduction was rolled out to PSO services outside the greater Dublin area on 18 April before a nationwide roll-out on 9 May. These discounted fares are benefitting the hundreds of thousands of people across the country who use PSO public transport every day, including those based in County Kildare.

The fare reduction is funded until the end of this year but the funding allocation does not include an extension of the scheme to commercial operators. However, it has always been the Minister for Transport's intention to include these operators as part of a longer-term young adult card initiative announced as part of budget 2022. This initiative allows any person nationwide who is between 19 and 23 years old to avail of an entitlement to discounted travel costs and increases the level of discount over and above the current student discount to an average of 50% across all services including city, intercity and rural services. Mature students in full-time education are also included in the scheme as are eligible visitors to Ireland who fall within the young adult age cohort. This discount has initially been made available on all subsidised PSO bus, rail and Luas services but I am given to understand that it will then be broadened to include commercial operators with an expectation that this roll-out to the commercial sector will begin by the start of September.

It is clear that the young adult card will be of great benefit to this cohort of users and will not only promote modal shift in the transport sector, but should also contribute towards a reduced reliance on private transport with associated benefits. I have been advised that it is technically more challenging to roll out the young adult card on the commercial bus network than it is on the Leap card-enabled PSO network. However, the NTA is in detailed discussions with transport operators and the Department of Transport regarding the range of issues that need to be addressed.

The Minister for Transport has openly welcomed the deployment of both fare initiatives for 2022. The funding implications of the continuation of such initiatives into 2023 must be considered in the round along with all other funding asks. I am assured that the Minister, Deputy Eamon Ryan, intends to work closely with the Minister, Deputy Michael McGrath, and other Government colleagues in the context of the 2023 Estimates process to see what can be done about supporting public transport services and the travelling public.

I thank the Minister of State for his reply. As I said in my opening remarks, I appreciate what the Minister has done with regard to the forthcoming youth travel card and the 20% reduction in fares. Unfortunately, commuters in south Kildare will still be getting into their cars because doing so saves them €500 a year. In fact, some are saving €150 or €200 a month. I have some figures from the NTA for the Minister of State. They show that 23,458 adults bought tickets from Newbridge train station in 2021. This is an increase from 11,543 in 2016. We are using the train station in Newbridge but more and more people are using adult single tickets because it is too expensive to purchase other types of ticket. The Minister must look for this measure as part of budget 2023. I assure the Minister of State that the campaign will continue. I welcome the fact that commercial operators are also to be looked at and that funding will be allocated to them because many commuters from regions in south Kildare such as Athy take commercially-operated services to study in Maynooth, which is costing them a lot of money. It is important that the new measures be rolled out to commercial operators. I encourage the Minister of State to raise with the Minister, Deputy Eamon Ryan, the issue of climate and the fact that the commuters of south Kildare are still getting in their cars to travel to Naas train station, which is no good for anybody. I ask the Minister of State to bring that message back to the Minister.

I thank the Senator for his remarks. I will of course bring his message back to the Minister. I have heard this issue raised by a number of colleagues. I heard the Minister, Deputy McEntee, raise it with regard to her constituency and area. There is no question but that there is an issue there, which the Senator has very clearly highlighted today. Obviously, there is the 20% reduction. The Minister is very firmly committed to extending that into 2023 and to seeing what other measures can be taken.

Naval Service

Cuirim fáilte roimh an Aire Stáit. I am conscious that, as we speak, the Minister, Deputy Coveney, is launching the report of the Commission on the Defence Forces in McKee Barracks. I am very grateful to the Minister of State for coming here today. I welcome that report and the fact that the Government has taken on this issue and dealt with it in a concrete way, putting forward proposals that will ensure the future of all three branches of the Defence Forces. We can be proud of what is going to come from that report and the progress that will be made in respect of the Defence Forces, with the Government opting for level of ambition 2, which is realistic and achievable.

With that comes an expansion of the Defence Forces. It is projected that there will be up to 2,000 new members of the Defence Forces. That is particularly important in the context of the Naval Service, where we have had serious staffing issues resulting in ships that cannot be crewed sitting in Haulbowline or other bases rather than being at sea and doing the job we intended them to do. In the aftermath of Brexit and Russia's initiation of hostilities against Ukraine, we now know that we can no longer rely on the status quo. The Irish Sea represents not just an Irish border, but a European border. It is therefore tremendously important that we staff and equip the Naval Service in a way that allows it to patrol our coastal waters and make sure that we are protected to the greatest extent possible. I also recognise that the report includes plans to increase radar capacity, which is also tremendously important, but I want to particularly focus on the Naval Service and the patrolling of coastal waters. As I have said, the Irish Sea now represents a European border as well as an Irish border. It is an area that needs to be patrolled by the navy and in which we need to have strong capacity. I suggest that very strong consideration should be given to creating a new naval base of operations in Dún Laoghaire Harbour. The Minister, Deputy Coveney, may well be of the mistaken view that Cork is the capital of maritime Ireland-----

Or the capital of Ireland.

The capital of Ireland, indeed. However, I am sure he will recognise that the maritime capital is, in fact, Dún Laoghaire. Dún Laoghaire has a great maritime heritage. We obviously have the National Maritime Museum in Dún Laoghaire but the harbour itself, which recently celebrated its bicentenary, is a tremendously important asset strategically and historically. At the moment, it is less used than it could be. Since the departure of the ferry services, there is no substantial commercial activity within the harbour with the possible exception of Irish Lights, which covers the whole of the island of Ireland in maintaining lighthouses, buoys and other nautical markers that protect mariners. There is a real opportunity for the Naval Service to put a base of operations in Dún Laoghaire. The port is accessible at all hours from a tidal perspective. It never dries out. All naval ships can go in and out. It does not have substantial commercial traffic going in and out so there is no difficulty with interrupting naval operations. As we expand naval operations, it makes perfect sense to locate a naval base of operations in Dún Laoghaire Harbour, which is an underused State asset and an available historic place that is connected with the navy in very many respects.

The LÉ James Joyce was commissioned and named in Dún Laoghaire Harbour. I was at that ceremony, however many years ago it took place. As we expand the Naval Service, there is an opportunity for the Defence Forces to create a base with capacity that is located appropriately, which is right at the centre of our east coast and allows us to patrol a vast volume of water in a very effective way. I ask that consideration of the future of the Defence Forces will involve a serious examination of the possibility of establishing a proper base of naval operations in Dún Laoghaire, with one of the two new coastal patrol vessels we have acquired from the New Zealand navy being based there. It would effect real control in its patrols of the Irish Sea from Dún Laoghaire.

As the Senator mentioned, the Minister is attending the launch today. The Minister welcomed the publication of the Report of the Commission on the Defence Forces in February. The establishment of the commission was set out in the programme for Government. The members of the commission were drawn from a wide range of national and international experts. The publication of the report represents the culmination of the work carried out over 13 months, and is testament to the considerable efforts of all of those who contributed to its completion.

The report is wide-ranging and comprehensive. It contains 69 main recommendations. Together with sub-recommendations, there are 130 individual recommendations. The report proposes significant changes for the Defence Forces, including significant cultural changes and HR practices. It also includes proposals relating to high-level command and control structures and for the level of defence provision in Ireland.

Yesterday, Government approval was given for a move to level of ambition 2, as set out in the capability framework devised by the Commission on the Defence Forces. This will result in the Defence budget rising from €1.1 billion to €1.5 billion, in 2022 prices, by 2028. That is the largest increase in defence funding in the history of the State. The Government also approved the high-level action plan which sets out the response of Government on each of the 130 specific recommendations in the commission's report. Of the 130 individual recommendations, 103 have been approved or approved in principle, with the remaining 27 requiring further investigation.

An implementation structure is also set out in the high-level action plan. As part of this, it is intended that a detailed implementation plan will be approved before the end of 2022. The establishment of a naval base on the east coast was not one of the specific recommendations made by the commission in its report and, therefore, is not specifically referenced in the high-level action plan approved by Government yesterday.

The Minister for Defence cannot make any commitment at this time in respect of establishing a naval base of operations on the east coast of Ireland. However, this may be considered in the future. The Naval Service has availed of Dún Laoghaire Harbour to mark many significant events. These events included the commissioning ceremony of LÉ James Joyce, that took place in 2015. The freedom of entry to the county was bestowed upon the Irish Naval Service in 2017 by Dún Laoghaire-Rathdown County Council in recognition of its work in the Mediterranean humanitarian crisis. The Naval Service's official 75th anniversary celebrations began in Dún Laoghaire Harbour in 2021 when the LÉ Samuel Beckett berthed overnight and departed the harbour, heralded by a 21-gun salute.

There is a long-standing and ongoing tradition of Naval Service ships using Dún Laoghaire Harbour for shelter and shore leave. The Naval Service also uses the Harbour for training the Naval Service Reserve. The Minister for Defence is satisfied that the connection between Dún Laoghaire Harbour and the Naval Service is an important and strong one that continues to be fostered on an ongoing basis.

I thank the Minister of State. I was on the council when many of the events he described took place. We are tremendously proud of our connection to the Naval Service. For many years, Creidne, the Naval Service training vessel, was moored in Dún Laoghaire. I do not think it is in the Naval Service anymore. The Atlantic Youth Trust is moving to base sail training vessels in Dún Laoghaire too. Dún Laoghaire has immense maritime heritage and connections with the Naval Service. Leaving that aside, I am grateful for the suggestion that this will be considered. I hope that will come to pass. I also recognise that there must be an objective analysis of whether it is the right thing to do. I suggest that Dún Laoghaire Harbour represents an unparalleled location and opportunity for the Naval Service to base a vessel to patrol the Irish Sea. I have discussed this with the Minister on a number of occasions in recent months. I hope he will take the opportunity to put the base there because there is an underused asset that could be of enormous strategic importance to the country.

I will convey the Senator's views to the Minister, as he has done himself on many occasions. I will also add my own personal take, since we have both known Dún Laoghaire Harbour since childhood. I agree with the Senator that it is underutilised. It is a tremendous facility. For as long as I can remember, the association between the Naval Service and Dún Laoghaire has been strong. The local people love to go along the pier to see naval ships and see which one is currently in harbour. That happened when I was a child and continues to the present day. I will take the Senator's remarks on board and convey them to the Minister.

Hospital Services

I welcome the Minister of State, Deputy Feighan. I welcome the opportunity to speak on this important issue that involves saving lives. It is of utmost importance to many women, men and families all round the country. I have worked with my Fianna Fáil colleague, Councillor Teresa Costello, in South Dublin County Council on many breast care issues. This is another issue that she and I work on regularly. I ask for an update from the Department of Health on the waiting list for preventive mastectomies and about the service at St. James' Hospital in particular. This is a life-saving service. There is excess demand for it, so it is important that the service is expanded without delay. People with a higher risk of cancer due to their family history have to wait far too long for genetic testing in the first place. There are long, stressful waiting times for preventive mastectomies due to overstretched services and due to delays caused by Covid.

Inherited faulty genes play a major role in 5% to 10% of all cancers. Genetic testing is an important tool in aiding understanding of an individual's risk of certain types of cancers, including breast, bowel and ovarian cancers. Not knowing whether their family history of cancer puts them at higher risk of developing the disease can be a cause of great anxiety and stress for people. Having early access to genetic testing can provide options for that preventive treatment and reduce the possibility of ever receiving a cancer diagnosis at all. A growing number of women are taking the difficult decision of having double mastectomies and then reconstruction or of having their ovaries removed to reduce the risk.

There are major delays at many of our public hospitals. As a genetically inherited alteration passes through those family lines, the breast cancer gene, BRCA, significantly increases a person's risk of developing cancer. A mastectomy can reduce the chances of people who carry those BRCA genes developing cancer by 90% to 95%. That is an astronomical figure.

A recent survey by the Irish Cancer Society found that one in seven people have been waiting for more than a year for tests, with some waiting for more than two years for risk-reducing procedures. I highlight issues at St. James's Hospital in particular. In 2018, the family history service was curtailed due to excessive demand. I know that urgent and high-risk patients continue to be seen at the family risk clinic, but there is only one consultant plastic surgeon who supports the breast care service. There is increasing demand for the symptomatic breast service, diagnosed cancer, surgical treatment and reconstruction. They are being targeted but it is not enough. I understand a business case is being developed, but it is a crass way of describing an important preventive measure that is designed to save people's lives.

I confirm that it has not been decided to suspend this service at St. James's Hospital. Urgent and time-sensitive surgeries for women with cancer diagnoses are prioritised to provide priority access to care based on clinical need as assessed by treating physicians. Preventative mastectomies are usually risk-reducing surgeries for women who have been diagnosed with a BRCA gene alteration. As the Senator will be aware, people who inherit harmful variants in one of these genes may have an increased risk of breast cancer. Testing for inherited cancer-causing genes is commonly carried out following assessment and discussion with a genetic counsellor, either at the cancer genetics service at St James's Hospital or in the department of clinical genetics at Children's Health Ireland at Crumlin hospital.

Women who have been diagnosed with a BRCA gene alteration usually elect to undergo a period of surveillance with breast imaging prior to considering a bilateral mastectomy. For the minority of women who decide to undergo a risk-reducing bilateral mastectomy along with a bilateral reconstruction, this is a complex procedure requiring significant theatre time and expert surgeons. Because these women do not yet have breast cancer, they may be prioritised behind women diagnosed with cancer who are awaiting surgery. This has been a particular issue during the pandemic given, when hospitals and staffing levels are under unprecedented pressure, elective surgical services are curtailed and cancer treatment surgeries are prioritised over risk-reducing surgery. A further challenge is that it is not generally suitable or appropriate to outsource this type of complex surgery.

The HSE's national cancer control programme is working on a needs assessment for those with a BRCA gene alteration and this is close to completion. The needs assessment has been developed with a broad range of stakeholders, including representatives of those with a BRCA gene alteration, and will inform the planning of investment in the required services. The growing role of genetics in cancer care is well recognised and the development of a model of care for cancer genetics has been prioritised by the national cancer control programme. It has established an advisory group to agree a national framework for hereditary cancer services. This will incorporate the identification of those with an inherited cancer predisposition and their ongoing management. It will also consider the resources required to deliver this model within cancer centres, specialist cancer genetics services or other national enablers. It will be essential that investment in and development of services will extend to the required healthcare for those who have been found to have a genetic predisposition, including the resourcing of risk-reducing surgeries. The work of this advisory group will also inform the hereditary cancer aspects of the national genetics and genomics strategy, which is expected to be completed by the HSE in late 2022.

I thank the Minister of State. It is good news that the advisory group will report. I very much welcome the ongoing work by the Department in all services to reduce waiting lists, increase care and improve outcomes for many patients. I will follow up with the Department on specific details about the waiting lists and ask which services will be expanded in the short term before the advisory group reports. If someone is awaiting a feared cancer diagnosis, late 2022 is too far off. I will push for that, therefore, with the Minister for Health and his Department in order that there will be, I hope, additional services in the meantime.

I thank the Senator for her contribution on this matter, which has been very helpful. The HSE's national cancer control programme is aware of the waiting times for risk-reducing mastectomy surgery within the designated cancer centres. These surgeries are carried as part of a prioritisation with other cancer surgeries, and tumour-directed breast cancer surgery for a woman with a cancer diagnosis will invariably be prioritised. I reiterate it has not been decided to suspend this service at St. James's Hospital. Significant funding has been provided by the Government in recent years for cancer services and funding for €20 million of our new development funding was allocated for implementing the recommendations of the national cancer strategy in 2021, with an additional €20 million allocated for the implementation of the strategy in 2022. The model of care will be aligned with the development of a national genetics and genomics strategy to be completed later this year, although we hope it will be sooner.

Home Help Service

I welcome the Minister of State and thank him for taking the time to be here. It has been widely accepted for some time that older people are happier, and live longer, in their own homes. Home care packages are essential in supporting older people to continue to live within their communities. As we know, however, the home care sector is beset by a staffing crisis. Close to 5,000 people are waiting to be provided with a carer in their home. In the constituency where I live, Cavan-Monaghan, more than 250 people are waiting for home care packages, about 50 are waiting for first-time packages and more than 200 for additional hours, some of whom have been waiting for more than 12 months.

The demand is clear in the HSE's service plan, which states that the HSE expects to deliver 23.67 million home care hours this year, up by more than 2 million on the 2021 figure. Home care packages have improved but, unfortunately, there is no one to deliver them. Fears are increasing that older people may be forced into residential care sooner than they would like or left to languish in hospital because they cannot go home as there is no home care package in place for them. Age Action has called for a radical shift in how home care is managed because the delays are putting people at risk of harm. Older people may be forced to move into residential care sooner than they want or may be stuck in hospitals unable to be discharged. They may suffer consequences for their physical and mental health and their independence. Access to home care has, traditionally, been affected by funding issues but, thankfully, that is no longer the case. Just 286 people were waiting on funding for home care at the end of 2006, whereas just before the pandemic, that figure stood at 9,000, according to Department of Health data. The very significant increase in the budget is to be welcomed. Additional money had to be found for home care packages and I, along with my party in opposition, am delighted that is now the case.

The problem, however, has moved to being one of staffing. Low pay and erratic hours for carers are key issues. It can be difficult work and we as a nation owe these workers deep gratitude for the work they do. A Government workforce advisory group has been working on the recruitment crisis in home care and nursing homes and it is clear some radical thinking is required. In the past, home care was provided by the family, but family life has changed and it is now very difficult to do that. Nevertheless, families may be able to work with the HSE to find solutions. There may be a way for families to subcontract the work at local and family level, allowing, for example, a number of family members to work as a team to provide care and support to an older family member. Indeed, a similar scheme has been rolled out in Australia and the UK, where it is referred to as the consumer-directed home care scheme, which allocates a certain degree of funding to the families to spend on whatever care they deem fit. There is much merit in such a scheme because it would give families more freedom by providing carers with more financial support. With the appropriate training and oversight, the home care provided would be an added benefit to families and their connections with one another.

The advisory group may come up with other solutions and possibilities, but it needs to move quickly as the current circumstances will have knock-on effects not just for older people needing home care but also in the wider health service, in both the short and medium term.

It is clear that something needs to be done sooner rather than later.

I thank the Senator for raising this important issue. The Government is committed to the development of improved community-based services, shifting care to the home and offering greater choice for older people. In budget 2021 the Government allocated additional funding of €150 million for home support to progress the development of a reformed model of service delivery to underpin the statutory scheme for the financing and regulation of home support services and to provide 5 million additional hours of home support. The funding secured in budget 2021 to provide the additional 5 million hours has been maintained for 2022. In 2021 some 20.4 million hours were provided to over 55,000 people, around 2.9 million more hours compared to 2020, which represents an increase of 17%. In 2022, our aim is to provide 23.67 million hours of home support. At the end of May preliminary data showed that 55,392 people were receiving home support, and over 8.7 million hours of home support have been delivered this year to date, around 9% more hours than was provided for the same period last year. The preliminary data also show that significant inroads have been achieved in reducing waiting lists for funding approval for new or additional services, from over 7,800 in January 2020 to 348 in May 2022. This reduction has been achieved through a combination of validation of the waiting list and availability of additional funding to address those waiting.

However, there can be a lag between funding approval and the actual delivery of home support hours. Certain geographical areas that are experiencing increased pressures due to staff availability are particularly affected. At the end of May 4,720 people who had been assessed and approved for home support were waiting for a carer to be assigned to them. In January 2020, approximately 1,300 people were in this category. Despite the increase, it is important to note that the total number of people waiting for home support across both categories has reduced from over 9,000 at the start of 2020 to 5,068 at the end of May 2022.

Ensuring an adequate supply of appropriately skilled healthcare support assistants and healthcare assistants is a key objective of the advisory group initiative. The group has met five times since March and is currently working with key sectoral stakeholders in a structured programme of ongoing consultative engagements to further explore the issues and identify approaches to respond to the strategic workforce challenges. The group provides a forum for agreement on strategic approaches to address sectoral workforce challenges and will submit a report for the Minister of State's consideration by September 2022. The report will outline the group's key findings and recommendations.

I thank the Minister of State for his comprehensive response. I commend our carers the length and breadth of the country on the work they do. We are deeply indebted to them. I acknowledge the huge effort being put into resolving this issue by the Minister of State, Deputy Butler. I recognise that. I welcome the fact that the advisory group will conclude its work and publish its recommendations in September, which is only a few months away. Now that the hours have been allocated, it is vitally important that we recruit the people to carry out that work. The model of allocating funds to families directly to spend as they see fit is key. The recruitment of workers is a challenge across the entire economy, as the Minister of State is aware. It is key that the money is allocated to the families who are best placed to provide the care. If the families cannot provide the care themselves, they might know others in their communities who can do it. It is a key component in trying to resolve the staffing crisis.

I thank Senator Gallagher for highlighting this most important issue. As I said, we see this issue in all of our constituencies. The number of home support hours provided in communities is increasing in line with enhanced investment. Delivering this enhanced capacity requires substantial recruitment. The recruitment process has been affected by the strategic workforce challenges in the home support sector. Therefore, it is our ongoing objective to meet the continued increased demand. The Minister of State, Deputy Butler, has established an advisory group to examine the relevant issues, including the obstacles to recruiting carers, and to make recommendations. The group, which is engaging with key stakeholders, will publish its report in September. I look forward to its publication. In addition, work to progress the development of a new statutory scheme for the financing and regulation of home support services continues. Taking place in the broader context of the Sláintecare reforms, the work encompasses the development of the regulatory framework for the new scheme, the examination of options for the financing model for the scheme, and the development of a reformed model of service delivery. I thank the Senator again for raising this important issue.

Renewable Energy Generation

I thank the Cathaoirleach's office for selecting this Commencement matter today. I welcome the Minister of State, Deputy Smyth, to the House. I am raising this issue for two reasons. First, our climate action plan has ambitions in respect of the need to reduce the use of fossil fuels, particularly in energy production. The ambition is to generate significant renewable energy from wind, with a major focus of the plan being to decarbonise the electricity system and to generate 80% of electricity using renewable energy by 2030. The second reason I am raising the issue relates to the concerns over short-term, medium-term and long-term energy supply and security in this country. We know that there are concerns around the necessary and increasing use of electricity as our economy continues to grow and prosper. We are aware of the challenges that puts on the system over time. It is important that we ensure we have short-term, medium-term and long-term solutions on energy supply. The Government is acting on that.

The generation of wind energy, particularly off the west coast, has been discussed. The idea has been supported across these Houses and has received support among the general public. It is a no-brainer and a game changer, and it is necessary for us to reach our climate change targets. The Maritime Area Planning Bill 2021 passed all Stages in the Oireachtas in December of last year. It establishes in law a new planning regime for the maritime area that will enable the development of offshore energy. The Maritime Area Regulatory Authority, MARA, now has to be established. I understand that its administrative headquarters will be in County Wexford. MARA will be tasked with regulating development consent and planning for new wind projects. At present, it can take up to eight years to deliver these projects. That is too long. Clearly, the public has an interest in many aspects of offshore wind projects, including the impact on the fishing sector, the location of cables when they come ashore, environmental studies and impact assessments, and foreshore licensing. Consent around the various aspects of these projects takes a certain period of time. The planning takes time. There is a bit of confusion around the current system of planning and consent for offshore wind projects. I ask the Minister of State to outline the timeframe for the establishment of MARA, the process and timelines for the consent, licensing and approval of offshore wind projects, and the level and type of statutory engagement envisaged for offshore wind projects. That is clearly important.

There has to be a continued role for people who have legitimate and not vexatious concerns in respect of any project and that there is a process there with which they can engage with the Department and with the regulatory authority. Concerns have already been expressed by fishermen, for example, in respect of the impact of the construction and operation of wind farms and projects on the west coast of Ireland that might impact on fish movements, and everything else that goes with that. It is important that there is clarity on what the present process is for major wind farm projects and the timelines that they will go through to deliver their projects. There is general acceptance of the need for offshore wind projects. That is not to say that there are not concerns and that there will not be objections and challenges to the process. Perhaps the Minister of State may be able to outline the process as it stands to the House, please.

I thank Senator Kyne for his question. Ireland has one of the best offshore renewable energy resources in the world with a sea area of 490,000 sq. km, which is approximately seven times the size of our landmass. Because of Ireland's location at the Atlantic edge of the EU, we have more offshore energy potential than most other countries in Europe.

The Climate Action Plan 2021 includes a suite of actions to realise the full potential of the totality of Ireland's offshore renewable energy resources and commits to the achievement of 5 GW of installed offshore wind capacity by 2030. Our programme for Government sets out a further commitment to develop a longer-term plan to harness the estimated potential of at least 30 GW of offshore floating wind power in our Atlantic waters, which could enable Ireland to become a major regional generator and exporter of offshore renewable energy.

The Maritime Area Planning Act 2021 was enacted in December last year, establishing the legal framework for a new planning system for the maritime area. One of the main features of the Maritime Area Planning Act 2021 is the creation of a new State consent, the maritime area consent or MAC, as a first step in a new and streamlined planning process.

The Maritime Area Planning Act also provides for the establishment of a new agency to regulate development in the maritime area, which is to be called the maritime area regulatory authority, MARA. MARA will have four key roles, namely, granting of all maritime area consents for the maritime area; granting maritime licences for specific scheduled activities, including environmental surveys; ensuring robust compliance and enforcement measures; and managing the existing State foreshore portfolio of leases and licences

Prior to the establishment of MARA and to make achievement of our 2030 targets feasible, a pathway was provided to enable a select number of projects which had advanced under the existing foreshore regime to transition to the new maritime area planning regime.

Under the Maritime Area Planning Act, the Minister for the Environment, Climate and Communications is responsible for assessing and granting maritime area consents for a first batch of offshore projects. Those are the projects which satisfy the definition of "relevant maritime usage", under the legislation.

The maritime area consent regime assesses the viability of proposed offshore renewable energy developers in a number of key areas, including in respect of their financial and technical competency. The robust assessment of potential offshore developers who apply for a maritime area consent will ensure that only the most viable offshore projects will have the opportunity to apply for development permission from An Bord Pleanála.

On 25 April 2022, an eight-week window opened for maritime area consent applications from projects satisfying the definition of "relevant maritime usage". The first maritime area consents are expected to be issued in the second half of this year. This will mark an important step towards reaching our 2030 targets.

After the assessment and grant of the first batch of offshore renewable energy projects, responsibility will be transferred over to the maritime area regulatory authority. It will be established and operational from next year. The establishment of this authority is one of the highest priorities for the Government.

Projects which obtain a MAC will still be required to apply for all of the requisite consents and planning permission and will be subject to the full environmental assessment and public participation procedures by An Bord Pleanála.

A new offshore renewable energy development plan, OREDP Il, will be published in early 2023. The OREDP Il will assess Ireland's offshore energy resource potential, including for floating wind power generation off the west coast and will provide an evidence base for the identification of the areas most suitable for the sustainable development of fixed and floating wind, wave, and tidal technologies in the Irish exclusive economic zone, while also considering other maritime activities and marine biodiversity. The OREDP Il, along with a planned economic analysis, will set out the pathway for the long-term sustainable development of offshore renewable energy beyond 2030. This plan will provide a framework for the future sustainable development of Ireland's offshore renewable energy resources.

The development of offshore renewable energy in Ireland will bring us closer to achieving our energy and climate goals, reducing our reliance on imported fossil fuels and increasing our security and diversity of energy supply.

I thank the Minister of State for the comprehensive response and I welcome that MARA will be operational from next year. It will have a body of work to do on new applications which are made for wind energy. I also welcome that there will be, if I can put it like this, a screening of those projects which are going to be developed and a robust assessment of the potential offshore developments which apply, whereby only the most viable offshore projects will have the opportunity to apply for development permission from An Bord Pleanála. Can the Minister of State provide further information on what statutory role and at what stage will MARA engage in consultation with stakeholders? That is a key part. At what stage also will the developer of the offshore wind project have to engage with communities? Is a list available to the public of the current projects that the Minister will be assessing and making decisions on by the end of this year?

One of the main things is that our planning process at the moment is lengthy, as has been pointed out by the Senator. It needs to be compressed if we are going to meet our targets and if we are going to deal with the energy crisis that is happening across Europe. The EU has agreed under the REPowerEU proposals to compress the planning period down to a maximum of two years for major renewable projects and then to one year for particular go-to zones which each member state must designate as being areas where rapid development of offshore energy is to take place. I expect that the process of obtaining all of the consents, particularly the planning consents, is going to be speeded up.

MARA is separate from the planning process and is being established to replace the former regime for any type of offshore planning consents that were granted in the past. These were covered, in other words, by the Foreshore Acts dating back to the 1930s. This was a lengthy and not very streamlined system. The idea is that MARA will be a modern version or replacement for those Foreshore Acts and will involve ensuring that the projects are compliant, suitable, properly financed and technically viable.

It has not been fully decided at this stage what types of benefits are available for communities and this will be subject to public consultation. It is clear that for major renewable projects to succeed, however, they must have the consent not only of the authorities but of the public and that members of the public buy in to the fact that this is giving a direct benefit to their local communities. It is going to be important that there will be large, substantial and obvious benefits from any renewable energy project.

National Monuments

The Minister of State is very welcome and I thank him for coming in to take this Commencement matter in which I seek a date from his Department for the appointment of a design team for the national monuments site at Nos. 14-17 Moore Street. It is more than 106 years since the 1916 rebels, including Pearse, McDermott, Connolly and Plunkett, surrendered on Moore Street here in the heart of our capital. It is more than 15 years since those buildings were declared a national monument site by a Fianna Fáil-led government in 2007.

Since I was first elected as a city councillor in Dublin city, I have worked with relatives, traders on the street and with my own colleagues at the city council not just to protect but to seek restoration and commemoration also on that site. Most recently, over a year ago, with others I was part of the latest ministerial advisory group which reported back in May 2021. Our report, The Moore Street Report Securing History 3, made practical, pragmatic and deliverable recommendations.

Included in the recommendations were the establishment of an expert group for the market and, most importantly, the endorsement of the Irish Landmark Trust proposal for the restoration and management of the national monument and for the operation of that monument. We were really bolstered by the allocation by the Government of €12 million in urban regeneration funding for the national monument. I do not know if the Minister of State has been down to Moore Street recently, but it is shameful. It is heartbreaking for the traders and for the relatives. It is heartbreaking for anybody who cares about our history and our State and for anybody who visits it.

I hope the Minister of State will provide us with a date for the appointment of a design team. When the State neglects such important history and fails to take action not just to protect and restore but also to commemorate and celebrate our brave heroes whose actions led to the republic we enjoy today, it is shameful. I hope the Minister of State has a date for us today and the work will commence soon. I look forward to his reply.

I thank Senator Fitzpatrick for raising this. As she is aware, the future of the historical houses at 14 to 17 Moore Street has been fraught with difficulty over the years. A significant amount of time and effort has been devoted by a large number of people, organisations, the State and volunteers to try to resolve some of the issues so we can make progress. There have been a number of entities involved in this issue over the past several years, including the relatives, the Moore Street stallholders, the Department of Housing, Local Government and Heritage and Dublin City Council, just to name a few who have been focused on both the historical aspects of the site and the regeneration of the local area for the local community. The Government has rightly had a focus on allowing all the parties to debate the issues and contribute to the solution. We are pleased that positive conclusions have been reached and forward momentum is now possible.

Having considered all the issues involved and having consulted extensively all the relevant stakeholders through the Moore Street advisory group process, the Government has decided most recently to proceed with a scheme of works to create the commemorative centre at 14 to 17 Moore Street and has instructed the Office of Public Works, OPW, to manage the project. While the OPW has been curating the site since it was requested by the Minister for Housing, Local Government and Heritage to become involved in 2018 and 2019, our work up to this point has been simply to keep the monument safe and secure until a decision could be made about its future. We are happy that this process has been successful, that there has been a resolution of the issues that were proving contentious and that the project is now moving forward.

In the short term, our focus is on the Phase 1 works which are required to stabilise these very fragile structures and create the platform for the provision of the commemorative centre and visitor experience within them as a second stage. As I indicated recently in the Dáil, my officials in the OPW are currently making arrangements to resource the project properly and to put the necessary supports in place to make a substantive start. The work will be overseen by an expert technical team in the OPW led by our assistant principal architect and head of conservation in Dublin and including others within the OPW heritage services division with direct experience of creating and managing appropriate commemorative projects such as the Kilmainham Gaol Museum and the new visitor facilities at Pearse Cottage in Connemara.

This core OPW team of conservation specialists and project managers will be supplemented through the appointment of additional external technical services teams, including architects, engineers and cost specialists, who will help us to manage the project. The OPW hopes to conclude the relevant formalities with these professionals within the next three to four weeks and will expect to be in a position to make formal appointments immediately thereafter, enabling us to get started on the design preparation works that have to be done before contractors can be engaged and work commenced on the site.

I thank the Minister of State. Am I to understand from the reply that a design team will be appointed within the next three to four weeks? I hope that is what he is saying because there is genuine bewilderment as to what is happening. It is over a year since the report was submitted. The recommendations were accepted and endorsed, and they have been backed with €12 million of public funding. I hope the Minister of State is saying that a design team of experts will be appointed within the next three to four weeks and that we will see work commence.

I have been in those buildings over the last number of years. They are old buildings. Sure, they need care and sensitive treatment, but their fragility is not to be used as an excuse. They are precious and they need to be preserved and commemorated. However, as long as they are left there idle it is just adding to dereliction and making the job of the city council, the city traders, the relatives and the citizens of the city so much harder to regenerate and occupy that street in a positive way.

In the city council, I chaired the expert group for the future of the market on it. The city council advertised and received one reply. Only one operator would tender to trade and operate a market on the most prestigious market street in our country. That reflects the lack of confidence there is in Moore Street at present. That is an all-time low. It is something we cannot tolerate or support. We cannot allow it to drift. I hope the Minister of State can confirm that within the next month a technical team will be assigned and works will commence.

What I can confirm is what I said already, which is that the OPW has been involved in this for the last three years, two of which were locked down with Covid-19. I can also confirm that this has been fraught with issues. The most important thing we have to do now is stabilise the buildings because if we do not, given our experience of doing work on the Four Courts, the Custom House, Kilmainham Gaol and other important buildings across Dublin, they could be at risk of further erosion or worse. The first and most important priority for the technical expertise in the OPW is to make sure there is no substantive further damage done to those buildings, and we have a good history in that regard.

With regard to an earlier comment the Senator made, the OPW has no intention of neglecting its role in this. It has a very proud history with national monuments. The Senator is quite right that the wider issue around Moore Street and O'Connell Street is a matter for the local authority. I was there two weeks ago and what I saw did not fill me with confidence. O'Connell Street is a show and the streets off it are not much better. It is festooned with plastic and everything that should be taken down. The local authority is failing in its duty to look after the principal street in the capital city of the country. Our role, to be honest, will show up the neglect that has been led by the local authority.

However, I would not stand here and suggest that the OPW has been anything other than respectful to the monument and all the associated monuments. We will look after them. The role of the market, the associated street infrastructure and so forth are primarily matters for Dublin City Council. I have to say, having walked there less than a fortnight ago, I was less than inspired.

Cuireadh an Seanad ar fionraí ar 11.08 a.m. agus cuireadh tús leis arís ar 11.33 a.m.
Sitting suspended at 11.08 a.m. and resumed at 11.33 a.m.
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