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Tuesday, 3 Jul 2012

Other Questions

Tourism Industry

Questions (5, 6, 7, 8)

Charlie McConalogue

Question:

89Deputy Charlie McConalogue asked the Minister for Transport; Tourism and Sport the action that he has taken to address the fall in tourist numbers in the three months to the end of April; and if he will make a statement on the matter. [32147/12]

View answer

Tom Hayes

Question:

119Deputy Tom Hayes asked the Minister for Transport; Tourism and Sport his views on the prospects for tourism here during the course of 2012; and if he will make a statement on the matter. [31603/12]

View answer

Sandra McLellan

Question:

127Deputy Sandra McLellan asked the Minister for Transport; Tourism and Sport in view of the latest Central Statistics Office figures showing a marginal decrease in visitor numbers in the first quarter of 2012 versus the same period in 2011, the efforts he will make to increase visitor numbers; and if he will make a statement on the matter. [32081/12]

View answer

Bernard J. Durkan

Question:

735Deputy Bernard J. Durkan asked the Minister for Transport; Tourism and Sport the extent to which it has been possible to focus on encouragement of tourists from the various established locations such as United States, Europe and further afield; the action that will be taken with a view to encouraging tourists from such locations to visit this country; and if he will make a statement on the matter. [32402/12]

View answer

Oral answers (23 contributions) (Question to Minister for Transport, Tourism and Sport)

I propose to answer Questions Nos. 89, 119, 127 and 735 together.

Central Statistics Office figures for January to May 2012 indicate that visits from overseas to Ireland are broadly in line with 2011 levels, with a marginal decrease of 0.7%. Last year we saw growth in overseas visits to Ireland for the first time since 2007. While the figures have been on a par this year, I remain confident that we will see growth in the months ahead. The industry remains positive for the peak season based on inquiries and bookings, although clearly the outcome will depend on global economic conditions and consumer confidence being maintained in our key markets.

The global downturn has had a lasting impact on consumer behaviour, with tourists taking fewer short trips at off-peak times. Ireland is not immune to this trend. However, there are good reasons to be confident that we are on track for sustainable growth.  Inbound capacity on flights into Ireland is set to rise by 3% this summer. Ireland has the most competitively priced hotel rooms in western Europe.  The Government continues to invest in overseas marketing and our attractive tourism product.

We have had over 2.3 million overseas visits to Ireland this year. However, we cannot afford to be complacent. The entire tourism sector must keep fighting for business. The tourism agencies will continue to promote the fact that this is the best time to visit Ireland in terms of value and the wide range of things to see and do, including exciting events such as the Notre Dame-Navy football game in September which attract significant numbers from overseas. The Minister of State at the Department of Transport, Tourism and Sport, Deputy Michael Ring, and I will directly support the industry in promoting Irish tourism overseas in the months ahead, building on preparations for the Gathering Ireland 2013.

I thank the Minister for his positive answer and I am pleased by his optimistic outlook for the tourism sector. I ask for his views on the link between tourism and sports, particularly golf. According to Fáilte Ireland, a golf tourist is worth almost three times the value of an average tourist to this country. The average spend by a golf visitor is approximately €1,300. It is estimated that 155,000 overseas visitors play golf during their time in Ireland. Their total spend is approximately €240 million per annum, not to mention the thousands of jobs they help to create. I ask the Minister for his views on an all-Ireland promotion of the golfing industry in view of the emphasis placed on golf competitions in Northern Ireland.

The Minister of State, Deputy Michael Ring, has primary responsibility for sports tourism, but I agree with the Deputy on the value of golf as a tourism product. It is a good product for us. A golf promotion entitled, Home of the Champions, is under way using Pádraig Harrington, Rory McIlroy, Darren Clarke and Graeme McDowell as the face of golf. We also have an arrangement with Northern Ireland which allowed the Irish Open to be held in the North last weekend. The event will return to the Republic next year. We recognise the importance of this issue on which significant work is under way. Slightly better weather would also help but, unfortunately, we do not have control over that.

Is the Minister considering developing heritage-based tourism? Many foreign visitors come here for our striking landscapes, rich history and cultural heritage. Developing this sector makes perfect sense when one considers that for every €1 spent by the Heritage Council, the tourism sector receives €4.40 through increased tourism revenues. Does the Minister agree that developing heritage-based tourism would boost employment and that this, in turn, has the potential to provide an ongoing stream of sustainable income for cities and towns nationwide? Does he plan to keep the VAT rate in the hospitality sector at its current level which is providing a major boost to restaurants?

The 9% VAT rate introduced by the Minister for Finance in the jobs initiative will be maintained until at least the end of 2013. After that, I do not know what the position will be as it is a matter for Government. Lest I have speculated on the budget for 2013, I certainly will not speculate on the budget for 2014.

I concur fully with the Deputy on the important issue of heritage. Many people want to visit this country to see our castles and learn about our history. Although tourists tend to be divided roughly into categories, they include a specific group of sightseers and culture seekers who are known to spend most. Much of what we do is focused on this group. I am aware of the Heritage Council's estimate that every €1 invested in heritage delivers a return of €4.40 in tourism revenue, and while I do not wish to cast aspersions on the council, I am always sceptical of such calculations. In some ways, they are a form of Jack and the Beanstalk economics. If matters were that easy, we would spend €1 billion and get €4 billion back. I am often sceptical about the methodologies used to calculate returns on investment.

The visit of Queen Elizabeth II last year was a major success in promoting Ireland in England. In light of efforts to increase tourist numbers, will consideration be given to running a special promotion in Britain to persuade people to follow in the Queen's footsteps and visit the various locations on her itinerary? That would be a worthwhile initiative.

The visit of Queen Elizabeth II was a great success and helped showcase Ireland overseas. Her visit to Cashel, which was a major part of her trip, was great. I was pleased to visit Carrick-on-Suir with the Deputy last week. Unfortunately, we did not visit Cashel but perhaps we can do so the next time I visit the area. A report is being done at Department level and in consultation with the industry on what we can do to better harness the British market. Half of all overseas tourists come from Britain where our tourism industry is not making the recovery we would like. Some work is being carried out to identify what can be done to improve our position in the British market. British people now travel less than they have for a long time. I recall reading a stark statistic showing that British people travel abroad less than they did in 1989. The United Kingdom is our most important market by a mile and even a 2% or 3% increase in numbers from Britain would be worth more than a 10% or 20% increase from the long haul markets.

I emphasise the point made by Deputy Tom Hayes on the importance of golf tourism. I was fortunate to visit the Irish Open in Portrush, for which more than 100,000 tickets were sold. It was sold out despite the weather. I also saw the "Home of the Champions" campaign in full flight and found it very impressive. The Minister of State, Deputy Ring, has spoken previously of developing Ireland as a golf capital. That would be a welcome initiative and we should do all we can to support it.

On the returns on investment in cultural heritage, cultural heritage is an end in itself. Given the dire economic circumstances, many people believe that investing in our heritage infrastructure and improving access to it could have significant economic spin-off effects. Consequently, the Minister must take a more hands-on approach in this regard. I am sorry to be parochial but this is important. I will cite three examples of the failure to do this within my own constituency. I have just mentioned the Dún Laoghaire baths and the council's ten-year refusal to invest in this site, which could enhance the heritage and tourist amenity of Dún Laoghaire. The Joyce tower now has been closed, essentially because of the public sector recruitment embargo. Moreover, the council lacks the resources to facilitate small boat owners in organising trips for the public across to Dalkey Island to see the Martello tower there. This is in a small stretch. It is the Minister's business if local authorities lack either the will or the resources to ensure public and tourist access to such vital heritage amenities or if they do not have the available resources to restore them and bring them up to a level at which they would encourage tourists to visit the country.

I am impressed by the Deputy's commitment to his constituency, which is beyond the call of duty. I am sure that unlike his colleagues in the Technical Group, he is not spending too much taxpayers' money in travelling around the country to promote tax evasion-----

He may have slipped over to Galway once or twice.

-----given he is so committed to Dún Laoghaire.

The Members opposite are the ones who are facilitating tax evasion

Order, please. The Minister to respond.

The Deputy is encouraging people to do it.

To fight an unjust law.

While facilitating is one thing, actually encouraging people to do it is another thing entirely.

It is a regressive law.

The Government is in discussions with Dún Laoghaire-Rathdown County Council on the Joyce tower to get it reopened and I am sure they will come to a conclusion. A huge amount of investment goes into heritage, be it the €5 million that is being invested in Killarney House at present or the just-completed renovations to Castletown House with the help of the Office of Public Works and-----

Is the Minister aware the public cannot visit Dalkey Island?

As I had read that, yes I did. However, it is something that really must be led at local level.

It is because the council does not have the money to repair the jetty.

Sports Capital Programme

Questions (9, 10, 11, 12, 13, 14, 15, 16, 17, 18, 19)

Patrick Deering

Question:

90Deputy Pat Deering asked the Minister for Transport; Tourism and Sport the number and value of applications for the sports capital programme 2012 on a county by county basis; and the timeline for deciding on applications. [31973/12]

View answer

Seán Kyne

Question:

110Deputy Seán Kyne asked the Minister for Transport; Tourism and Sport if he will outline the number of applications received under the sports capital programme; the total value of the applications and the expected timeline for deciding on applications. [31913/12]

View answer

Sean Fleming

Question:

115Deputy Sean Fleming asked the Minister for Transport; Tourism and Sport the position regarding the sports capital programme; when he will announce details of successful applicants; and if he will make a statement on the matter. [32138/12]

View answer

Martin Heydon

Question:

129Deputy Martin Heydon asked the Minister for Transport; Tourism and Sport the number and value of applications received for the recently closed sports capital grant programme; the timeline for deciding on applications; and if he will make a statement on the matter. [32050/12]

View answer

Denis Naughten

Question:

138Deputy Denis Naughten asked the Minister for Transport; Tourism and Sport the number of applications under the sports capital programme 2012; the total value of grant aid sought; the corresponding figure for each county; and if he will make a statement on the matter. [31607/12]

View answer

Andrew Doyle

Question:

139Deputy Andrew Doyle asked the Minister for Transport; Tourism and Sport the number of applications received as part of the sports capital programme; and the number of applications he expects to be successful in gaining funding. [31953/12]

View answer

Anthony Lawlor

Question:

143Deputy Anthony Lawlor asked the Minister for Transport; Tourism and Sport the number of applications for the sports capital programme 2012; the value of funding applied for; when he expects to be in a position to announce a decision on these applications; and if he will make a statement on the matter. [32047/12]

View answer

Damien English

Question:

155Deputy Damien English asked the Minister for Transport; Tourism and Sport if he will give the details as to the number and value of applications from organisations in County Meath for the sports capital programme and the timeline for deciding on applications; and if he will make a statement on the matter. [31847/12]

View answer

Andrew Doyle

Question:

711Deputy Andrew Doyle asked the Minister for Transport; Tourism and Sport the length of time it will take to process and decide on the volume of applications for the sports capital programme. [31952/12]

View answer

Dan Neville

Question:

715Deputy Dan Neville asked the Minister for Transport; Tourism and Sport the number of applications that have been lodged for the grants under the sports capital programme; the expected time line for deciding on applications; and if he will make a statement on the matter. [32207/12]

View answer

Andrew Doyle

Question:

726Deputy Andrew Doyle asked the Minister for Transport; Tourism and Sport the number of applications that were received as part of the sports capital programme; the length of time it will take to process and decide on the number of successful of applications for the sports capital programme. [32344/12]

View answer

Oral answers (22 contributions) (Question to Minister for Transport, Tourism and Sport)

I propose to take Questions Nos. 90, 110, 115, 129, 138, 139, 143, 155, 711, 715 and 726 together.

Is that agreed? Agreed.

The Minister of State is some man. They do not pay him enough.

My Department has received more than 2,150 applications for funding under the 2012 sports capital programme. A county-by-county breakdown of the applications received and the amounts of funding sought will be circulated with the Official Report. These figures are subject to minor amendment as assessments are undertaken.

Departmental officials have started processing all applications received. This process will take some time, due to the volume of applications and the detailed information contained in each one. As a result, I do not expect to be in a position to announce the list of successful applicants before the late autumn or early winter 2012. It is not possible at this stage to estimate the number of applications expected to be successful. I intend to use the media and the Department's website to announce grant allocations and will write to individual applicants confirming the outcome of their applications.

Additional information not given on floor of the House.

County

Number of applications

Amount Sought

Project Cost

Carlow

44

€3,046,252

€3,753,675

Cavan

61

€5,780,865

€7,066,779

Clare

71

€5,286,330

€6,434,163

Cork

217

€21,083,163

€33,848,308

Donegal

111

€12,037,211

€16,571,089

Dublin

275

€33,621,690

€55,283,526

Galway

153

€17,220,424

€24,934,593

Kerry

89

€10,214,103

€10,844,207

Kildare

77

€8,715,044

€13,729,474

Kilkenny

49

€6,132,069

€10,949,037

Laois

41

€1,878,155

€2,555,919

Leitrim

30

€2,376,418

€2,706,512

Limerick

116

€14,530,746

€20,807,211

Longford

30

€1,873,684

€2,386,295

Louth

60

€4,726,335

€6,648,600

Mayo

114

€15,745,089

€29,138,404

Meath

75

€8,608,564

€11,816,635

Monaghan

48

€4,595,104

€42,208,896

Offaly

43

€2,203,339

€3,200,576

Roscommon

48

€4,381,562

€5,120,443

Sligo

47

€4,028,594

€5,141,862

Tipperary

93

€8,768,713

€16,247,482

Waterford

68

€7,232,134

€8,818,960

Westmeath

43

€5,101,562

€9,039,797

Wexford

93

€10,476,874

€14,476,065

Wicklow

56

€4,645,535

€5,940,879

Total

2,152

€224,309,559

€369,669,387

I thank the Minister of State for his response. First, I congratulate the Minister of State and the Government for resurrecting the sports capital programme for the first time in a number of years, which is to be welcomed. As the Minister of State has noted, more than 2,150 applications were received; it is evident there is huge interest in the entire process.

If the Minister of State does not mind me being parochial, I seek the figures for County Carlow. I am always concerned about Carlow's small size and its being part of a dual constituency, because I note the smaller county in such constituencies always appears to lose out. Has a decision been taken on how the money will be allocated? Will it be on a per-head-of-population or a county-by-county basis? All Members are aware there are the same number of sports organisations in each county and it is important that they receive adequate funding. The Minister of State also should indicate whether additional funding will become available later on in the year through the local authorities, as was the case in the past year, for swimming pools or outdoor equipment, which are of great benefit to a large number of constituents. The Minister of State visited my part of the country in recent weeks where he saw at first hand the benefit of funding for swimming pools and sports equipment.

There are 44 applications for funding worth €3,046,252 in the Deputy's county of Carlow. My officials and I are drawing up the guidelines on how we will deal with the applications. We want to see whether there are big or small applications, and when they have been assessed, we will draw up the guidelines on how the funding is to be spent.

I would like to provide some figures to dampen down expectations, because the Deputy is correct to say that expectations are high. There were 1,453 applications worth €293 million in 2008, but only 685 groups got funding, even though the Government of the day had €50 million to spend. I have 2,152 applications to date and I have €30 million available. It is small money when put into the overall context. We will try to distribute this money as fairly as possible, and we will draw up the regulations very shortly. We want to see whether the applications are big or small and then we will make a decision.

I do not want to see a situation arise like that which occurred in 2008, when the Government had €50 million to spend. There were schemes in 2005, 2006 and 2007, and the last scheme was in 2008. We did very well in very difficult times, and I thank the Department of Finance and the Department of Public Expenditure and Reform for allowing us to spend €30 million. There is a massive demand for funding, but I want to see that funding targeted in areas where it will be spent. I do not want to see the situation that occurred before when €55 million worth of grants were allocated and were not drawn down. I will not be giving small amounts of money to big schemes so that the money will not be drawn down.

I will also be parochial in asking the Minister of State to give the figures for Kildare. In previous times Kildare was very fortunate as we had a Minister for Finance from an Opposition party who gave us a lot of money. The money was not-----

The Deputy did not mind him.

Deputy Dooley's party got rid of him.

The money was not well spent in many of those organisations. Some of those clubs are in difficulty at the moment.

Deputy Lawlor should name them in the House.

I have no problem naming them. There are many clubs looking for funding and we are in straitened times. I know that the money will be well spent when it is given out. Where applications from clubs are not successful, would it be possible to have their applications kept on file? Instead of having to go to the expense of putting in another application, if we are lucky enough to have another round next year, we might keep the unsuccessful applications and look at them for future funding.

There are 77 applications in from Kildare that are worth €8,715,000.

Deputy Lawlor will be doling out a lot of bad news.

I want to see shared facilities. With resources so scarce, we will be looking to have shared facilities and participation where people will actually be taking part.

Deputy Deering asked a question about the swimming pool scheme last year. We are looking at other ways and means of dealing with it. Deputy Lawlor's question on applications has been put to me before, and it is something the Minister and I will examine. Given the number of applications, we can only deal with a small percentage of them. Perhaps we could look at the Deputy's suggestion, but we are not making a decision on it now. We are currently adjudicating on those applications that are being made, we are putting them in order and we will see how we can facilitate and allocate that money as fairly as possible.

I commend the Minister of State on being able, in these straitened times, to find €30 million in resources to put into the sports capital programme and for recognising the importance of this project. I am startled to hear the figures for my own county of Kildare where, as noted by Deputy Lawlor, there has been €8 million worth of applications, which is almost one third of the amount in the national pot. This case of loaves and fishes is because we have had four years without a scheme due to the failure of the previous Government. This has left a backlog, and a huge number of clubs which wanted to progress with work are now unable to do so.

While great credit is due that this amount is available, it is obvious there will be huge disappointment because there is not enough money to go around to all the clubs that want it. I was secretary of my GAA club for seven years and I know the benefit that sports capital grants have brought.

It is important to note the population of Kildare has doubled in the past 20 years, and it is one of the fastest growing counties in the country. I stress it is important that due acknowledgement is given to this point because it is a county which has seen huge influx of people coming to live there and a huge amount of development. We need to be able to match that by providing sporting facilities for these people.

I welcome the comments of the Minister of State in regard to integrated and shared facilities and I agree we need to maximise our facilities by obtaining the best use out of them. At a time of serious childhood obesity and all the rest, it is important we target this money at areas where there is a lack of facilities. I hope that will happen.

Shared facilities will be the big issue because resources are so scarce at present. If the Deputy thinks he has problems in Kildare, I will tell him what is happening in Mayo, as I was expecting someone to ask me that question. Mayo has applications for 114 projects worth €15.745 million, so they will be looking for 50% of the pot. What can I do? We all have problems.

I want to dampen down expectations. I ask all Members of the House not to be leading groups up the garden path. There is no point telling them there is a pot of gold when there is not. There is a small amount of money and we will try to distribute that-----

The Minister of State was not shy about telling them that when he was on this side of the House.

-----as fairly as possible. I do not want expectations to be raised. I know there are Deputies who are already showing the list and asking people to make applications. That is one of the things that happened during this round. I am disappointed that people were brought to public meetings, encouraged to make applications and encouraged to contact and put pressure on their TDs. We have only €30 million and it will not be easy to distribute it.

Like other Deputies, I would like to know what sort of community groups and sporting organisations applied in my local area. When the Minister of State is giving us the breakdown, he might include socio-economic status and the proportion of clubs and groups in disadvantaged areas that applied. Has the Minister of State plans to launch special schemes for local authorities like the schemes in regard to swimming pools last year, which were very successful? Special schemes could be used locally for groups that are disappointed.

With regard to the Deputy's area, Cork has 217 applications worth €21,083,163. Within the Department, we are at present looking to find other ways to assist sporting organisations. The Deputy is correct with regard to the local authority schemes last year. I want to put this on the record very clearly for the two major newspapers in this country. I was criticised in regard to Mayo getting priority. That is not true. Every local authority that made applications for grant aid got it and every local authority that made applications for grant aid for swimming pools got it. The only local authorities that did not get funding were those that did not follow the one criterion, which was that the local authority must own the land. Even having been given the criteria, they still made applications when they did not own the land. I want to put that on the record. Per capita, it was Sligo, Leitrim and Cavan, and in terms of money, it was Dublin and Cork, that got the highest amounts. I would appreciate it if the national media might cover that and correct the inaccuracies that were put in the national newspapers in recent weeks.

They are waiting with bated breath in the Press Gallery.

Smarter Transport

Questions (20, 21, 22)

Paul Connaughton

Question:

91Deputy Paul J. Connaughton asked the Minister for Transport; Tourism and Sport if he will consider incorporating the Smarter Transport Bill 2011 into upcoming legislation. [31601/12]

View answer

Paul Connaughton

Question:

154Deputy Paul J. Connaughton asked the Minister for Transport; Tourism and Sport if he will consider allowing road authorities to make bye-laws for the provision and use of charging bays on public roads in respect of electrically powered vehicles and plug-in hybrid vehicles; if he will further consider authorising a road authority to make bye-laws for the control and regulation of parking by car club vehicles on public roads. [31602/12]

View answer

Eoghan Murphy

Question:

708Deputy Eoghan Murphy asked the Minister for Transport; Tourism and Sport if he will consider allowing road authorities to make bye-laws for the provision and use of charging bays on public roads for electrically powered vehicles and plug-in hybrid vehicles; if he will consider authorising a road authority to make bye-laws for the control and regulation of parking by car club vehicles on public roads. [31605/12]

View answer

Oral answers (7 contributions) (Question to Minister for Transport, Tourism and Sport)

I propose to take Questions Nos. 91, 154 and 708 together.

These questions relate to the Smarter Transport Bill, which was introduced last year by Deputy Eoghan Murphy as a Private Members' Bill, and the related matters of electric vehicles and car clubs. The purpose of the Smarter Transport Bill is twofold.  First, it aims to promote electric car use by allowing local authorities to make by-laws for the provision and use of charging bays on public roads.  Second, it aims to promote the development of car clubs by allowing road authorities to make by-laws for the control and regulation of parking by car club vehicles on public roads.

I support the promotion of electric and hybrid vehicles as one of the ways to reduce pollution and improve our environment.  With the current state of technology, which is advancing all the time, there are limits on the distance electric cars can travel before recharging.  The provision of recharging points is, therefore, an important component in encouraging the use of electric cars.

Car clubs have proven very successful in other jurisdictions, especially in Germany and the United Kingdom.  A particular benefit is that families often find that by joining a car club they can avoid the need for a second family car, especially in cases where they might need a second vehicle only occasionally.  As with electric cars, I am also in favour of car clubs as a way of reducing the number of vehicles on our roads.  I am, therefore, very happy to support appropriate measures to promote electric cars and car clubs.

I have met Deputy Murphy on the subject and conveyed my support for the principle of promoting electric cars and car clubs as set out in his Private Members' Bill. My Department is engaged in work on the development of the next road traffic Bill, which I hope to publish at the end of 2012.  This Bill will address a number of issues and will provide an opportunity to consider proposals for facilitating electric cars and car clubs.  As far as is possible, I intend to include the proposed measures from the Smarter Transport Bill in the road traffic Bill.

I thank Deputy Connaughton for tabling the question and the Minister for his positive response. I know he is very supportive of the measures contained in the Smarter Transport Bill 2011. GoCar, which is a company looking to introduce car clubs and electric car vehicles to our public streets, re-launched the company only last week following some recent investment, so the companies are in place and are ready to go.

I introduced the Smarter Transport Bill last year for the Friday sittings, although, unfortunately, it has not been taken yet as there is a very busy schedule. One development since then is that I introduced the Tax Transparency Bill this year, which means the Smarter Transport Bill is no longer in competition for debate and for approval by the Dáil. I urge the Minister to do as much as he can to transpose the content of the Smarter Transport Bill into the road traffic Bill 2012 and, at the same time, to notify local authorities that these changes are coming, one hopes, in order that they can prepare the necessary by-laws in advance.

As far as is possible we will integrate those provisions into the road traffic Bill 2012. The Friday sessions have been very useful in giving Deputies an opportunity to bring forward their own legislation. It seems to me that the Opposition always wins the lottery and I am not sure why that is. I certainly welcome the Bill and its provisions.

I support the idea of smarter transport and I support this Bill. I would like to see a big debate on this because we all know the environmental advantages we can get from moving towards supporting electric and hybrid cars and moving away from fossil fuels, as well as other issues in terms of protecting this economy. It is very important for environmental reasons that we have a good debate on this and that we all put forward our own ideas.

Was there a question?

It is not a question. Given the Minister is planning to introduce legislation, we can have a big discussion around this and the way forward. There will be huge savings for the whole economy and also in terms of the environment.

The Bill will go to committee, where there will detailed discussion. The take-up for electric vehicles has been pretty slow and there are more charging points than there are vehicles. There is one at my local train station and I do not believe I have ever seen it being used. I am going to try out a car for the weekend and see what it is like. What many people do not know is that the electricity is actually for free. To be fair, the ESB has done a very good job in trying to promote electrical vehicles. It is even doing it to the extent that it will charge a person's car for free, which seems a very generous offer.

Question No. 92 withdrawn.

Haulage Industry

Questions (23, 24)

Heather Humphreys

Question:

93Deputy Heather Humphreys asked the Minister for Transport; Tourism and Sport if he will provide an update on the progress that has been made in addressing the difficulties facing the haulage industry following his engagement with the industry; and if he will make a statement on the matter. [32109/12]

View answer

Heather Humphreys

Question:

153Deputy Heather Humphreys asked the Minister for Transport; Tourism and Sport his plans to support the haulage industry and to address some of the difficulties that the industry is facing; and if he will make a statement on the matter. [32110/12]

View answer

Oral answers (30 contributions) (Question to Minister for Transport, Tourism and Sport)

I propose to take Questions Nos. 93 and 153 together.

These questions relate to my engagement with the haulage industry. I know that Deputies Áine Collins and Heather Humphreys have been seriously involved in issues relating to the haulage sector since their election. I recognise the important role of the sector in the transport of goods and the difficulties it is facing in the current climate.  My officials and I have met representative organisations on several occasions and I am due to meet them again in the coming days.

One of the main concerns of the sector is fuel prices. My colleague, the Minister for Finance, has established a working group to examine taxes and duties on fuel. I understand this group has completed its work and reported back to the Minister. The industry has also expressed concerns about unfair competition from illegal and unlicensed hauliers which I was able to address in the Road Transport Act 2011 which substantially increased fines for illegal hauliers and consignors who use them, of up to €500,000 and three years in prison.

To improve services for operators, my Department is working on a computer project to go live in early 2013.  It will provide an online licence application system and also allow operators to view and manage their own fleet records with the Department.  The project will also support compliance monitoring and enforcement by facilitating communication with enforcement authorities throughout the European Union.

Another issue of interest to some haulage operators is cabotage carried out in the United Kingdom.  I have met my UK counterpart on this issue and the two Departments are working together to identify what progress can be made on a bilateral basis.

Road safety is clearly important for the haulage sector.  The Oireachtas recently enacted legislation that will transform the system for the roadworthiness testing of commercial vehicles. This will lead to an improvement in the quality and safety of commercial vehicles on the roads, thereby enhancing the reputation of the haulage industry. In addition, following representations from the industry and consultation with the relevant road safety and enforcement agencies, earlier this year I signed a statutory instrument into law increasing the maximum speed limit on motorways for heavy goods vehicles, HGVs, from 80 km/h to 90 km/h.

I thank the Minister for his answer and acknowledge his efforts to assist the haulage industry, as well as recognising its important role. As he stated, Deputy Áine Collins and I have been involved in a working group set up by the Minister for Finance last February to discuss and find solutions to two of the most pressing problems facing the industry, namely, fuel costs and fuel laundering. The group included members of the Irish Road Haulage Association and officials from the Department of Finance and Revenue. I thank the members of the association for their commitment and honesty in trying to resolve the issues, as well as the significant amount of work they did and the information they provided for the Department of Finance. The working group's findings have been submitted to the Minister.

As an exporting country, the haulage sector will play an essential role in our economic recovery through the delivery of goods to the United Kingdom and across Europe. We need the industry to be strong, vibrant and competitive. This is particularly true of the Cavan-Monaghan region because we have no rail service, which makes it completely dependent on the haulage industry. Has the Minister had an opportunity to look at the findings of the working group? When will he discuss the matter with the Minister for Finance?

The Deputy is absolutely correct in drawing attention to the importance of the haulage industry. Even for parts of Ireland with a rail service, 95% of all freight is transported by road. This will always be the case in a country of this size and with such dispersed settlement patterns. Haulage is absolutely essential as the country would not function without such a service. We all remember during the heavy snow two years ago how shops were literally on the verge of running out of food because the haulage industry could not function in the bad weather. I have seen the report but have not yet had an opportunity to discuss it with the Minister for Finance. I will certainly do so in advance of the budget.

I would like questions to be brief because many Deputies want to come in on this issue.

Is the Minister aware of the issue of the essential user rebate of which other countries such as Belgium, France and Luxembourg avail and the effect it has on Irish hauliers? We have many hauliers filling their fuel tanks abroad, which means a loss of revenue to the State. What are the Minister's views on this rebate and would he support the reintroduction of such an initiative here?

I am aware the essential user rebate was abolished several years ago. It was of great financial benefit to the haulage industry, as well as to private bus operators and CIE. Its reintroduction would improve the financial position of CIE, private bus operators and the haulage industry, but it is a matter for the Minister for Finance to consider. In coming to a decision on it, he would have to weigh up several factors. On the plus side, if we could reduce tank tourism, we might gain more revenue for the State. However, on the down side, there is the cost of the rebate. It is a matter I will discuss with the Minister for Finance.

Deputy Áine Humphreys referred to the significant issue of fuel laundering. Does the Minister have an update on the progress made in solving this problem? In the past it was predominantly a Border issue. Now, however, it is like Shaws in that it is almost nationwide. It poses a serious problem for the industry. Has any progress been made in ensuring those causing the problem are brought to justice?

I am aware of the issue, but I cannot answer the Deputy's question as it is handled by the Department of Finance and Revenue.

I congratulate my colleagues, Deputies Áine Collins and Heather Humphreys, on their work with the working group on fuel prices. I thank the Minister for his comments on his work with his UK counterpart on cabotage. When it was introduced in Europe, the knock-on implications for Irish hauliers in the United Kingdom were not envisaged. We now have the ludicrous situation where Irish hauliers need to come back from there with empty trailers. It is killing the industry. I know of specific cases of specialised Irish hauliers who in transporting parts for wind turbines in Scotland, owing to the cabotage rules, were forced to return with empty trailers. I encourage the Minister to continue his work in finding a solution to this problem. We cannot lose hauliers at a time when the economy is in a difficult position. It is hauliers we are going to need to transport goods and produce as the economy grows.

The rules on cabotage are absurd in what is supposed to be a single European market. In a nutshell, they mean an Irish haulier in Britain or a British haulier in Ireland can only take three journeys between the two countries within a period of seven days. This is absurd, given that there is free movement of people, trade and goods across the European Union. The Benelux countries have an arrangement which means hauliers can operate freely in the three countries in question. It seems to work well for them. It appears it predates European law and is, therefore, an exception to the cabotage regulations. What we are working on is a bilateral agreement to create a common haulage area of Britain and Ireland. However, it may be difficult to do this because it may be contrary to the European directive on cabotage. The other option, supported by the European Commission, is to get rid of cabotage and have a common European area for haulage. However, some larger member states, in particular, are resisting this. It is the Government's policy to eliminate these restrictions. To do so, however, it would need the co-operation of our British and European colleagues.

Local authorities are spending up to €4 million on the environmental clean-up of the sludge from fuel laundering, most of which is dumped on farms and roadsides. Is the Minister in contact with the Department of the Environment, Community and Local Government on whether a grant may be made available to local authorities to meet these clean-up costs? Is he in contact with the Department of Justice and Equality on increasing prison sentences or the fines for those found guilty of fuel laundering?

I have not been in contact with the two Departments on this matter. The issue of washed diesel and so on falls to Revenue and the Department of Finance. While it is not one we have discussed around the table yet, the Deputy's suggestion is valid. It is one of those matters that does not necessarily fall to any one Department and is not addressed for that reason. It is an issue about which the Departments and agencies involved need to have a conflab in the next few weeks.

It is welcome that the Minister acknowledges the significant positive impact of the haulage industry on industry in general and the country's commercial future. Does he accept the elephant in the room for the haulage industry is high fuel prices and that it is a major concern in terms of employment in the industry? Does he accept that many HGVs regularly breach the prohibition on driving through residential areas? I have experience in Dublin bay north of HGVs breaching the regulations by driving down Griffith Avenue, one of the nicest avenues in Europe. What they are doing is completely against the law. Will the Minister take action on this issue?

Fuel prices are very high. That is not just the case for hauliers, however. They are high for all of us. High fuel prices do not just impact on hauliers; they also have an impact on motorists and bus companies. While prices are high, they are by no means the highest in Europe. For example, fuel prices are higher in the UK and France. Ireland is not the worst offender in this regard but I acknowledge that prices here are high and that this is putting pressure on households, in terms of their income, and businesses.

The enforcement of the law relating to HGVs is entirely a matter for the Garda and local authorities. That is not a matter in respect of which I can provide assistance.

Apart from issues such as VAT and rebates, the cost of fuel in general is of concern to companies which use vans and other large vehicles. One action we can take is to ensure the best level possible will be set in the legislation which is being debated by the European Parliament and which relates to new limits for manufacturers in respect of van emissions. The level currently under discussion in this regard is not as good proportionately as that which relates to smaller vehicles. I am informed that the level to which I refer is based on a miscalculation of the emission figures for vans in production at present. Moves to improve the efficiency of vehicles used in the road haulage industry would lead to major long-term savings for the companies involved. If such moves are not made, this could lead to a dramatic increase in the cost of doing business in the future.

There have been reports in The Sunday Business Post to the effect that progress has been made in the context of combating the major problem of fuel laundering through the use of new dyes, etc. We must find a means whereby we can stop people tampering with fuel.

The Minister referred to the cost of fuel in general and our level of dependence on road haulage. What progress has his Department made in the context of trying to get freight back onto our railways? I refer, in particular, to the possibility of routing freight through our deep water ports. In my constituency we have one of the deepest ports in the country and an unused rail line. Has the Department made any progress in the context of getting the rail line to which I refer reopened for either bulk or container traffic or both?

It is interesting that Deputy Ellis appears to know a great deal about fuel laundering, etc. He certainly seems to know a little more about the subject than I do.

I do not know where the Minister got that impression.

Deputy Ellis also reads The Sunday Business Post now.

Is that what they read in Dublin Bay north?

Perhaps Deputy Ellis might agree to meet me in private in order to inform me about the tricks of the trade and so on.

I do not know what the Minister is implying but I take offence at what he said. I have never supported anyone who has been involved in fuel laundering. I want to make that clear. The Minister should withdraw the remark he made. There has been an insinuation that I am doing something illegal and that is just not acceptable.

I assure the Deputy that I am not insinuating that he is doing anything illegal.

Well, what was the Minister saying?

I am just impressed by the Deputy's level of knowledge with regard to what is happening in the area in question.

(Interruptions).

I do not know how the Minister can be impressed, particularly as I have not imparted any knowledge to him.

Fuel laundering is a matter for the Department of Finance and the Revenue Commissioners. There are a number of things which could be done in terms of adding markers, etc., to fuel. Isotope markers appear to be an option in this regard.

The level of freight being carried by rail is increasing slightly. Irish Rail's business in this area is now quite profitable, which was not the case in the past. Dublin has been connected to the port railway network, with the rails running under the crane for the first time. Preliminary discussions have taken place with Irish Rail in the context of reopening the line to Shannon-Foynes. However, the Deputy will accept that those discussions are commercial in nature.

Is the Minister in a position to assure the House that none of this illegal diesel is making its way into the school transport system, possibly through its use by private operators? Is there a mechanism in place to monitor the position in this regard?

I am afraid I cannot provide assurances in that regard. Again, this matter does not fall within my remit. The Deputy's question would probably be best answered by the Minister for Finance and the Revenue Commissioners.

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