Léim ar aghaidh chuig an bpríomhábhar

Dáil Éireann díospóireacht -
Tuesday, 17 Feb 2015

Vol. 868 No. 1

Topical Issue Debate

Rural Transport Services

I thank the Minister of State, Deputy Michael Ring, for coming into the Chamber to discuss this issue.

In December 2013 the then Minister of State with responsibility for public transport, Deputy Alan Kelly, a representative of the predominantly rural constituency of Tipperary North, introduced an innovative and far-sighted scheme to allow rural communities with a dearth of public transport services to secure new hackney licences. Individuals in such areas who might be willing to provide a taxi service could be offered a hackney licence at a reasonable cost through a reasonably straightforward licensing process. Following this announcement, the then Minister of State devolved responsibility for the administration of the scheme to the National Transport Authority, NTA.

It has been my experience in the past year that the good and positive intent of the scheme has somehow been lost in the devolution process. The NTA seems to have erected many obstacles in the way of communities and individuals within them in securing the new rural hackney licences. An important element of the decision-making process for the licences was for the NTA and the applicant to seek the expert opinion of the local authority on whether a rural area was adequately serviced by public transport. So far, I have worked with three individuals in east Galway to secure rural hackney licences for three communities which are badly served by public transport. All three have failed and been told by the NTA that not now or at any point in the future will they be allowed to secure a rural hackney licence because, in the opinion of the authority, their areas are already adequately served by public transport or other taxi or hackney services.

If one puts in place a process to seek the expert opinion of a local authority and then ignores it, what is the NTA’s intention? Does it intend to fully support the provision of rural hackney licences? Does it intend to keep to the spirit of the scheme when first introduced by the then Minister of State? My experience to date is that this is not the case and that the NTA is not at all supportive of communities or individuals who wish to seek to establish new rural hackney services.

Will the Minister of State, Deputy Michael Ring, and his colleague, the Minister for Transport, Tourism and Sport, Deputy Paschal Donohoe, make it clear to the NTA that it is not administering the scheme in the way originally intended? Many communities across rural east Galway, as well as in other rural areas, are badly in need of such services, but they are not being allowed to avail of them.

The regulation of the small public service vehicles, SPSV, sector is a matter for the National Transport Authority, NTA, pursuant to the Taxi Regulation Act 2013. This includes responsibility for the rural hackney licence. As such, I have no function in this matter. I can, however, set out some background and some information on the operation of the scheme, which has been provided to me by the NTA.

The recommendation for the provision of a local area hackney licence category arose from the taxi regulation review report published by the Government in 2012. The background to the recommendation was the recognition that in many rural areas there is a low level of access to a taxi or hackney service, with many areas having no access at all to these services. The report also stated that the reason for the poor level of access to taxis and hackneys in these rural areas almost certainly relates to the economics of providing a taxi or hackney service in these areas. Given the level of taxis available nationally, it is likely to be the case that if the service was commercially viable, it would be provided by the market at present. However, the limited nature of transport hiring activity in these areas means that sufficient volume of business to justify the placement of conventional hackney and taxi services does not exist in many locations.

Provision for the granting of rural hackney licences was originally adopted in the Taxi Regulation Act 2003 (Local Area Hackney) Regulations 2013. The provision has since been restated in the Taxi Regulation (Small Public Service Vehicles) Regulation 2015. Both of these regulations were made by the NTA. The regulations reflect the recommendations of the taxi regulation review board, which anticipated the following features. First, the area of operation is limited. The focus of local area hackney licensing is intended to serve a local community. While the size of the operation area will vary from place to place, it would be expected that many areas would be represented by a five to seven km radius from a defined central point such as a village. Second, the need for a local area hackney licence must be validated by a local community or business organisation. The applicant has to provide the following: confirmation of a need from an established organisation representing local businesses or from a community group with charitable tax status; a need analysis study carried out by or on behalf of the relevant local authority; a letter confirming this signed by the manager or director of service of the local authority. Third, drivers must be resident in the local area.

The requirement to sit the skills development programme in respect of area and industry knowledge which applies for the general SPSV driver licence is waived. Licence fees are also low and the vehicle standards are less than those required for general SPSV licences. Like all hackneys, the driver is not permitted to trade on public roads or at a taxi rank, however, the establishment of an approved hackney stand in an off-street area is permissible, where the hackney vehicle can accept customers. It should be noted that the licensing of a local area hackney service is intended to address transport defects that would not otherwise be addressed in certain rural areas. It is not intended to replace or displace conventional taxi or hackney services. Under the current legislation, the NTA is permitted to grant a licence if it is satisfied that the public transport needs of the area can only be met through the granting of a local area licence.

I am advised by the NTA that to date, 42 applications for rural hackney licences have been received. Two of these applications have lapsed. Of the remaining 40, seven have been granted, a further seven have been offered on a conditional basis or approved in principle, 17 have been refused and nine are pending. The rural hackney licence is still at an early stage of roll out. The NTA is satisfied that it is a necessary scheme to tackle transport defects in rural areas where the most general SPSV services are not being provided. The NTA has assured me that the regulatory arrangements that have been implemented are fully in accordance with the recommendations of the taxi regulation review group report approved by Government.

I can only speak from my experience of working with three distinct communities and three individuals wishing to serve those communities. They satisfied all of these criteria. Their application was accompanied by a letter from a community group that advocates on behalf of the community and works to address the needs of the rural community. They were also accompanied by a forensic analysis of the public transport needs carried out by the local authority and signed by a very senior figure within the local authority management. The individual concerned also had a suitable vehicle and made a very significant commitment not to operate outside a distinct radius of, as the Minister of State pointed out, five to seven km. They also committed not to undermine to any extent existing hackney services in adjoining towns or villages. They satisfied all of those criteria, yet were refused. I can only speak from the experience of working with these individuals. They were exceptionally disappointed. The communities they were willing to serve were equally disappointed.

When this rural hackney opportunity was first proposed back in December 2013, it was welcomed by a number of groups advocating on behalf of rural Ireland - Irish Rural Link, the Irish Farmers Association and the Vintners Federation of Ireland all welcomed the opportunity at long last to be able to serve the needs of rural communities that were badly served by public transport. It has been my experience that the spirit and intent of the regulations and legislation, and of the review of taxi services nationally that produced this recommendation, have not been honoured by the NTA. It seems to be an exceptionally difficult entity to deal with in terms of securing these rural hackney licences. I urge the Minister of State to engage directly with it and to question it on whether it is implementing the scheme as it was intended. It is my experience that the opposite is happening.

I thank the Deputy for raising this issue. It is an important issue. To be fair to the Minister, Deputy Alan Kelly, when he brought in this scheme he did so to deal with the defects. The Deputy is correct in that there are many rural areas that do not have a taxi service. If it was commercially viable people would provide the service. There has to be a balance. I am going to ask my officials and will also myself engage with the NTA. I will also ask that the points raised by the Deputy be brought to the attention of the NTA. There have been 42 applications yet only seven licences been offered. The scheme is at an early stage and there are teething problems, nevertheless I will ask the NTA to have a look at it again. The Minister, Deputy Donohoe, and I will also negotiate to see if we can try and support and make sure that the areas that need licences get them.

What we do not want - the Deputy can understand this - is to displace people who are there. It is difficult enough for taxi people, particularly in rural Ireland. They are finding it hard enough to make a living. There are many people finding it difficult to make a living. What we need is balance. I will ask the NTA to look at this again and to take the Deputy's concerns into account. I will send on this report from the Dáil today to the NTA and will ask it to have a look at this again. The scheme was intended to serve areas that were not getting the required service. What we do not want is an over-regulation of the scheme, but we also do not want to make it easy and put other people out of business. There has to be a balance and we are trying to strike the balance. It is important that this scheme be looked at again and I will ask it to do that.

Coastal Protection

The next matter for Topical Issues debate is in the name of Deputy Michael McNamara to the Minister for Public Expenditure and Reform, on coastal defence studies. The Minister of State, Deputy Harris, will take that matter. May I first offer Deputy Michael McNamara my good wishes on his recent engagement?

I thank the Acting Chairman. I do not know where to begin after that.

It has been a little over a year now since west Clare and many parts of the west were very damaged by unprecedented storms. It seems like a lot longer but time flies when one is having fun and the reverse is also true. For the people who live there, the intervening period has not been entirely satisfactory. They have seen considerable delays in repairing a lot of the damage that was done to public infrastructure. There were 43 impacted sites identified by Clare County Council after the weather events, and of these, 15 have by now been fully restored and 28 require further work. Clare County Council estimated the cost of works required to address the damage from the storms at approximately €36 million, which included both the cost of repair and reinforcement works.

To date, €17.6 million has been provided for the council for repair works only. Repair works have been carried out in a number of locations, including Liscannor, White Strand and Kilbaha. The Minister of State will be glad to hear repairs to essential tourism infrastructure have been carried out and there are works in progress in other areas, including works which recently began on the Kilkee seawall, all of which is funded by national Government.

However, the allocation from the Office of Public Works is for repairing infrastructure only and not for new or upgraded storm defences. I have been quite critical of Clare County Council over the past 12 months for its failure to advance the repair works given the damage caused, the impact this has on communities which must relive the damage caused by those events and the impact there could be on tourism. Clare County Council has explained to me that, in some instances, the reason it has not spent that money is that it wants to see upgraded storm defences and it does not want to spend money on repairs on something which could be swept away again in the next spring tide. This may well have been a one in a hundred year storm, although it may not have been.

Clare County Council has applied for feasibility studies for seven of ten locations which have been identified as needing storm defence work. We had a meeting in a room on the ministerial corridor with residents of Clohanhinchy who described the harrowing events of that night. Funding has been granted for a feasibility study there. Clare County Council has also applied for feasibility studies for seven other sites to date. Applications have been made in respect of Kilbaha, Clahane and Flaggy Shore, which were sent to the OPW on 5 January 2015 while applications for Lahinch, White Strand, Miltown Malbay and Ross Bay were sent in on 12 January 2015 but there has been no reply to date. The council is currently preparing applications for money for feasibility studies in respect of Spanish Point, Quilty and Liscannor. Will the Minister expedite the applications for moneys?

While I was critical of Clare County Council for not doing more work, there is a compelling logic to what it says that there is no point spending scarce resources on repairing something which could require repair again in a mere season's or two seasons' time. On that basis, I would like an assurance that it will be expedited.

There is also the matter of a minor works application for damage to embankments along the Shannon Estuary and at Clohanhinchy. The IFA has been involved in compiling and putting forward that application. There is considerable confusion in regard to it and a public meeting was called quite recently. The Minister of State's office offered me certain assurances but again, I would like an assurance that the application will be dealt with expeditiously and, I hope, with a positive outcome.

I echo the Acting Chairman's words of congratulations to Deputy Michael McNamara and his fiancee and wish them both the very best on their recent engagement.

I thank the Deputy for raising this important matter which, in fairness to him, he has consistently raised with me since my appointment to this role eight or nine months ago. Ireland is a maritime nation and so coastal flooding and erosion are understandable subjects of concern to communities living around our coast. As the Deputy said, the issues were particularly brought to the fore last winter, when substantial damage was caused to coastal infrastructure in a series of severe storms during the period December 2013 to February 2014.

The carrying out of appropriate studies is essential in addressing coastal protection issues. Coastal erosion is a natural and ongoing process which takes place around the entire coastline. Coastal erosion may threaten human life, infrastructure, such as roads, and may undermine and cause damage to properties. However, it should also be recognised that coastal erosion also has beneficial effects to the local environment, such as providing natural nourishment and supply of sediment to adjacent beaches.

Due to the considerable extent and nature of the Irish coastline impacted by erosion and the fact that it is an ongoing natural process, it would be uneconomical and impractical for the State to attempt to protect all of this coastline, which we all accept. We must be prepared to accept this reality and the implications it has in terms of policies to be adopted and decisions to be made on how we manage the future development of our coastal environments and the impact of this on the communities that reside therein.

On 11 February 2014, the Government allocated total funding of up to €69.5 million for clean-up, repair and restoration works in regard to public infrastructure damaged in the storms during the period 13 December 2013 to 6 January 2014. Of this sum of €69.5 million, up to €19.6 million was allocated through the Office of Public Works for repair of existing coastal protection and flood defences based on submissions and cost estimates made by the local authorities concerned to the Department of the Environment, Community and Local Government. In the case of County Clare, a sum of up to €8,276,433 was allocated to the county council. Based on this allocation, the council subsequently submitted a programme of storm damage repair works at 26 locations in the county for approval by the OPW. This was approved by the OPW on 13 May 2014.

To date, a total of €1,182,155 has been drawn down by the council. The council has indicated to my office that works are ongoing at other locations on its programme and that it expects to draw down the bulk of the balance of the funding allocated by the Government decision during this year. Provision has been made in the OPW's allocation for 2015 to enable local authorities to draw down this year any outstanding balance of the funding allocated to them.

Clare County Council has indicated that it proposes to undertake a programme of major coastal defence enhancement projects at a total of ten locations over the next three to four years, with an indicative estimate of cost of €15 million to €20 million. These projects are for new or significantly upgraded or strengthened coastal protection structures. As such they fall outside of the scope of the Government decision which related to repair works only.

It is a matter for each local authority in the first instance to identify and address priority areas of their respective coastlines considered to be under significant threat from flooding or erosion and Clare County Council may carry out flood mitigation and coastal protection works and studies using its own resources. In putting forward proposals to central government for funding of appropriate erosion management measures, it is a requirement that any such proposals and funding applications for structural measures to prevent or mitigate coastal erosion are put forward in conjunction with an appropriate coastal erosion risk management or feasibility study which fully investigates, substantiates and demonstrates the merits of any measures being proposed. Such measures usually require the investment of substantial amounts of public funds and in order to ensure value for money, a study to assess the viability of any proposed measures must be carried out in advance.

To answer the Deputy's question directly, we have received a request from Clare County Council for funding to undertake studies to examine if there are viable measures that could be progressed at seven locations. The application in respect of Clohanhinchy was submitted in 2014 and I was pleased we were in a position to provide funding. The applications in respect of the other locations were received last month, they are currently being considered and a decision will be made shortly in this regard.

I thank the Minister of State for his congratulations, but he will excuse me if I press him for further details because my fiancée's family is from west Clare and she may seek specifics on the issue.

Unfortunately, this whole idea of coastal erosion is not new. The damage caused to many parts of Ireland - Clare was not unique but, I suppose, it suffered the worst of it - was unprecedented but not entirely unpredictable. A report, Coastal Management - A Case for Action, was published by EOLAS on behalf of the county and city managers in the 1990s. A whole raft of areas requiring immediate coastal protection were identified in County Clare as in all other coastal counties. A long and detailed list was provided in respect of County Clare, which was far more comprehensive than that for which the council is now seeking feasibility studies to examine works. The total cost of all of that protection work back then was a mere £14 million, which is approximately €19 million. While €19 million was a lot more money then than it might be now, nevertheless, we are now talking about almost €19 million to repair the damage alone, without ever providing any coastal protection into the future.

A raft of infrastructure was developed by the State, albeit the State which preceded this one, including culverts, embankments, etc. However, there is much doubt as to who owns them.

I have been engaged in some correspondence, but I have received correspondence from Councillor Christy Curtin going back to the 1980s and beyond between people like Noel Treacy and Brendan Daly in county secretary positions that no longer exist. This is not to be critical of them personally, but rather of the approach taken by officialdom in denying responsibility. We do not need to know whose responsibility it is not, we need to know who owns these pieces of infrastructure and who is responsible for their upkeep because nobody can hope to do anything with them or apply for funding in respect of these essential flood protection mechanisms. They were built for a very good reason and the necessity for them continues today. Will the Minister of State also address that issue?

I thank the Deputy for the specifics. It is very important to get this right. There is a time for studies and a time for action, but in relation to coastal erosion, it is very important that if the taxpayer is going to pump millions of euro, or more, into funding schemes related to coastal erosion, we get it right. To its credit, Clare County Council has submitted seven applications to my office. One application at Clonahinchy for a study has been sanctioned and that is ongoing, six were only submitted last month. My office is currently examining them. I will raise this with my officials and we expect decisions shortly.

The Deputy is right about coastal protection. The Irish coastal protection strategy study is a major examination to assess and identify the most significant areas of erosion risk for the entire national coastline. This major study is effectively complete and it will provide invaluable and essential information required to inform policy in this area. It is mapping for the first time the entire national coastline and the erosion hazard maps produced and published under the study will be available to local planners to inform and guide decisions on local coastal planning issues.

I am not trying to pass the buck, but planning plays a role. I have stood in far too many homes and on far too much commercial land where planning permission was granted, perhaps in the knowledge, or at the very least in the ignorance, of flood risk. That has brought misery to many people and one thing we must get right is planning decisions in this country. That is the responsibility of our local authorities.

I will move on to the issue of responsibility. The Deputy is dead right. Who is responsible for the Shannon? Everybody. When everybody is responsible, nobody is responsible. So many organisations are responsible that things fall between the stools. Part of the objective of CFRAM, the catchment flood risk assessment and management, is to look at 300 areas in this country at risk of flooding, not just to decide what needs to be done, but also to assign responsibility for doing it. Is it a matter for the OPW? Is it for a State agency? Is it for the local authority? That process will come to a conclusion this year and will be implemented next year.

Regarding the issue with the IFA and embankments, I hope to be in a position to meet with a delegation from the IFA and Oireachtas Members in Clare shortly. The crucial question is who is responsible. Is it the Department of Agriculture, Food and the Marine, is it the county council, or is it the OPW? We need to get people around the table and I am happy to facilitate getting people around a table in order to get to a conclusion.

Social Inclusion and Community Activation Programme

Gabhaim buíochas leis an Aire as bheith anseo chun déileáil leis an gceist rí-thábhachtach seo. The whole process around the social inclusion and community activation programme, SICAP, or the public procurement process of community or social inclusion programmes is mired in confusion. As far as I know, the letters that were to be signed off on and sent out this week are now put on hold for a future date, adding to confusion among workers and those who are dependent on delivery of a service.

Will the Minister reinstate the €742,000 he has cut from the community programmes in Dublin and the €2 million cut in social inclusion programmes across the State? Regardless of the SICAP tendering process, that will lead to loss of jobs or at the very least, a loss of services in the most hard-hit communities. There is deep concern, for instance, in my own area, about the viability of the equine centre and other services in Bluebell, St. Michael's estate, Fatima, Rialto, and the south-west inner city, given that in future a single organisation will cover two partnership areas in some instances - double the geographical area and double the service delivery on a reduced budget. Will the Minister reduce that and can he commit to ensuring there will be no job losses and no loss to community services in this tendering process? I congratulate all those community workers who have been delivering services despite cuts, not just from the Minister's Department but from other Departments, over the years and manage to retain most of the services. That is a testament to them and to the communities that depend on them.

I am pleased that the Minister came in person to the House to deal with this important issue. The SICAP tendering process was meant to be announced tomorrow. If that is put back, more uncertainty arises for the workers, who do not know what is going to happen after the end of March. As the Minister knows, there are about 2,000 workers in this sector who are waiting for a decision on SICAP. The SICAP process was totally unsatisfactory from beginning to end and is going to lead to some very bad outcomes on the ground.

This evening I would like to concentrate on the issue of what is going to happen to people who are employed in the partnerships after 31 March. As Deputy Aengus Ó Snodaigh has said, there is a cut in the money. Can the Minister confirm how many jobs the Department estimates will be lost? Will the companies be given money to put a proper redundancy package in place in order that a proper voluntary redundancy scheme will be put in place for the workers? The uncertainty is very unsatisfactory. It is also interesting to look at the Labour Court decision of 4 December 2014, where it rightly points out that even though the Government is not technically the employer, standing back from the process and pretending to have nothing to do with it is somewhat like Hamlet without the prince. There is an obligation on the State to engage not only with the employers but with the employees to clarify what is going to happen to their jobs and, if there is going to be downsizing, how that will be approached and whether the companies will get money to facilitate fair redundancy packages, as one would expect in a situation like this.

This is a very important issue. My Department's local community development programme, LCDP, is the largest social inclusion intervention of its kind in the State. The successor programme to the LCDP, the social inclusion and community activation programme, SICAP, to be rolled out on 1 April, will build on the LCDP aims and objectives. Its aim is to tackle poverty, social exclusion and long-term unemployment through local engagement and partnership between disadvantaged individuals, community organisations, public sector agencies and many other stakeholders.

Community development is an integral part of SICAP and underpins the entire programme. I am confident that supports for the most disadvantaged in our society will continue under SICAP and that the programme will continue to provide supports to those most distant from the labour market. In accordance with the public spending code, legal advice, good practice internationally and in order to ensure the optimum delivery of services to clients, which I am sure everyone agrees is critically important, SICAP is subject to a public procurement process, which is currently under way. The public procurement process is a competitive process that was open to local development companies, other not-for-profit community groups, commercial firms and national organisations that can provide the services to be tendered for to deliver the new programme. The outcome of the procurement process will be known later this month.

In the changing landscape for the community and local government sectors and having regard to my Department's response to differing priorities, the primary focus of my Department must be to ensure that the front-line services being supported, particularly those focused on the needs of the most socially deprived communities, are protected, given the need to ensure best value for the scarce resources available at this time.

While business continuity remains a key concern for all stakeholders, it is not possible to predict what impact, if any, the outcome of the competitive process for the new programme will have with regard to the network of local development companies, LDCs, which are independent limited companies, or their staff.

The outcome of the competitive process will be known later this month and I assume it is this announcement to which the Deputies are referring. At that stage, my Department will review the outcome, mindful of the need to observe procurement regulations and ensure front-line services delivered through the new programme are protected in so far as possible.

My Department does not have any role in the internal operations of LDCs and, therefore, does not have a role in staff or employment matters, which are for the board of each company, as the employer, to manage. Each funding Department is responsible for its funding and contractual arrangements with the local development companies.

In the meantime, all groups which received local community development programme funding in 2014 are being funded through LCDP interim arrangements until 31 March, pending the outcome of the competitive process, which is imminent.

The Minister did not address the key concern and instead washed his hands of the issue by claiming it was not his responsibility. If funding for local partnerships in the Dublin area is cut by €742,000, it will affect service delivery, irrespective of the outcome of the tendering process. It is incorrect to claim, therefore, that it is not possible to predict the impact of the competitive process. Both the Minister and I can predict what will be the impact of a cut of this magnitude. I ask him again if he will take more time, given that he has not yet issued the relevant letters, and reverse the cut. Will he also guarantee that there will be no job losses or loss of service in the most disadvantaged communities in the State?

One of the key points made to the Joint Committee on Public Service Oversight and Petitions by Ms Deirdre McCarthy and Siân Muldowney of the Dublin Inner City Partnership was that it did not have to be this way. According to Ms McCarthy and Ms Muldowney, the new EU directive which will come into effect when it is transposed into Irish law in the next 12 months provides that tendering is not necessary.

While he may have made the statement with a serious face, the Minister cannot honestly believe local partnership companies can make redundancy payments to staff without his Department providing them with the money to do so. All of the funding disbursed under the social inclusion and community activation programme, SICAP, is controlled by the Department and no disbursements may proceed without his approval. It is amazing that the Labour Court saw through the rubbish being spoken by the Minister. The court, in its recommendation on the matter, stated the issues raised by the unions were real and substantial and, like any group of workers, the workers in question were entitled to an opportunity to have the issues ventilated and addressed by those with responsibility for the decisions that had given rise to their concerns. This, according to the Labour Court, cannot be achieved through engagement between the parties to the referral alone, namely, the local development companies and unions. Having taken into account all of the circumstances of the case, the court recommended that a forum be established to deal with the employment related matters affecting the workers associated with the claim. This forum, it stated, should involve the unions and representatives of the employers in the first instance. However, the parties should seek the participation in the forum of the de facto decision makers in matters of policy and funding. The Minister is the de facto decision maker in this case because he provides all of the funding. Will he be up-front and inform the employers and workers about what will take place or will he leave them in the lurch, as he appears to be doing?

I, too, can read and have read the Labour Court's recommendation in the case. I am well aware of my responsibilities and will not shirk them. However, the fact remains that the local development companies are private entities.

The Deputies have probably raised this issue a little prematurely because a tendering process is under way and will soon conclude.

When will it conclude?

What does that mean?

It means very soon.

Will it conclude by the end of the month?

Yes, that is the timescale.

Is Fine Gael-----

May I make my contribution? As part of the tendering process, we will find out what will be the scale, range and geographical and sectorial spread of the impact of the process on local development companies. I intend to ensure those on the front line who receive the services provided by local development companies will be fully protected. The Department will do everything possible to ensure this will happen once the tendering process has concluded.

As the Minister with responsibility for this area, I will not prejudge a tendering process that is under way, as it would not be appropriate or responsible to do so. The outcome of this independent process will be known soon and I am confident that the Government will address any issues that arise in the area of service provision to ensure people will receive the services they need.

Mare Nostrum Project

The Minister of State, Deputy Aodhán Ó Ríordáin, will no doubt agree that events on the Mediterranean are a terrible reflection on the European Union and the West in general. Aside from the destruction being caused in the countries from which people are fleeing, it is a mark of the terrible hardships they face that they are fleeing across the Mediterranean which is, by all accounts, an incredibly dangerous waterway. This year alone, more than 400 refugees have drowned making the crossing. The European Union, under pressure from countries such as Britain, stopped the Mare Nostrum project which rescued more than 100,000 people in the year before it was discontinued in October last. That this has been done in response to the argument that the project was encouraging immigrants to come to Europe is frightening. We have decided to allow a few refugees to drown to see if it will put people off making the journey in the future. Instead of spending €9 million per month in addressing the problem on the Mediterranean, the budget for the Mare Nostrum project has been cut by one third. The European Union has admitted that the main focus of the new Triton mission is border control as opposed to helping people at sea.

This terrible tragedy did not fall out of the sky. Libya is the foremost country from which people are fleeing. More than three years ago, with other Deputies on this side, I argued against the madness of allowing NATO to bomb Libya. As a result of the NATO bombing raids, the death toll in the Libyan conflict increased from 2,000 to 30,000 within six months. The British Prime Minister, Mr. Cameron, who is partly responsible for the decision to stop the Mare Nostrum service was one of the leading lights in the group of countries angling to invade Libya at the time. He and the then French President, Mr. Sarkozy, did so to boost their popularity before abandoning the country once the damage had been done.

There is no doubt that a massive humanitarian crisis is unfolding, with thousands of people who are being exploited by smugglers and fleeing in desperation from the appalling circumstances into which they have been thrown being left to die. It is not an overstatement to say the European Union, in its latest stance on this issue, is responsible for murder. As Deputy Mick Wallace said, more than 400 people have drowned in the Mediterranean Sea this year, which is frightening. This is as a result of the cancellation of the Mare Nostrum programme and its replacement with securing maritime borders. The issue is not about rescuing people; it is about putting up the shutters and ensuring they do not get in. It was a deliberate shift in policy. The Northern League spoke out stating people should be left on their boats, while the British Foreign Minister said this was an unintended pull factor and that if the refugees were getting into Europe and not drowning, it would encourage more of them to cross, which is ridiculous.

The reality is that the appalling circumstance from which people are fleeing will continue to give rise to their efforts to escape. One Syrian refugee living in Cairo who used to be a highly skilled and well paid worker says they have no other option. There is no hope and he cannot even find work as a labourer in Egypt. He had to flee his flat because he could not even pay the rent.

The European Union is responsible for this because of its response and because of the role it played in facilitating the US war machine in these regions which have become destabilised and given rise to the refugees in the first place. What attitude did Ireland take in the EU talks to encourage the axing of the Mare Nostrum programme and the reduction in funds to support the Italian Government in the rescue operation? Critically, what is the Minister of State's attitude to Ireland's continuing facilitation of the US war machine and the destabilisation of countries in the Middle East and Africa by allowing our airports to be used for the transit of US military aeroplanes and troops?

The Government shares the concerns of the Deputies about the ongoing human tragedy on the Mediterranean. At EU level, since the more than 300 migrants drowned off the Italian island of Lampedusa in October 2013, this issue has appeared on the agenda at almost every Justice and Home Affairs Council and was a major priority of the Italian Presidency. We should never forget that this is essentially an issue of enormous human tragedy.

Deputies will appreciate that notwithstanding the complexities of the issues, the human tragedy dimension must never be relegated to a less important issue. Huge numbers of people are willing or, in some cases, forced to take major life threatening risks to reach Europe. In many cases, this is driven by the desperate need to escape the situation in their own country, for example, Syria. Allied to this is the major financial incentive this traffic provides for ruthless criminal gangs to engage in smuggling and trafficking and for whom life is cheap and migrant safety an irrelevant consideration. The vessels used to transport migrants are, in many cases, unseaworthy or otherwise ill-equipped to undertake a voyage in adverse weather. These factors are further compounded by the unstable situation in Libya, the main country of transit and embarkation point for the vessels.

The Mare Nostrum search and rescue operation which had rescued well in excess of 100,000 people was discontinued with effect from last November by the Italian authorities on the commencement of Operation Triton co-ordinated by Frontex, the European external borders agency, although the mandates and range are not the same. However, I understand that in recent days the vessels and aeroplanes involved in Operation Triton have helped to save more than 3,000 migrants who departed from Libya. The journey for other migrants has sadly ended in a different way. Even when people are rescued, issues arise as to how they are to be dealt with within member states' asylum systems and there are considerable pressures on member states in the Mediterranean region in whose territory the migrants land.

The focus of EU policy in this area has been multidimensional, reflecting the fact that a migrant's ultimate journey by sea to the European Union can be influenced by many factors. Therefore, the response highlighted actions, in co-operation with third countries, including regional protection; resettlement and reinforced legal avenues to Europe; the fight against trafficking, smuggling and organised crime; reinforced border surveillance contributing to the saving of lives of migrants on the Mediterranean and assistance to member states on the front line. Greater funding from Frontex is also important.

At this stage, a number of measures are needed and the Government should be pushing for them in the European Union. First, a better rescue service needs to be reinstated. The numbers crossing the sea from Libya and other countries have increased this year by more than 50%. The argument that cutting the rescue service would prevent refugees from travelling is not working and the European Union has a responsibility, given that western powers are largely responsible for the problems of the people concerned in the first place.

Second, a more coherent EU immigration policy is needed. It is challenging and not easy, but there must be a more coherent policy at EU level, for which the Government should push.

Third, we all argue in the House for greater accountability on the part of all Departments and officials. The bombing of Libya has been an unmitigated disaster. Ministers came into the House and told us that it was a good idea, that it was in the interests of democracy and that it would improve the situation in Libya. That was been proved to be 100% wrong. Will the same Ministers who supported the bombing of Libya come into the House and admit that they got it 100% wrong?

Our starting point has to be the fact that these tragic deaths are avoidable and that the proof of this was in the activities of Mare Nostrum when it was in operation, as it had succeeded in saving the lives of more than 100,000 people. While people have been rescued since the programme was terminated, funding has been cut back and the terms of the replacement operation have changed, with the result that record numbers have died in the Mediterranean Sea so far this year.

We still do not have answers. The Minister of State concluded his reply by saying, "Greater funding from Frontex is also important." What role did the Government play in the negotiations and the funding arrangements that led to the move away from a rescue operation to a border control operation? Were we silent? Did we side with the refugees or with those who were trying to keep them out?

The other critical issue is the destabilising fact that this is the largest movement of refugees since the Second World War, which is linked with the crises in the Middle East and Africa, stirred up by imperialist intervention. We cannot change the world, but we can make a start in our own backyard. Will we say "No" to this and stop the use of Shannon Airport and our role in that regard?

I thank the Deputies. There are no easy answers. Nobody can guarantee that there will be no further deaths. As long as people set out on these hazardous voyages, that will be inevitable, in spite of the best efforts of everybody involved in maritime missions. It is a case of working together within the European Union on both cause and effect. The contribution Ireland can make, apart from its support for EU initiatives in the area generally, is primarily humanitarian, with particular reference to Syria. We are one of the highest contributors to the humanitarian response on a per capita basis. Since 2011 Ireland has provided almost €29 million in humanitarian support delivered through UN partners, the Red Cross and Irish NGOs. Ireland's support has been focused on supporting people displaced within Syria and across the wider region. This includes the regional development and protection programme, under which Ireland is committed to providing €2.5 million through an initiative being co-led by the European Commission and Denmark to support refugees and host communities affected by the ongoing Syrian crisis. Ireland is also one of the countries that provide for the resettlement of refugees, with a commitment to resettle 220 in the next two years. I have met many of them, particularly in Balseskin. A further 114 will be taken in under the Syrian humanitarian assistance programme, SHAP.