Topical Issue Debate

Pensions Legislation

I welcome the opportunity to discuss this important issue. The Minister will agree that what we are dealing with is an injustice - where a defined benefit pension scheme is wound up and, as a result of the manner in which our pension and taxation laws are levied, its existing pensioners are given no option but to purchase an expensive annuity that does not do them or their families any good and just makes the insurance companies a great deal of money. The purpose of this debate is to examine the source of the problem and determine what we can do to rectify it.

The situation was aptly summed up by the situation of the supplementary Aer Lingus pension scheme that the House discussed previously. The trustees wrote to existing pensioners and made the point that, in order to protect those people's funds, the trustees would approach insurance companies in the market and get an annuity. No other option would be entertained, just an annuity. In one instance that brings the point home, a woman was told that the cost of that annuity for one person would be €300,000. That money was being taken from the wound-up scheme to buy her annuity.

We inquired of an Irish insurance company this morning and received a quote for a joint life annuity that allowed for annual inflation of 1.4%. The quote was €5,000 per year. If this person lived for 40 years and got €5,000 per year, which would not happen in a pension scenario, the insurance company would benefit to the tune of €100,000 for nothing. On top of that, the company would get €6,000, or 2% of the purchase annuity price, in fees. If a recipient died, his or her spouse would get nothing, which is unlike the case with an approved retirement fund, ARF, but that option is not available to the people in question. It would have allowed them to get a greater yield in their retirement years and their families, spouses or children to benefit from some of that income later on.

A product that is bad value for money is being imposed on members of pension schemes under the excuse that this is just the way the legislation is. This legislation might not be within the remit of just the Minister's Department, but also the Department of Finance. Frankly, though, I do not care. It is every Deputy's responsibility to address the situation immediately.

I put it to the Minister that, interestingly, the then Minister for Finance altered the rules in 2011 to allow pre-retirement bonds to invest in ARFs because of the outrageous cost of annuities at the time. However, he did not extend that option to defined benefit schemes. Last year, the rules were again altered to allow defined benefit scheme members access to ARFs. Guess what? This could only be done in cases where the members were classified as directors of a company. Rich people can benefit from this arrangement but the pensioners who pay into a defined benefit scheme for all of their working lives cannot. They are frogmarched into an annuity where the pension industry takes the excess cash and charges a large price for the privilege. Only really wealthy people would benefit.

I appeal to the Minister. We need to address the weaknesses in the legislation urgently because this issue is affecting people's livelihoods in their retirement years.

I will ask the Deputy to humour me because I must read this bit out before I can get to the part for which she is waiting. I thank her for raising this matter. I know why she has done so. Scheme trustees have duties and responsibilities under trust law, other relevant legislation and the Pensions Act 1990, as amended. The duties of a pension scheme trustee include administering a scheme in trust in accordance with the law and the terms of the trust deed and rules.

Consequently, any decision made by corporate or individual trustees of an occupational pension scheme are governed by the relevant legislation and rules set out in the trust deed and the rules of the particular scheme. Scheme trustees must always act in the best interests of scheme members.

Usually the options available to members for taking benefits will be set out in the trust rules. In some cases, the benefit structure may be inflexible, leaving the member little or no choice as to the form his or her benefits will take. This is something I recently brought to the attention of Deputy Daly and she kindly helped me with it, although we could not provide any help.

Where a member of the pension scheme reaches retirement age, a pension is immediately payable. Part of the pension may be taken in cash, and once the entire pension is not taken up by this, the trustees then have a liability to pay a pension income to the member. The trustees then either pay a pension income regularly out of the fund or they buy an annuity to secure the future liability to pay a pension. On wind-up, where the pension is being paid out of the fund, the trustees normally purchase annuities for the existing pensioners.

Section 48 of the Pensions Act sets out the priorities on winding up a scheme. It sets out the order in which the liabilities must be discharged and how they may be discharged for members. When a scheme winds up, section 48(3)(b) provides that the trustees may, notwithstanding anything contained in the rules of the scheme and without the consent of the member concerned, discharge the liability for benefits payable in respect of any member by one of the following: transferring the benefits of each member into a new pension scheme; purchasing an approved assurance policy with a company or insurance agency that sells life insurance; or transferring the benefits into another arrangement for the provision of retirement benefits such as, for example, a PRSA or a buyout bond.

It must be noted that this discretionary provision and the trustees are not compelled to discharge the liability in this way. The wind-up options in section 48(3)(b) are contingent on the requirement that the scheme’s policies or contracts are approved by the Revenue Commissioners under the Taxes Consolidation Act 1997, as amended. The Act sets out the circumstances in which retirement benefit schemes are approved by the Revenue Commissioners for tax purposes. In other words, transfers from the scheme being wound up must be made into schemes or products approved by the Revenue Commissioners and which, therefore, comply with Revenue rules.

Section 772 of the Taxes Consolidation Act allows for flexible options on retirement, that is, the approved retirement fund, ARF, option. The purchase of an ARF is not available to members of defined benefit schemes, subject to certain exceptions. Legislation and policy on taxes and access to ARFs are a matter for the Department of Finance, as Deputy Daly said. I know why Deputy Daly is raising this matter. I agree with her.

I have asked my Department to refer this particular issue to the Department of Finance. Given that within the next couple of weeks we will launch a public consultation on what will probably be the most far-reaching reform of the private and public pensions industry, it is probably timely that the Department of Finance considers this issue, and that is the effort I will try to bring to bear during the coming weeks.

I thank the Minister. The tackling of this issue is beyond overdue and it is not the responsibility of any one Department or Member of the House. We all have to get our act together in terms of pensions. Given that they are structured in a manner which makes them incredibly cumbersome to understand and mind-numbingly boring, people hear the term "pensions" and switch off. Sadly, they wake up in their retirement years to find that something into which they have paid all their lives is not worth what they thought it would be. Their families are impoverished at a time when they should be enjoying a better standard of living.

No matter what laws are involved, be it the Taxes Consolidation Act or pension legislation, the reality is that the restriction exists. As the Minister said, it appears as though there is a choice. However, in the case of the winding-up of a defined benefit scheme, there is no choice and people do not have access to an approved retirement fund which would be much better for them. That is the nugget that we have to fix quickly.

Public consultation processes can take a very long time. It is to be hoped that the one announced by the Minister will be completed expeditiously. There should be a fix in the Act similar to a previous change. It was recognised what bad value for money annuities are and the rules were changed by the Department of Finance in previous years via various statutory instruments and Revenue briefings which allowed the situation to be altered for the benefit of pensioners. That could be done immediately, pending the necessary review of the scheme. I appreciate that the Department of Employment Affairs and Social Protection will liaise with the Department of Finance and we can all expedite this issue as quickly as possible.

It is not about shirking my responsibility. The two Acts which need to be changed do not come under my Department but rather the Department of Finance, and that is why I will refer the matter to the Minister for Finance. In my reply I mentioned that exceptions are made in exceptional circumstances. That does not appear to happen in reality because the Deputy knows the exceptional circumstances to which I referred and there are no exemptions for them. I do not know how it works in practice.

It is clear to me that the existing measures do not suit all of the people the legislation is supposed to cover. It is exceptionally restrictive in respect of those people who just need a weekly income and do not need to wait on the never-never for a magic gold pot which they might never get to.

The public consultation I hope to launch in the next couple of weeks will not take any longer than three months because otherwise it is not worth doing. We need to move together on this issue to make sure we make the necessary changes not only to the State pension but also to private pension funds which need to be responsible for looking after people. I give the Deputy my word that I will take immediate action. I will talk to the Minister for Finance, Deputy Donohoe, and try to include it in the public consultation process.

Fodder Crisis

I thank the Minister for Agriculture, Food and the Marine, Deputy Creed, and the Minister of State, Deputy Doyle, for taking this matter. The reason eight Fianna Fáil Deputies have tabled this Topical Issue matter in a joint fashion is because we are extremely concerned about what is happening across different parts of the country, in particular along the west coast, with regard to an emerging fodder shortage. The Minister and Minister of State will be well aware of the unprecedented weather we have experienced since late August and into September and October. In my part of the country there was an unprecedented flood on 22 August.

Bad weather has also affected many other parts of the country. As a result, livestock have been housed from a very early stage. Second crop silage and fodder has not been saved. For the first time ever that I can recall there is unsaved fodder and second cut silage sitting in fields. It is leading to a severe situation which requires urgent action on the part of the Government to assist farmers who are facing a fodder shortage.

I want to impress upon the Minister the seriousness of this issue for my constituency. Coming from the southern part of the country, the Minister will appreciate that County Limerick has a large number of farming families. The Golden Vale has not been impacted, but many small farmers in the west of the county have marginal land, much of which is in areas of natural constraint, and some face other challenges such as the hen harrier designation, which is an issue yet to be resolved.

The farmers and farm families have told me they will experience a fodder crisis in the spring. The period from July to October has been the wettest since 2009, which has impacted on the second cut of silage. The price of hay, silage and straw has almost doubled in recent weeks and months. A crisis is looming. We need a crisis fodder aid fund to be put in place for farm families in Limerick who have been impacted. I would like the Minister to address that in his reply.

Today eight Fianna Fáil Deputies are raising the issue of the ongoing fodder crisis. Many other Members have raised this matter over the past week or so. We cannot have another delayed response to the unfolding fodder crisis, as happened in 2012. There is an urgent need for swift action to be taken by the Government to assist farmers in affected areas and we have called for the establishment of a crisis fodder aid fund.

The cost of straw, hay and silage has doubled since the harvest as farmers struggle to secure fodder supplies in the north west and the Border. Delivery charges for wheat and straw have increased to €65 for some bales, with the price hitting €40 for other bales in certain places. The cost of good quality hay has also increased sharply, with prices of more than €40 for 4x4 bales. According to feed traders, supplies of half dried barley straw and feed quality wheat straw are very difficult to get. At the very least an immediate survey needs to be carried out by the Department and Teagasc to assess which farmers are in need of assistance.

I ask the Minister to take this on board before crisis hits in the second part of the winter.

Prompt action must be taken now as it will be no good once fodder runs out on farms next February or March. Decisions are being taken now on farms on whether breeding stock will be offloaded. If a farmer takes the option of selling breeding stock, it will have implications on that farmer's viability for a number of years to come. In 2012, we had another fodder crisis and a nut was designed at that stage to allow maintenance of the animal with a roughage aspect as well. That is what must be subsidised now. Farmers on the ground must get practical advice on how best to feed their animals economically for the next couple of months. They also need a subsidy on the nut designed in 2012. It should be freely available. The economic reasons are more than evident that it should be subsidised. Teagasc has a major role to play but the action must be taken now.

I thank the Ceann Comhairle for allowing this Topical Issue. Met Éireann figures for this year indicate fewer dry days between July and October than there have been in a number of previous years. The top ten Met Éireann stations for rainfall are all along the west coast and one of the highest was in Newport in my county of Mayo. Land is sodden and cattle have been housed long before they should really be. Fodder has been depleted and, as Deputy Aylward mentioned, its price has escalated if one can get it or have it transported to the west coast. By waiting, the Minister is denying the fact that we have a problem and he will force farmers to sell stock at a time they can least afford to do so. He will force them from having an income beyond January. We need to act now, as to do so will avert not just a farm crisis but an animal welfare crisis. That will come not in 2018 but later this year. What we need now is not an informal chat with Teagasc but a co-ordinated approach from the Department to tackle the problem in Mayo and along the west coast.

The importance of this matter has been demonstrated by so many of us seeking a special Topical Issue debate. I am glad the Minister and the Minister of State are here. As my colleagues have said, there is a need to implement measures now to deal with a looming fodder crisis. Deputy Niall Collins mentioned a possible crisis in spring but I spoke with some farmers over the weekend who told me they will be out of fodder before 1 January 2018, unfortunately. These farmers would normally have adequate supplies for their own needs at all times.

As the Minister is aware, I represent Cavan and Monaghan, which is an area with the highest rainfall as recorded at the station in Ballyhaise. Some good farmers have had cattle housed at night since the end of July and early August and already stocks are depleted. Many other farmers are buying feedstuff at additional cost, making their farms less viable and profitable. This is a time to implement measures now to ensure farmers can plan and will not have to sell stock that they need for farming purposes if they are to make their holdings viable at all.

No differently from the comments of my colleagues, I know farmers in east Galway also face a fodder crisis. Urgent action must be taken by the Government to assist farmers in the affected areas as the severe weather conditions since August have left many farmers facing chronic fodder shortages. I can give an example. Just the other day I was speaking with a farmer from around Tuam and normally at this time of year he would have approximately 150 or 160 bales for his cattle to get him through to the spring; he only has 60 bales left as he had to bring in the animals so early. I am looking forward to the Minister's answer and we seriously need a fund immediately. We cannot have a case of kicking the can down the road, as we did last year when it took ten months to address the tillage crisis fund. If that emerges as the case, we will have animals dying because farmers will not be able to afford to feed them.

Much has been said about the difficulties being faced by farmers now. In Sligo, Leitrim, north Roscommon and south Donegal, it is no different from the rest of the country as described by the others who have spoken. We have farmers who have had cattle in since the end of August and early September, as was said earlier. The cut of silage at the beginning of the year was quite good but what was got after that is absolutely useless.

I suggest that some response should come about. Funding should be put in place for this as if that does not come about, not alone will there be an animal welfare problem, there will be a human health problem because people are out of their minds now wondering how they will get through the winter and feed their stock. There are two climates in this country. I listened to one of my colleagues in this House speaking on 29 January this year about dairy farmers wondering if they could let out the cows at that time. They had plenty of grass but the concern was that rain would come. In our area, we are lucky to get cows out on 1 May and they are back in again in September.

As I know we are all aware, weather conditions over much of this recent autumn, especially early on in the season, were quite challenging. These conditions created difficulties for farmers, particularly in parts of the west on heavier land types. On the other hand, grass growth rates through the autumn and most of the year were ahead of last year. However, due to the higher than average rainfall in many parts of the country late on in the year land remained too wet to support grazing. This resulted in cattle being housed earlier than normal in some areas, particularly on the heavier soils that retained water and were slower to drain. For the same reason, as land remained wet over a prolonged period, it lost its ability to support machinery and so silage harvesting, particularly that of late cut silage, was affected.

At my request, my colleague, the Minister of State, Deputy Andrew Doyle, met the president of the Irish Farmers' Association, Mr. Joe Healy, and some local farmers in Leitrim to see first-hand the challenges on the ground. I recognise there are undoubtedly issues in certain areas with regard to adequate winter fodder but it appears there are supplies of fodder in the form of silage and hay available across the country as a whole for those farmers who may require it to supplement their own fodder supply.

I have been very conscious throughout these last few months of the difficult weather conditions and their effect on the agriculture sector. I acknowledge the point made by a number of previous speakers on having an assessment of the position on the ground and for this reason I asked Teagasc to work locally with affected farmers in areas with fodder difficulties to help them manage their particular farming position and to provide support on fodder budgeting for the winter ahead. It is important to emphasise that my Department operates an emergency helpline for animal welfare cases. I urge any farmers facing an emergency animal welfare situation and who may be in need of support to contact the helpline for advice and, if needs be, emergency assistance.

Last month the European Commission agreed to my request for an advance payment of the 2017 basic payment scheme. I took this action in response to the poor weather conditions we are discussing here this evening and also in response to market difficulties caused by currency fluctuations, among other issues. This advance translates into an increase from 50% to 70% in the rate for the basic payment scheme to those farmers whose applications were confirmed fully clear. Issuing of these payments commenced as early as possible, or in this case after 15 October, and balancing payments will be made with effect from early December. There will also be an increase permitted to the advance for Pillar II rural development schemes.

I conclude for the moment by saying these payments and the payments under the areas of natural constraints scheme have already injected over €800 million into the Irish rural economy. They are providing a very welcome boost for Irish farm families and will help to finance fodder purchase where necessary. However, be assured that my Department and I, in conjunction with Teagasc, will continue to monitor the fodder position closely throughout the coming winter months.

I thank the Minister. I am afraid the approach of the Department to emergencies facing the farming community has been very poor in the past and, unfortunately, the Minister seems to be following the same path on this occasion. With the tillage crisis of late 2016, the Minister was exceptionally slow to respond and only in the past few months did he start accepting applications for compensation payments. Farmers are still awaiting payments for that. Three months on from the Inishowen flooding, farmers are still awaiting any payment to address the damage and losses they incurred. Tonight, Deputies from our party right across the country have come together to demonstrate urgency in this matter but the Minister's approach is again to continue as normal, with the idea there is no real difficulty.

The Minister needs to grasp this issue now. As we learned in 2012, it is at this stage of the year that the crisis needs to be averted, not in the springtime. Farmers needs supports now. What is required is a fund which would allow them to manage the fodder crisis that is affecting them. It is not good enough simply to stall on this. We need action immediately.

I am not sure if the farmers I represent will take any comfort from the Minister's initial response. I do not believe that they will get the sense that he shares their concerns. If we look at the Minister's track record, the rural development programme 2014 to 2020 did not include a measure to compensate farmers who suffered losses from severe or adverse weather conditions. The farming community would like to hear, in the Minister's final reply, if he will take concrete measures and ask his Department to carry out a survey of all areas that are potentially impacted. The Minister should remember that the constituencies and counties we represent are those that will feel the hardest impact from Brexit, and have been feeling the impact already. These farmers are on marginal land and are the most vulnerable. We are speaking up for the smaller farmers, and it behoves the Minister and the rest of us to have a response ready and in place to avert this crisis if and when it hits.

The Minister mentioned animal welfare. I am an active farmer myself. For any farmer worth his salt, animal welfare is the most important thing. It means maintaining animals and feeding them to keep the business going. That is what animal welfare is about. People, particularly those in the west, the north west and the Border, are going to run out of fodder. The Minister is correct to mention that there is a lot of fodder in the country. In the south east, where I come from, there was good sunshine and grass growth this year. I believe there is enough fodder in the whole country to supply our fellow farmers in the affected areas. I am asking the Minister to bring in an aid scheme that will bring the fodder from where it is available to the people further north who might not be able to afford it because they have their cattle in since August, in some cases, and have run out of fodder and money. We need to help them by getting the fodder from where it is available up to where it is needed.

I have to disagree with Deputy Aylward. I am not sure that there is enough fodder in the country. The weather has been bad everywhere for the past six weeks and stock has been in everywhere that bit earlier. We are discussing animal welfare, but we should also talk about the pressure that the farmers are under and the mental strain they are experiencing. Stock has now been housed for a number of months. The weather has been clammy, and it has been difficult trying to keep the animals healthy and to avoid viruses when the stock has been in instead of out in the fields.

Another issue which will cause huge pressure is slurry. We have a ghost period now for a number of months which will last well into January in these areas. Tanks are full under these cattle. When the farmer goes out in the morning to look at his stock and knows that he is going to run out of fodder, it causes mental strain and pressure. We need a practical solution to this, and these men need financial help.

The Minister's response was incredibly disappointing. There was no acknowledgement of the urgency of the situation and of the impending damage to agricultural stock and the health of farmers. The Minister says that there is fodder in the country. If there is, and I would agree with Deputy Cahill when he says that there is not, people are being charged enormous prices at the moment. They are being charged enormous prices to get it and to have it transported around the country. These people are getting no assistance to support that.

The Minister mentioned that the Minister of State at the Department, Deputy Doyle, met the IFA last week. I understand that the IFA invited the Minister to meet it in Claremorris on 1 December. I encourage the Minister to take up that invitation and to hear directly from farmers in County Mayo and in the west who are affected. A similar meeting is being organised by the Irish Natura and Hill Farmers Association, INHFA. I ask that the Minister put a scheme in place before 1 December and to deal with this issue before it becomes an animal welfare and stock crisis. He got great kudos two weeks ago for banning wild animals from circuses. He should do something now for the animals on Irish farms.

I sincerely hope that we can read something into the first sentence of the Minister's concluding paragraph, where he states, "I conclude for the moment". I hope that means that he, along with the Minister of State, Deputy Doyle, and the Department are working on introducing a fodder aid scheme and that he cannot give us details of it this evening.

I hope that the Minister and my colleague, Deputy Aylward, are correct and that there is enough fodder in the country. It is strange that fodder has already become so expensive at this time of the year if there are such adequate supplies. I saw people cutting grass - in vain, I think - on the last day of October. I was travelling extensively throughout Cavan, Monaghan and Fermanagh that day. There were a few dryish days at the end of October, and people were cutting grass, but they were bringing in as much muck as grass. I do not know what benefit there was in people trying to make silage from that particular grass. I hope it is of some benefit, but many farmers would say that it is not worth the cost of the diesel.

If there are supplies available, I appeal to the Minister to ensure that a transport subsidy at least is put in place to transport fodder from the wealthier parts of the country to the south of Ulster and to Connacht. There is an urgency about this.

I am not surprised by the Minister's answer. I was here this time last year when we discussed tillage, and the answer is exactly as I expected. Farming families feel very let down by the Government due to the fact that €106 million was returned unspent earlier this year. They feel let down due to the length of time it took the Government to address the tillage crisis. They feel let down by the Government because the perception is that it has to be brought kicking and screaming to the table all the time. They feel that the Government is reactive and proactive.

Eight members across the House are telling the Minister this evening where we are standing and what we are facing into. We are asking the Minister to come to the table with a real remedial solution. There have been great suggestions this evening. The Minister could take them on board. Some of them do not cost much money at all.

I spoke last night to a person who has drawn hay and straw from the south for 30 years. He told me that it costs €40 for one bale at the moment. Farmers cannot afford that. I know that the Minister said that he front-loaded payments to help these people, but all that money is already spoken for. At the moment the man is having difficulty getting this hay because some of the people who have this are holding out for the springtime. This is a major problem. There was an underspend of €33 million on the rural development programme in 2014, and it was the same in 2015 and 2016. I suggest that some of that money could be used to help these people. It should be a grant payment. We should not repeat what was done before, when hay was imported from England and France which was pure junk. The animals starved. Much of that fodder was not eaten and it was wasted.

I thank the Deputies for raising the matter. Deputy Collins is probably familiar with my constituency, as I am with his. He would know that there is a lot of heavy ground, especially in western Duhallow and up to the Limerick border. I acknowledge the difficulties faced by any farmer who has been farming on heavy ground in a year in which there has been exceptionally high rainfall.

I am not going to get into the difference of opinion about whether there is sufficient fodder in the country, but the Teagasc assessment on the pasture sward is that 2017 was in fact a record year for grass growth and that there is sufficient fodder in the country. The problem is, as Deputy Aylward opined, that we have surplus in certain areas and a deficit in other areas. It is not the case that my Department has not been proactive on this issue. A number of weeks ago, long before any of the Deputies stood to raise the issue, I asked Teagasc to go out into the farmyards in the regions where they are and find out what the situation is on the ground.

Deputy Smith referred to the critical point in the reply. If there is to be a scheme it has to be one that is based on the evidence on the ground from the Department officials and Teagasc which is in the farmyards in the regions concerned. That process is under way. I am satisfied that there is sufficient fodder.

There are problems at the moment about escalating prices for fodder being demanded. We need to be conscious of how we fuel that by the expectation that the State's chequebook may be opened in this area. We need to be conscious of how we progress this matter. We are doing it in a logical fashion. I take Deputy Cahill's point about the mental health problems caused when farmers who have more animals than they can cater for beyond St. Patrick's Day 2018 see a diminishing supply of fodder. The Department is obliged to be rational about it and accumulate the evidence as best it can and then make a decision. That is under way. I acknowledge that for example Teagasc, in conjunction with Aurivo co-operative, is helping farmers to navigate the system and give them advice on how to budget whatever fodder resources they have. We are progressing the matter satisfactorily. I keep an open mind on the matter but I am conscious that our commentary is fuelling fodder prices when there is no need for that escalation in price.

EU Issues

On Monday, 13 November, 22 EU defence ministers signed the permanent structured co-operation agreement, PESCO. Ireland was not one of the 22 to sign up immediately. However, after the meeting, the Minister for Foreign Affairs and Trade, Deputy Coveney, signalled his support for Irish participation calling Irish involvement a good thing.

PESCO is part of a renewed drive towards a standing EU army and the militarisation of the EU project. Irish involvement would completely violate Irish neutrality. PESCO is a realisation of the defence articles in the Lisbon treaty. During the debate on that treaty Sinn Féin and many others pointed out that ratification of the treaty would facilitate the creation of an EU army. We were told we were scaremongering and exaggerating but sadly we have been proved right. During the debate the Government's official statement was that the Lisbon treaty did not affect or prejudice Ireland's traditional policy of military neutrality. Now we know this was entirely bogus and events and actions have proved us correct. Not only is the EU sprinting ahead with the creation of an EU army but we know that the Minister for Foreign Affairs and Trade and the Taoiseach want Ireland to be the front and centre of this army. It has taken a few years but Articles 42 and 46 of the Lisbon treaty are now starting to go live.

PESCO is not some benign humanitarian force: its mandate, as outlined in the Lisbon treaty, includes the requirement for the participating states to make troops available for deployment as part of PESCO missions. Does the Minister not agree that PESCO presents a fundamental threat to our neutrality and that Ireland should remain completely outside it?

Does the Minister of State have any understanding of what neutrality is and how positive or active neutrality works? Does he even understand that every change in terms has seen an erosion of this State's neutral position? I will list some but not all of these changes: the Partnership for Peace, the rapid reaction force, the European Defence Agency, the battle groups, and here we are talking about another substantial change in respect of Ireland's role in the EU army, which is totally at odds with our Constitution. Does he agree with the Minister for Foreign Affairs and Trade in the first instance and if he does has he sought legal advice as to the position vis-à-vis the Constitution? Has the Minister of State, his line Minister or the Minister for Foreign Affairs and Trade thought out the consequences of this, engaging Irish troops in EU wars? Does he know what he is signing up to?

Currently Irish defence spending is between 0.6% and 0.7%. The Minister of State is committing this State to increasing that to at least 2% annually and possibly much more given that most of the countries involved are North Atlantic Treaty Organization, NATO, countries which are now committing to what Donald Trump is demanding, a 6% expenditure of all our moneys. By signing up to PESCO the Minister of State is giving a commitment to allowing the EU to monitor and interfere with the defence spending in this State. When we raised this during the debate on the Lisbon treaty it was suggested that we were scaremongers.

I welcome the opportunity to address the House on the important issue of PESCO. I am happy to inform the House that the Government earlier today approved for the formal notification by Ireland of our intention to participate, subject to Dáil Éireann's approval of same. I will bring this issue to the House shortly. All of us here are fully aware that threats to international peace and security are complex, multidimensional, interrelated and transnational in nature. The ever-changing complex and intertwined nature of threats to our citizens, individual states and to international peace and security must be acknowledged. As I have stated many times in this House, no country acting alone can address such challenges. The best approach for Ireland continues to be to ensure that the countries on the borders of the EU and beyond the European neighbourhood are stable, secure and prosperous.

Our continuing membership of the European Union and the United Nations allows Ireland to deepen and sustain democracy, rule of law and respect for human rights through, among other things, participating in overseas peacekeeping and peace enforcement missions, which in turn will make Ireland more safe and secure. As the Members of this House are aware, PESCO provides a treaty based framework designed to improve the means by which EU member states can participate jointly in projects to develop capabilities that will enhance contributions to crisis management and peacekeeping operations undertaken by the EU under the common security and defence policy, CSDP. Participation in any PESCO project is entirely voluntary and it is a matter for each member state to decide for itself whether or not to participate on a case-by-case basis. Ireland has always strongly supported the development of CSDP and of EU capacity to respond to international crises in support of the UN and has participated in all aspects of CSDP since it was established. Ireland has also been one of the leading contributors to CSDP operations deployed under UN mandates or with the support of the UN.

PESCO is a further initiative in strengthening the Union's capacity in this regard and developments in CSDP have been supported by the UN Under-Secretary-General as potentially providing additional capabilities for UN mandated operations. The PESCO notification explicitly recalls "the commitment of the European Union and its Member States to the promotion of a rules-based global order with multilateralism as its key principle and the United Nations at its core". PESCO can contribute to improve the capacity of the EU and member states to support international peace and security, both as EU and as troop contributors on UN mandated missions. It is also a means of enhancing interoperability and, working with EU partners, ensuring that our troops are equipped with the latest and best equipment and training.

A key challenge to the European Union's capacity to mount crisis management operations has been a lack of essential capabilities and the political will from member states to commit the required capabilities for CSDP operations. PESCO has been designed to address this challenge, enhancing the political commitment of member states to both develop and deliver capabilities in support of CSDP.

Participation in PESCO, which is provided for in the treaty of the European Union, Articles 42.6, 46 and Protocol 10, was introduced under the Lisbon treaty and has no implications for Ireland's policy of military neutrality, for the triple-lock or the crucial roles we play in crisis management and peacekeeping operations.

The participation criteria expressly stipulate that PESCO will be undertaken in full compliance with the Treaty on European Union and the associated protocols and will respect the member states' constitutional provisions. Participation in each project is on an opt-in basis and is therefore entirely voluntary. Three other neutral EU member states, Finland, Sweden and Austria, have already committed to joining PESCO.

It is important to remind this House that PESCO was comprehensively discussed in the context of the Lisbon treaty and was approved by the Irish people when they voted for the treaty in October 2009. PESCO was specifically referenced in the Lisbon treaty protocol to address the concerns of the Irish people and Ireland’s declaration and that the legislation setting down Ireland’s approval process for PESCO was published in advance of that vote and enacted in November 2009.

The Minister of State will have to try to incorporate the rest of his response into later comments. I gave him five minutes.

It is an understatement to say that I am disappointed. The Minister of State says that he is happy to announce this. I do not know if the Government had any plan to announce it at all. Ireland's deeper integration into the EU's military system is completely unacceptable and unwanted by the vast majority of Irish people.

Does the Minister of State accept that there are many people working within the EU structure who wish to build a military structure to complement NATO and clean up its mess under the guise of peace building? This is what PESCO is about. We are told there are no spare funds to go to positive social and economic programmes in areas such as youth unemployment projects, community regeneration, and improving public services such as health care, but it has already been announced that €1.5 billion will be spent annually on aggressive military projects which ultimately will facilitate a standing EU army. Any EU policy which aims to increase EU militarisation is a potential threat to Irish neutrality and the Government should veto these plans. Today's announcement is hugely disappointing. There has been no conversation or discussion in the House on the matter, just an off-the-cuff remark. It is lucky that we put this question down for the Topical Issue debate or the Minister of State would have barrelled ahead without any debate in the Dáil whatever, just as he usually does.

This is an absolute scandal. So much for the supposed support of the Ministers of State, Deputies Finian McGrath and Halligan, and the Minister, Deputy Ross, for Ireland's neutrality. It will be interesting to see how their supporters react to this and how they can justify such a move. The Minister of State has just said that the Government accepts this and that ties these three Ministers or Ministers of State, who have given their support for neutrality in this Chamber, to this move. This is a scandal. The aim of PESCO is to develop defence capabilities jointly and make them available for EU military operations. That is at odds with Irish neutrality. Our capabilities should be available to the UN and the UN only. The Minister of State should bear in mind that it also allows for the EU to act alone. It is not obliged to act with UN support. It can also be used to support NATO operations. When we raised this during the debate on the Lisbon treaty, we were told that we were scaremongering. Here we are a few years later and we have been proven right. Ultimately, the Minister of State is talking about going to war.

I want to tell this House, as I told the Seanad earlier today, that there is no possibility of our position on neutrality being questioned in any way as a consequence of PESCO. Contrary to Deputy Crowe's statement, this has not been hidden away. It has been discussed in the open at EU level for years at every-----

Why did the Minister of State not discuss it in the House?

I have spoken about it here in recent months in response to parliamentary questions and at committees. I have hidden nothing. I do not want Deputies to leave the Chamber saying that our neutrality has been brought into question. The situation could not be further from the truth. The final PESCO document reflects the position of neutral countries, of which we are not the only one. Other neutral countries have already signed up to PESCO.

The Minister of State has to ask this neutral country.

Yes, because I respect the triple lock. I respect what I have to do here. I could have signed up to this last Monday without a problem but I have respect for the Government and the need to have it passed by the Cabinet and then the Dáil.

The Minister of State has no choice but to come here. He has no choice.

Deputy Ó Snodaigh, please.

Only then, if it is passed by the Dáil, will I sign up. I will sign up when it is the wish of the Parliament. This passed at Cabinet earlier. I will bring it before the Oireachtas next week or the week after. If I secure a majority of this House to vote for PESCO, I will sign up to it. If I do not get a majority of the Parliament to vote for it, then I will not. It is the right thing to do.

The Minister of State will conclude his remarks.

Projects such as this are something our military people want to partake in. They see it as the right thing to do.

The Minister of State will conclude his remarks. I have been very lenient on time.

I will bring it to the House within the next two weeks to seek its approval.