Saincheisteanna Tráthúla - Topical Issue Debate

Youth Services Provision

I thank the Minister for taking the debate on this Topical Issue matter, which has been exercising me for the past five or six weeks. It is time sensitive, given the roll-out of the new childcare scheme.

I will provide some context. I am speaking on behalf of the Carlow Regional Youth Service, CRYS, which provides a great service in Carlow town. Carlow is like most commuter towns and has a population of 20,000 or 25,000 people. Like most towns throughout the country, it also faces challenges. There are very good and middle of the road parts of the town, but there are other parts that can be challenging. This is where the CRYS plays a leading role, in that it ensures that children in difficult areas have futures.

The new childcare scheme is being rolled out on 11 October. While it is welcome in general, it is missing a key element. Childcare is meant to look after kids, in particular vulnerable children. In Carlow town, the CRYS looks after 59 vulnerable children. They are vulnerable in different ways. For example, there could be drug related or other issues that have a knock-on effect. These kids need to be given the same opportunity as everyone else, including us in our time, to progress from primary level education to second and third level education. If the new scheme is implemented as presented, however, such kids will miss out on that opportunity. Its roll-out is concerned with job activation. While that is welcome, the heart of the programme overlooks vulnerable children. I am sure that Carlow town is like other towns in that it has many such children. They need to be given the same opportunity as everyone else.

Will the Minister re-examine the scheme's format? She is engaged in an ongoing review. Unfortunately, the people involved in the CRYS are disappointed about not being asked to make a contribution to that review. They would have played a large part. Maybe other organisations of a similar status were asked to make contributions. Before the Minister makes a final decision, will she engage with the CRYS to determine how the issues can be resolved? It would be unfortunate if vulnerable children were not given the same opportunity as other kids. The CRYS looks after 59 kids from difficult sectors of society. They need to be looked after and given an opportunity to move to second and third level education. If they are not, then they may go the way of other kids from difficult backgrounds.

The scheme in general is welcome and a great deal of extra money has been invested in childcare in recent years. The Minister deserves to be complimented in that regard and on her work, but there is an anomaly in the system that is due to be rolled out in October. If it is not addressed now, the scheme currently operating in Carlow town will have to be closed at the end of July and the kids in question will lose out on a valuable future. Will the Minister address these points in her reply?

Let me address the issue of the national childcare scheme, on which the Deputy focused. When introduced, the scheme will represent a major landmark for all children and families, especially lower income families and lone parents. It will be accessible to all families, not just those working or studying full time. The new scheme will replace the existing targeted childcare schemes with a single, streamlined and user-friendly one. It entails a fundamental shift away from subsidies grounded in medical card and social protection entitlements towards a comprehensive and progressive system of universal and income-based subsidies. By making this shift and tangibly reducing the cost of quality childcare for thousands of families across Ireland, the scheme intends to improve children's outcomes, support their lifelong learning, make work pay and reduce child poverty. It is also designed to have a positive impact on gender equality in terms of labour market participation.

Under the current targeted schemes, many families with low income levels are able to access subsidised childcare because they are either in low-paid employment or are rotating between short periods of employment, unemployment and training. The national childcare scheme will change this. In terms of the income-based subsidies awarded under the scheme, parents who are working or studying or who meet certain other conditions will qualify for an enhanced hours subsidy up to a maximum of 40 hours per week. The definitions of "work" and "study" will be set out in regulations made under the Childcare Support Act 2018 and will be comprehensive, covering differing types of work and study arrangements, such as part-time, week on-week off, and zero-hour contract arrangements. The legislation will also provide for so-called bridging periods when a parent is moving between work and study. Where a parent is not engaging in work or study, the child will still be eligible for the standard hours subsidy of 15 hours per week. These 15 hours will wrap around school and preschool provisions. This means that, when the child is in school or preschool, no subsidy will be payable during term time.

This approach reflects the policy objectives of encouraging labour market activation and reducing child poverty and persistent poverty traps. It is consistent not only with the evidence of the strong benefits of early learning and care for young children, particularly those from disadvantaged backgrounds, but with the evidence that these benefits are in most cases realised with part-time participation. For older children, it recognises that, during term time, child development needs will be met through school and preschool while still providing part-time early learning and care and school-age childcare outside of those times.

I emphasise that families with high levels of need who require childcare for child welfare, child protection or family support reasons may be referred for childcare support by a specified so-called sponsor body.

If such a referral is made, the family will automatically qualify for a subsidy for the number of hours considered appropriate by the sponsor without having to satisfy the scheme's eligibility, income or enhanced hours requirements. I hear the significant issues the Deputy is raising and I share his concerns. This is the reason I commissioned an independent sustainability review last year. I think the Deputy referred to the review, which analyses a number of services in highly disadvantaged communities to explore any potential financial sustainability issues and the potential impact of the work-study rules within the national childcare scheme. I expect to receive that analysis, which will inform any necessary refinements of the national childcare scheme, shortly. In the interim, arrangements are in place to ensure no one loses out.

I thank the Minister for her reply. I reiterate that I firmly accept and appreciate the work that is being done. I acknowledge that the new scheme that is coming in will be very beneficial. The Minister's reply referred to a question I asked approximately ten days ago. I initially raised this matter a month ago. The Minister is missing the point I am making about the vulnerable children in this sector. I welcome anything that will reduce the cost of childcare, which has been too expensive in this country for far too long. We have been playing catch-up in the childcare sector for a number of years. Anything that is introduced to try to improve the sector is very welcome. It is important to point out that we need to get people back to work. I agree that the only way to secure people's future is by getting them back to work. A number of people who come from difficult or vulnerable sectors may never work. Their parents and grandparents never worked, unfortunately. If we do not look after the kids in such families, they will never work. We do not want to have cases in which historical issues are repeated time and again. I am highlighting this issue for that reason. The Minister mentioned that support is available when issues arise. Referrals for special subsidisation can be made. I am open to correction on my understanding that this support may be in name only. I believe only one social worker is available in this sector to deal with any issues that arise. Although there may be a list of areas to which kids or families may be referred when extra issues are involved, the reality is that the necessary supports to deal with such cases and ensure children have an opportunity to move forward are not available. I might be repeating myself when I say it is essential that every child in this country has the same educational opportunity. Every child should be able to progress from primary to secondary level and from secondary to third level, rather than being left behind as others were in the past. I ask the Minister to provide more substance on the issue I am trying to highlight today. Where can we deal with the issue of the anomaly in the system I have described?

I have tried to outline the overall objectives of the national childcare scheme, which shares many of the objectives of the schemes that have supported the Carlow youth service in the past. I have indicated that some things will change in light of the underlying policy objectives that support the national childcare scheme. Those objectives have been debated fully. The second major point I would like to make in response to the Deputy is that I appreciate his concern that some of the changes in this service will have a negative impact on the financial sustainability of subsidised supports for young people and children. I think that is what the Deputy is saying. Of course I am open to that point. I am considering it. My understanding is that during April and May of this year, the Carlow County Childcare Committee gathered data on the potential impact of the national childcare scheme on early learning and care and school-age services in County Carlow. Information was sought from seven community services, four family resource-type services and three stand-alone school-age services. Departmental officials will meet some of those involved in the Carlow pilot impact study on Thursday, 13 June to learn more about their work and their findings. When those officials feed into our work, we will have a deeper understanding of what is going on with the shift in financial support for these children, as described by the Deputy, and we will seek to find a way to move forward to ensure the service is sustainable. I think the first step in this regard will involve meeting the officials to hear at first hand about the findings of the work that is being presented and moving forward from there. We will take those steps and see where we are then.

Health Services Staff

I thank the Ceann Comhairle's office for allowing me to raise this issue. I thank the Minister of State, Deputy Jim Daly, for being in the Chamber and for his engagement on this issue over the past week. As the Minister of State is aware, on 31 May last, which was the Friday of the June bank holiday weekend, temporary and agency staff who are currently employed at Belmullet District Hospital were notified by text message that their contracts would not be renewed when they expired. Three of the contracts in question were due to expire within two weeks of that date. Some of these staff have been working in Belmullet for many years. Many of them have been based there for more than two years. They started off as agency staff before being given temporary HSE contracts. Some of them were recruited earlier this year because of the level of demand for services at Belmullet District Hospital. That very fact gives the lie to the claim by senior HSE management that this facility is overstaffed.

All of the staff at Belmullet District Hospital and the adjoining Áras Deirbhle centre have given selfless service over the years. They have put patients and their families first. Since Belmullet District Hospital and Áras Deirbhle opened, they have had a tradition of putting patients' interests first. The care and attention provided at these centres is respected and supported within the community, as shown by the attendance of hundreds of people at a public meeting on Monday night that was organised by our colleague, Senator Conway-Walsh, to show support for the staff in question. Since 31 May, the temporary staff have been told they will be redeployed within the HSE network, but that is not very simple. As Belmullet and Erris are quite far away from other HSE facilities, such as Ballina District Hospital, St. Fionnan's unit in Achill and the McBride unit in Westport, some staff may face 100-mile round-trips to do their jobs at such locations. Staff who are not particularly well paid cannot be asked to take on additional fuel costs. What if staff members do not have access to transport? As the Minister of State knows, public transport is not an option in rural areas. The agency staff continue to be in limbo despite the service, care and attention they have given. They do not know where they will stand in terms of their employment prospects this time next week.

When I challenged HSE management on the impact of these staff reductions on bed numbers, they said the situation is under review. They also said the current number of beds is sufficient, but that is not true. Any analysis will show that the demand for beds in Belmullet is bigger than the number of beds currently being used. GPs do not have the right to access Belmullet District Hospital. Last weekend, this resulted in a patient having to be admitted into an acute bed at Mayo University Hospital even though four beds were available in Belmullet. That is happening all the time. One of the things being cited by HSE management is that the overrun of approximately €5 million in older people's services has to be paid for. Why are the people of Belmullet and Erris having to pay for that? What is the overrun in the acute bed budget because of the inability to use community hospitals like Belmullet District Hospital to their maximum potential? Respite beds are not being made available in Belmullet even though funds were raised for those beds locally. This was done with care and attention by families that want to use respite.

I would like to emphasise the geography of this issue. Those who want to avail of respite services will not want their loved ones to be two or three hours away from them. They will want respite in the community. The concept and the model here involves care in the community. Asking people to go so far away for basic care cannot be allowed. There is a great deal of potential in this complex. Physiotherapy is not being provided. X-ray services are erratic. The staff have established a committee from Belmullet District Hospital and Áras Deirbhle with a local action committee and local representatives, including myself; the Minister, Deputy Ring; Senators Conway-Walsh and Swanick; and local GPs. We want to work with the Minister of State on a plan for the development of the facilities in the locality.

The Minister of State has committed to visiting the hospital, but when is that going to happen? Will the Minister give a commitment about the working conditions of the affected staff at Belmullet hospital, who do not know where they are going to be working next? Will he ask the HSE to freeze any changes until the Minister of State has the chance to visit the unit? Will he ask HSE management to engage with us properly in developing Belmullet Community Hospital?

I thank Deputy Calleary for his acknowledgement of our previous engagement, which also included the Minister for Rural and Community Development, Deputy Ring, Senator Swanick, and Councillor Gerry Coyle, who, like all representatives in the area, is very animated about this issue. I thank the Deputy for raising the issue. It provides me with an opportunity to update the House on this matter.

Social care services, including home care, day care, and short-stay residential care, are all important components in enabling people to remain living at home and participating in their communities. They also provide valuable supports to carers. This Government is committed to supporting people to live in dignity and independence in their homes and communities for as long as possible. Where this is not feasible, the health service supports access to quality long-term residential care where this is appropriate, and we will continue to develop and improve health services in all regions of the country to ensure quality and patient safety.

There is an obvious need to provide high-quality and flexible services that not only best meet the needs of individual clients but also reduce pressures elsewhere on the wider health system, such as acute hospitals or on long-term residential care. As of 30 April 2019, there were a total of 1,943 short-stay public beds, which include step-up care, step-down care, intermediate care, rehab and respite care, which are used in a flexible manner to meet local needs at any given time. The Health Service Executive has operational responsibility for the delivery of health and social services, including those at facilities such as Belmullet Community Hospital. The district hospital in Belmullet and Áras Deirbhle, Belmullet provide, and will continue to provide, very important services to the people of north Mayo. I am advised that the HSE has been examining a number of measures which are aimed at bringing its expenditure on health services for older people across Community Healthcare West back into line with their allocated budget.

As part of this process the HSE has been examining the usage of beds in Belmullet Community Hospital and has established that, on average, just 12 short-stay beds are in use at any given time to support acute discharges. This is significantly fewer than the number of beds that it is currently staffing. For this reason, the HSE has notified a number of agency staff that their services will no longer be required. The HSE head of social care services in community healthcare organisation, CHO, 2 has informed the Department that when the contracts of employment for three temporary staff in Belmullet come to an end in the coming weeks, they will be offered redeployment opportunities in other community nursing units. The HSE has a clear responsibility to deliver services within allocated budgets while ensuring that the highest standard of care continues to be provided to all patients in a safe and secure environment. This includes any decision on prioritising resources and the impact any decision has on the integrity of the services provided.

The primary focus has to be on patients. Quality care and patient safety come first, and all patients should receive the same high standard of quality-assured care. It is essential to ensure that resources are appropriately channelled and that the changing needs of older people are adequately addressed. In light of the important role played by the district hospital and Áras Deirbhle in the delivery of care, the HSE will keep the situation under review over the summer months and will reconsider the position during the autumn in preparation for the busier winter period.

There is great concern over the figure of 12 beds as that is not the reality at the hospital. The HSE has stated to me that there are 18 support acute discharge beds and two additional short-stay beds in the hospital. There is demand for more beds, and if GPs were allowed to admit patients, there would be further demand. I gave the Minister the example where, with four beds free in the hospital, somebody was forced to travel to Castlebar.

The staff are going to be redeployed many miles away and will not get any recognition or compensation for that. There is also the question of the development of facilities. The Minister has a policy paper relating to community and district hospitals. We often refer to Belmullet as a step-down facility for Mayo University Hospital, but we need to step up the services on offer, which would take the pressure off Mayo University Hospital which has been under inordinate pressure along with the regional hospital in Galway for the past 12 to 18 months. If we are to take the pressure off the two central hospitals, we will have to use Belmullet, Ballina and Swinford to their potential instead of cutting Peter to pay Paul. The HSE is spending extra money on acute beds when there are beds empty in Belmullet.

Will the Minister of State challenge HSE management on the figure it gave of 12 beds, because it gave us a figure of 20? Will the Minister be visiting the hospital? If so, when will he do so? I ask the Minister of State to walk in the shoes of the staff who are affected, who have given extraordinary service only to find out by text message on a Friday of a bank holiday weekend that their jobs are about to go. The agency staff are still in complete limbo and those on temporary contracts are going to be forced to travel 40 or 50 miles a day to work. That is completely unfair to people who give everything to their job.

I have asked Tony Canavan to provide me with an accurate list of bed occupancy for the two facilities, Áras Deirbhle and Belmullet Community Hospital, in the past 12 months and I expect to have that shortly. I will be happy to discuss the reply with Members to get to the bottom of it. There are two sides to this story and I do not want to play judge and jury but I want to have all the facts in my possession.

The Minister for Rural and Community Development, Deputy Ring, has invited me to go to the hospital and I am happy to do that. My ambition is to get up there before the end of the month, or on 1 July or 2 July at the latest. I will meet patients and their families, who are the most important people there. I will meet public representatives and will hear the views of staff. I assure the Deputy that there is no question of downgrading services and no question about the future of this facility, which is playing a vital role in the provision of services for the elderly. It is in a very remote rural area and I am very familiar with such areas. There is a need for facilities to stand alone and I guarantee that, as long as I am Minister of State, I will not oversee the downgrading of any facility for older people, and that includes Belmullet. However, I also have to support the HSE in any measures it takes to bring about efficiencies and ensure there is no waste. If the HSE tells me that beds that are staffed are lying idle, I would not support that either. I will not put the needs of staff above that by supporting empty beds with staff alongside them. I am told that is the situation but I want to see it for myself.

I accept that we need to upgrade the use of the facility so that it can take pressure off the acute facilities, and if we have to put more people in there, I will work with the Deputy to achieve that. However, I will not stand over empty beds, as it were. I have given my colleague, the Minister for Rural and Community Development, Deputy Ring, a cast-iron assurance that there will be no downgrading of services and I give a similar assurance to Deputy Calleary. I will work with the Deputy to utilise this wonderful facility to its maximum in the future.

Rockall Island Ownership

I am disappointed that neither a Minister nor a Minister of State from either Department could be here to take this question, though I acknowledge that they may be abroad on official business. Irish fishing vessels have fished unhindered in these waters for many decades, and did so prior to our membership of the European Union. This country has never recognised the UK's claim to the waters off Rockall. While the UK has claimed sovereignty, it has never sought to claim fishing rights or gas or oil deposits in the area.

I am very concerned by the Taoiseach's response in the House today. He said that while we are members of the European Union, we have a right to fish there but that, post Brexit, things may change. That is a very serious statement and it weakens our case to continue fishing there post Brexit.

I seek clarity on that. The other point I want to make is that it has been suggested that other parties were aware of discussions taking place at ministerial and official level over the past two years. I am sure other parties will speak for themselves but my party has never been aware of these discussions. I am disappointed that the Government could not have made us aware. The Minister wanted meetings with the Opposition when voisinage was an issue. Both Ministers will have to convene a meeting of the spokespersons and brief us fully.

I share Deputy Gallagher's concern that no Minister with responsibility for this area is here to deal with this issue. This issue is highly topical and the Ministers should have made themselves available to the Dáil and should have known that this would come up. The issue of Rockall has been contentious for many years. The Government has said that it is surprised it is coming up but we see from statements made that the Scottish Government has been raising it for a long time. How can the Government be surprised that it is coming up when it has known that it is an issue? It has kept this issue secret from everybody. Perhaps it is surprised that it has been made public. That could be the only thing the Government is surprised about. I am also very concerned about the Taoiseach's statement today in which he said that he accepts that Rockall is part of the UK exclusive economic zone. If that is the case, what is the issue? Does he accept that? Will the Minister of State provide clarification on that because it is vitally important?

I echo the points made about no relevant Minister or Minister of State being here to deal with this important issue because it affects fishermen right here, right now. Some fishermen have decided not to take the risk of fishing the waters off Rockall, which they have always done. These actions are putting their livelihoods and income streams at jeopardy. Other fishermen have decided to fish and are currently doing so because it is allowed under the EU Common Fisheries Policy. They have done so for years and it has never been an issue. It is absolutely shocking that they learnt last Friday, at the same time as ourselves, that a dispute has been ongoing for months about which they were never informed.

It is shocking that last month, when the Tánaiste, the Minister responsible for fishing and officials knew about this, the Taoiseach sat down with the Scottish First Minister and did not raise a peep about this stand-off. I asked the Taoiseach this morning whether he would lift up the phone and talk to the Scottish First Minister. He said no. He is making it very clear that this is going to be dealt with at official level. We need, first and foremost, to defend the rights of Irish fishermen in all instances. There are serious questions being asked. Will a counsel be appointed in Scotland to deal with any legal cases? Will all income streams that potentially will be lost be recovered? What types of support will the Irish Government provide? What support will be given by the Sea-Fisheries Protection Authority if attempts are made to board vessels and to arrest our fishermen?

I heard about this on the news last Friday, the same as every other Deputy in the Chamber. It is disgraceful that this has been going on for two years. I have been the fisheries spokesperson for my party since I first came in here in 2002 and not once was I informed that this was going on or of the problems that exist. I am not really surprised. Successive Governments have behaved disgracefully with regard to the fleets fishing off our coasts. They were sold out in 1972. The overwhelming majority of fishermen and fisherwomen have been neglected and abandoned by the Government and the State. I really admire Iceland and the Faroe Islands for how they defended their fishing rights and their fishermen and fisherwomen. They were prepared to physically resist any attempts to encroach on their rights. Scotland's actions are putting down a marker. It has to do with a lot more than fishing. This House will stand fully behind the Government if it is prepared to stand by our fishermen and fisherwomen and to protect their rights because it is our rights we are fighting for.

The Minister, Deputy Creed, sends his apologies. He cannot be here today because he is in Japan on official business. He has asked me to take this Topical Issue debate for him and to extend his apologies. He will be happy to provide more clarity to the Members opposite when he is back in the House. In the meantime, he has asked me to give this reply on his behalf.

Ireland’s position is that there is no basis for excluding Irish fishing vessels from the Rockall waters as they are legitimately pursuing EU fishing opportunities and have done so unhindered for decades. Deputies will be aware that the Tánaiste recently received a formal letter of notice from the Scottish Cabinet Secretary for Culture, Tourism and External Affairs, Ms Fiona Hyslop, stating that Scotland would deploy vessels in the Rockall area to take enforcement action against Irish vessels found fishing within 12 miles of Rockall from last weekend onwards.

We do not accept that there is any justification for enforcement action against Irish vessels fishing legitimately in these waters. The United Kingdom claims sovereignty over Rockall and thus a 12-mile territorial sea around it. The United Kingdom first made its claim of sovereignty over Rockall in 1955 and sought to incorporate it as part of the UK in its domestic law by virtue of the Island of Rockall Act 1972. The Irish Government has never sought to claim sovereignty over Rockall. Its position has been and remains that it does not accept the UK’s claim to sovereignty over Rockall, which it regards as forming part of the UK’s exclusive economic zone and, accordingly, part of European Union waters under the Common Fisheries Policy, to which the principle of equal access for the vessels of all EU member states applies. Irish vessels have operated unhindered in the Rockall zone for many decades fishing haddock, squid and other species.

The Minister, Deputy Creed, met representatives of the Irish fishing sector on Friday last to inform them of the letter from the Scottish authorities. He also confirmed that Ireland’s position with regard to Rockall had not changed. The industry representatives explained that Ireland’s main fisheries in the Rockall area are for haddock and squid and both fisheries are of substantial economic importance to our fishing fleet based in Greencastle, Killybegs, Castletownbere and other ports around the coast. I know that the industry was appreciative of that engagement but was also extremely concerned at the possibility that unjustified enforcement action might be taken against it.

We have built a strong and positive relationship with Scotland, to our mutual benefit, over many years. The Minister hopes we can use that close relationship to find a way to resolve these matters and to remove the threat of enforcement action against Irish vessels. Dialogue is continuing between the Irish and Scottish Governments and there have been close contacts at official level over recent days. It has now been agreed that a process of intensified engagement will take place, led by senior officials from both Administrations. We are hopeful that on this basis the latest difficulties can be de-escalated.

I accept that the Minister is out of the country but on his return he should immediately convene a meeting of all of the Opposition spokespersons because we are in this together. We want to be helpful and to fight this with a united front. I am extremely worried following the Taoiseach's scripted response today. Reading from his script he said that things will change following Brexit. He also said - listen to this - "One thing that is often not fully appreciated is that Irish fishermen take a lot of fish [35% of all the fish we take] out of UK waters." What about all of those who take fish out of Irish waters? This is a form of defeatism from the Taoiseach. He and his Ministers should strengthen their resolve. We want to continue fishing those waters as we always have, even after Brexit. We cannot accept the ceding of our rights to the UK. This is not only about Rockall but about fishing in UK waters post Brexit.

It is vitally important that we assert our rights. This Government and former Governments have been guilty of letting this issue slide, letting it sit and doing nothing about it because we have both been members of the European Union and it therefore did not matter. Now it has come into sharp focus again because of the likelihood of the UK withdrawing from the European Union, which is causing this dispute to raise its head again. Regardless of what the European Union has had to say on the matter, it has been criminal of successive Governments, including this one, to refuse to deal with this issue. It is a real problem, which is now coming home to roost. The Government will have to deal with and to live with it. The Government should be making sure that our rights are asserted and that our fishermen will be able to continue fishing in this area regardless of what happens in respect of Brexit.

When the Minister, Deputy Creed, returns he should sit down with all the representatives of the various parties and brief us thoroughly on what is happening and what he intends to do. As representatives of our respective communities, we have an entitlement to be able to brief fishing organisations and prepare a plan, legally if necessary, to challenge this illegal act by Scotland. I ask the Minister of State, Deputy Jim Daly, to take that to the Minister, Deputy Creed, to ensure that is the case. The legal aspect of it can be fought under the United Nations Convention on the Law of the Sea to determine whether that or otherwise is the case. There is a need for dialogue and for us to be briefed properly. We should not find out on the "News at One" on a Friday that this act has taken place and has been going on for two years without us knowing anything about it.

There are two issues. This needs to be resolved quickly because it is impacting fishermen now. God forbid, as we heard from the Scottish Minister that they will enforce the procedures. This means boarding a vessel, directing it to port, the powers to arrest individuals and to place sanctions such as impounding the vessel including its gear and the fish on board. That is how drastic this is. These multimillion euro ships being tied up at port could seriously impact the owner of the vessel and the families of the fishermen on board. It needs to be resolved.

I do not understand why the Taoiseach is refusing - even quietly or privately - to lift up the phone to his counterpart in Scotland and to raise this issue. Many years ago Paddy Harte stood up in this Chamber and said he represented the interests of Rockall because it was a part of his constituency. The Minister of State said we never claimed ownership of it. If he looks at the records going back, he will see that we never accepted the jurisdiction of Rockall because we believed it was part of our jurisdiction at that time.

I thank the Deputy. I call the Minister of State.

This issue needs to be resolved. It has been with the UN for ten years.

I thank the Deputy. I call the Minister of State.

The UN cannot adjudicate on that because Iceland will not allow it to do so. We need the UN to come in and be able to adjudicate on this-----

-----and to deal with this for once and for all because Brexit will cause a major problem for fishermen much wider than Rockall.

I am sure nobody is more frustrated with the timing of the trip to Japan than the Minister himself, having to leave on the cusp of this. I think everybody in the House appreciates that it was not his wish to avoid engagement with any of the Deputies opposite. I am certain he will be more than happy to engage with them on his return. I will certainly pass on the sentiments expressed by the Deputies present. I do not think there will be any difficulty there with the Minister.

Air Quality

The Government has failed to introduce a nationwide ban on smoky coal with negative effects in towns such as Enniscorthy, New Ross and Gorey in my native county. Professor John Sodeau stated this week that air pollution in my home town of Enniscorthy has reached an extremely dangerous level. There have been 12 breaches of Environmental Protection Agency, EPA, safety limits since Christmas. Some of these have reached ten times the EU safe limits. Asthma sufferers living in Enniscorthy, New Ross and Gorey have been warned to stay indoors during these times. That is totally unacceptable.

People with chronic obstructive pulmonary disease, asthma and other lung problems cannot get the supports they need. Yet, here is a simple solution to help those people by giving them safe air to breathe. Some 80% of the population is covered by the smoky coal ban but 20% is not. Why are those 20% of the people being treated differently from the rest of the nation? For the other 80% the ban has existed in some places for almost 30 years. However, the Government has taken fright because I understand one coal importer has threatened legal action. I am sure there has not been a regulation in the history of the State that a Government sought to introduce where there was not a threat of some form or legal action. For the Government to be seen to bow to that kind of legal pressure is only to invite further legal pressure on every other regulation the State proposes to introduce.

I was always taught that the primary role of the State is to protect its people. In this case the State is showing cowardice in the face of a legal threat and is not protecting the people. More pertinently, it is not protecting the 20% who are forced to live in unsafe air conditions. I do not like having to bring up negative things about my home town or other towns in my native county, but this is dangerous and unacceptable, and something needs to be done.

The power is in the Minister's hands. I do not want to wishy-washy nonsense about the local authority having the power. The 1987 legislation makes it clear that the power lies with the Minister.

The powers given to the local authorities are minimal and it is very onerous for them to take action.

The Deputy will have the opportunity to ask a supplementary question.

Air pollution is perceived as the second biggest environmental concern for Europeans after climate change, according to the European Commission. Ten times more people are killed by air pollution than by road accidents in the EU. The UN has stated that the failure of governments across the world to ensure their citizens breathe clean air is a violation of the rights to life, health and well-being. The Clean Air Alliance has claimed that four people in Ireland die every day from the effects of air pollution. Some 1,150 premature deaths in Ireland are attributable to air pollution.

Yesterday, the Minister advised that up to 6 June, there had been 98 breaches of the daily air pollution limits recorded in the State. Sixty five of those were in Dublin, including four in Blanchardstown, two in the Phoenix Park and 12 in Ringsend. There were also 11 in Enniscorthy. There were even more in places like Davitt Road and other heavy industrialised areas.

Air pollution is a major cause of premature death and disease, and is the single largest environmental health risk in Europe, causing approximately 400,000 premature deaths per year. The report published in 2018, using data for 2015 indicates 1,150 premature deaths in Ireland. Heart disease and stroke are the commonest reasons for premature death attributable to air pollution. Air pollution leads to reduced lung function, respiratory infections and aggravated asthma, particularly in children. The current rental crisis is adding to the asthma crisis because of mould and bacteria in poor rental accommodation. Recent evidence suggests the central nervous system is also affected.

What does the Government propose to do about it? I do not want a 340 or 640-item list of things it plans to do out to 2040. I want to see action in the here and now that relieves people, in particular children, who are suffering. Air pollution and climate change are intertwined. Several air pollutants are also climate forcers, which have a potential impact on climate and global warming in the short term. Air pollution and climate change should be tackled jointly using policies and measures that have been developed through an integrated approach.

I am concerned that the Government is all talk and almost no action in tackling what is killing Irish people, including children.

I thank the Deputies for raising this very important issue. Undoubtedly Ireland faces challenges regarding ambient air pollution, which is pollution at particular places at particular times in respect of particular substances. The most serious problem we have is with particulate matter, particularly in smaller towns such as Enniscorthy, as adverted to by Deputy Browne.

Both my predecessors gave a commitment to extend the smoky coal ban, as it is known, to the remaining parts of the country. A number of coal firms indicated that they would legally challenge this decision by the two former Ministers and not only challenge the extension of the ban but also the existing ban.

I am not in any way taking fright in respect of this. I have taken careful counsel from the Attorney General. His advice is that I need to take heed of this challenge and that what is occurring could jeopardise not only the extension but also the ban already in place. I am taking care to consult the Attorney General so we can bring forward robust measures to deal with this.

As the Deputy knows, the nub of the issue is that the existing bans include smoky coal but exclude wood and peat. In the evaluation of particulate matter, which is the core pollutant we are concerned about, there is little or no difference between those two types of products. Therefore, we need to consider how to deal with this proposal. I am fully committed to having a clean air strategy and developing robust proposals to deal with this.

On the second issue raised by Deputy Burton, namely, breaches concerning particulate matter, this is a matter of significant concern. This year, there have been two transboundary air pollution events that affected our air quality. Pollutants from other countries were carried into Ireland. There was one event in February and a more significant one over the Easter weekend. These events have contributed to numerous breaches at several of the stations. However, our background level of pollutants is too high. This is underscored by the fact that I am extending, through the EPA, the air-quality monitoring network. We need to improve our performance.

We have significant commitments on all the key pollutants: sulphur dioxide, nitrogen oxides, non-methane volatile organic compounds, ammonia and particulate matter. We will meet four of the targets we have set for 2020. Ammonia remains a problem and we need to address it. Challenges will be faced in the other areas as economic activity grows. We have currently out for consultation a national air pollution control programme. This is to identify the measures and programmes that will deliver on the reduction targets.

It is not true that no action is being taken in respect of this. Besides considering the issue of a ban on particular fuels, we are taking consistent and determined action to improve the position on pollutants coming from the transport and home heating sectors. I refer to very significant reductions in emissions standards for motor vehicles, the promotion of electric vehicles, the promotion of retrofitting and improvement of heating systems. The climate action plan will represent a significant stepping up of ambition in these areas. I accept the Deputy's point that we have a problem. I am determined to find a way to bring about an effective improvement in respect of particulate matter from home heating fuels. I am working with the Attorney General to find a solution.

The recorded breaches relate to fine particles in the air. It has been stated by the professor that these comprise the most dangerous forms of air pollution because their microscopic size allows them to enter the bloodstream and get trapped in the lungs, resulting in respiratory and cardiac issues. We are also aware that these particles can be carcinogenic. They result in up to 1,500 deaths per year nationally. How many deaths are in the 20% of towns not covered by the State's smoky coal ban? The importers say that if the Government extends the ban to the final 20%, they will take legal action against the whole lot. Their motivation is money and nothing else. It is pure greed. It is a threat to the health of the State and people. The primary role of the Minister is to protect the people of the country, not bow to the kind of pressure in question.

A question must be asked about how serious the importers are. Why have they not taken legal action in the past 30 years? Surely if it were financially viable for them to threaten the State with action in the High Court, European Court of Justice or other court, they would do so. What the coal importers are threatening is despicable. I am not referring to all of them but to one or two. For the State to bow in the face of the threats is unacceptable and outrageous. The Minister is treating 20% of the population as second-class citizens in terms of their health. It is a most serious issue.

What we really want is a clean air strategy to set out bold steps on cleaning up our air. We know what will work in towns like Enniscorthy. Smoky coal should be banned. In addition, trees, hedges and ivy should be planted. All the European and UK research, which is very advanced, has shown that all of these, even in very polluted locations in towns and cities, have a massive improving effect on air quality. The amount of disease caused by dirty air should be mapped out. The Minister should state the steps we are taking to end this.

The HSE is well over budget, as we know. The Government has lost control of the budget of the HSE. Why not act to have clean air in this country and reduce the incidence of all the diseases and conditions that dirty air is causing in adults and children?

The Government should pledge to go green. We should green our towns and villages and grow back our hedgerows. The latter are being ripped out all over the country under the Government's agricultural policy. We know the steps we can take to alter this. They are not incredibly expensive at all. In fact, over a period of five to seven years, I have no doubt that they would save the State a considerable amount. One should think back to Ms Mary Harney and the ban on smoky coal in Dublin. That was a single action. I urge the current Minister to have courage and take on the coal firms, which are polluting so many towns. One has only to stand on the hill outside Enniscorthy on a bad day to see the pall of smoke sitting over the town. That should not be in this day and age. Maybe the Minister should visit the town.

I explained in my earlier comments the precise source of the problem. It is not just smoky coal because it is also peat and wood. I fully acknowledge that scientific evidence has strengthened concern over air pollution from particulate matter, in particular. The House would not thank me if I came forward with regulations that collapsed and were not robust. The Deputies would regard it as prudent for me to seek to have proposals that are robust and stand up to legal challenge. I would not be doing any service to the people of Enniscorthy or anywhere else if I did not do that. It is with this in mind that I am taking care to ensure that what I do is robust and effective.

We have made significant progress on air quality. We will meet the targets to reduce sulphur dioxide by 65%, nitrogen oxide by 49%, non-methane volatile organic compounds by 25% and particulate matter by 18%. We will meet the targets set but I fully recognise that we have to do a lot better and introduce measures for the ambitions we have for the next decade.