Saincheisteanna Tráthúla - Topical Issue Debate

Greyhound Industry

The Deputies should remember that they have one minute each. Then we will have the reply. The Deputies will have a further minute subsequently.

I pay great credit to the "RTÉ Investigates" team for their work. I was dreading the programme because I knew what it was going to show. I knew because practically everything in the programme has been raised by myself and other Deputies continually for a number of years. I feel like saying "We told you so".

Recently, our amendments to ban the export of greyhounds to countries such as China and Pakistan, which have no animal welfare, were defeated. Our arguments were based on evidence and facts.

I wish to refer to a letter written to the Minister in 2016, copies of which were sent to Bord na gCon, as it was then, and the Chinese ambassador. It contained information from the three main welfare groups in Ireland and international welfare groups about how any greyhounds going from here to places such as Macao were going to certain death, not to mention the cruelty and abuse they would suffer beforehand. I made reference at the joint committee and in the Chamber to the numbers of Irish greyhounds on studbooks and breeding establishment books in China. I mentioned the fact that rescue groups which take our greyhounds back from these countries do not want them to come back to Ireland such is the possibility of abuse here. It was the Irish Greyhound Board that looked for export permissions in 2011. We are not talking about a minority group here; it is the majority of greyhound owners who are abusive towards their animals.

I also wish to thank those involved in the "RTÉ Investigates" programme on exposing what, as Deputy Maureen O'Sullivan stated, we already knew. The culture of animal cruelty has not been addressed in this country. Existing legislation and regulations have been found wanting. Apart from the reputational damage caused by the latest scandal involving the greyhound racing industry, serious welfare issues need to be addressed as a matter of urgency.

Ministers pay only lip service to the issue and are not joining the dots when it comes to the links between cruel and illegal activities and the way in which dogs are being bred. It is no wonder they are not joining the dots: animal welfare is currently divided among four Departments and the legislation relies heavily on self-regulation rather than robust enforcement of animal welfare laws. I want to hear from the Minister of State that will change things. I hope this is the last nail in the coffin for the greyhound industry. We must see an end to the cruelty to these dogs, the way they are being treated and exported as well as the way hares are treated in the industry. We must have a serious look at investigating these organisations on the basis of the RTÉ programme. I want to hear the Minister of State state that now and, if necessary, to withdraw the funding given to these organisations pending change. We should stop greyhound racing. It is gone. Since 2007 only 50% of people have been turning up to greyhound stadiums.

Every year, the Minister comes to the House when we raise objections in respect of public funding of €16 million per year for the greyhound industry. Every year, the Minister has responded by saying what an important role the industry plays in our social, cultural and sporting landscape. A small number of Deputies have been consistently raising the issues highlighted in the "RTÉ Investigates" programme. The issues include the question of the killing of up to 6,000 greyhounds per year because they are not fast enough and the question of animals being exported to countries such as Macao, where protections are almost non-existent. We have horrific situations like the boiling alive of greyhounds when they are no longer useful. We have raised the question of drugging, which is widespread. We have raised questions in respect of mutilation and cruelty. Significant protests are taking place because people are appalled by what they see. There has to be action by the Government now. We cannot hear more words defending this industry, which is based on profit and exploitation. There is a need for an end to public funding of the greyhound industry and we need action.

As Minister of State at the Department of Agriculture, Food and the Marine with responsibility for the greyhound sector, I have already expressed my deep concern at the issues highlighted in the RTÉ programme broadcast on 26 June. I wish to again reassure the House that the Department takes any allegations of breaches of animal welfare rules very seriously and will thoroughly investigate and take the necessary enforcement actions to deal with such offences.

The new Greyhound Racing Act 2019 passed through both Houses of the Oireachtas, with the assistance and input of Deputies, recently and was signed into law last month. I am confident the new Act will: improve the governance of Bord na gCon; strengthen regulatory controls in the industry; modernise sanctions; and improve integrity within the sector. Under the Act, Bord na gCon may make regulations to require the registration of greyhound owners, the registration of racing greyhounds and the notification by owners, breeders and trainers of greyhounds of many more life events compared with those currently captured on existing studbook and microchipping databases.

These regulations will support the board in its ambition to establish and maintain a new comprehensive tracing database for racing greyhounds and will provide greater powers to deal with areas such as anti-doping, integrity and sanctions, the need for which has only been further underlined by what we saw recently. It is deeply frustrating that the breaches of animal welfare that were highlighted by RTÉ have come to light in the year that saw the largest ever allocation of funding, of €2,751,000, to animal welfare organisations. A total of 108 organisations are benefitting under these arrangements and I appreciate the valuable work these organisations do to protect the welfare of animals on a daily basis. An animal welfare lo-call helpline is in place, along with a dedicated email address, which facilitates the reporting by members of the public of any suspicion that animal cruelty is taking place. All calls received are treated in confidence and are followed up by authorised officers of the Department of Agriculture, Food and the Marine. I urge anyone who has witnessed a breach of animal welfare rules to use this facility.

I take this opportunity to highlight some of what has been achieved for animal welfare by this Government. The Government has demonstrated a strong and consistent record regarding the enforcement of animal welfare rules, including the review of 100 years of animal welfare legislation, leading to the enactment of the Animal Health and Welfare Act 2013. Since then, a total of 73 successful prosecutions have been taken under the Act, with a further 30 prosecutions for welfare abuses currently being processed. The use of wild animals in circuses was banned in 2017 and this week, the Government has taken the decision in principle to ban fur farming over a phased period. The Minister for Agriculture, Food and the Marine, Deputy Creed, will bring forward the general scheme of a Bill to the Government to provide for this ban without delay.

I stress that the Department does not issue certificates for the export of greyhounds to China or Pakistan and no certificates have been issued for the export of greyhounds from Ireland to either of those destinations since I was appointed as Minister of State. I can also confirm that the Department is engaging in a review of the licensing conditions in knackeries, with regard to the practices seen on RTÉ's "Prime Time Investigates" programme. All allegations will be examined to determine the appropriate actions needed. I also understand that coursing activity on Whiddy Island will be investigated by the National Parks and Wildlife Service, NPWS, and will be pursued by the relevant authorities. I fully understand and empathise with the views and concerns of members of the public and their response to the contents of this programme, which undermined our deeply felt national attachment to the care and welfare of all animals. In recent days, Bord na gCon, the IGB, has published the first steps of its action plan to strengthen traceability, re-homing and welfare standards by improved regulation, more inspections and the use of greater resources in these areas.

I will be visiting the headquarters of Bord Na gCon shortly to meet with its chair and board members to discuss welfare standards in the industry. In addition, I will discuss the swift implementation of the board's action plan, with a view to identifying what further tangible measures are required to address the serious public concerns raised in this programme.

I want to point out to the Minister of State that there is a time slot, and it is up to the Chair to tell him when that time is up.

I appreciate that, but this is an important issue and I feel strongly about it.

I know it is important but the other Deputies had to share far less time, so I want to be fair to everybody. The Deputies have a minute each to respond, starting with Deputy Maureen O'Sullivan.

My first question is why the Minister of State, the IGB, and the Department had to wait for this programme to air. We were telling them all this already. Italy and France have banned the export of their dogs to countries like China, the US and Australia, and commercial airlines will not take greyhounds if they know that is where they are going.

I refer again to coursing. My Bill to ban live hare coursing was defeated, but it was based on the same evidence of what is going on that we saw on "Prime Time Investigates" the other night. We have seen appalling injuries inflicted on hares as well. It was said that it was better to have coursing licensed, but we all knew there was unlicensed stuff going on and the programme also noted that a number of people from the licensed coursing clubs were attending those meetings. There was a big hoo-ha about the Government funding granted to the FAI and Repak, but why is the same standard not being applied to the IGB and the amount of funding it is getting? The funding should be withheld until these particular issues are addressed. We are not dealing with it because they are animals. The IGB was aware that injured dogs were being forced to run in races and were being given morphine so they could run. This industry is an absolute disgrace.

I am appalled by the Minister of State's response, because there is no urgency in what he is saying. We knew this was taking place. The Minister of State and the Minister behind him have known for a number of years about the greyhound industry and the treatment of hares in hare coursing. Steps have to be taken, clinically and quickly, to show the industry that these practices will not be tolerated at all. We are talking about 6,000 greyhounds being brought to knackeries each year, and being beaten to death because they cannot run fast enough. This is not livestock: these are animals that should be treated with respect. I am asking the Minister of State to tell the Irish greyhound industry immediately that its funding will be stopped if these issues are not dealt with. We should only issue passports to greyhounds going to countries with welfare conditions of a standard as high as our own and that should be double checked. Licences for hare coursing and netting should be stopped immediately until they are investigated. These sorts of things, and not the weaselly words I have heard from the Minister today, will have an impact. It is not good enough.

I agree that it is not good enough. The Minister of State has expressed his deep concern at the issues that have been highlighted. However, those issues have been highlighted for years and it should not take an RTÉ exposé to make people aware or suddenly make the Government concerned. I have a letter here from 2016 that outlines these precise issues, which the ISPCA, Dogstrust Ireland, the Irish Blue Cross, and The Irish Council Against Blood Sports have also raised repeatedly. These issues have been raised repeatedly in this Dáil as well. The idea that the Minister of State did not know about it until it was on RTÉ is simply not credible.

The Minister of State stated that the Department does not issue certificates for the export of greyhounds to China or Pakistan. However, the Minister of State knows that greyhounds are first exported to the UK and then exported to those countries from there. The Minister of State and his Department know who is involved in that, because particular people are going around buying up greyhounds specifically for export to those countries.

I refer to knackeries. A knackery belonging to John Styles and his daughter featured in the RTÉ programme. He stated recently that he would not shoot any more dogs, which is an admission that he has done so in the past. The funding should be cut.

I appreciate the Members' contributions. Deputy Maureen O'Sullivan, in fairness to her, participated in the Greyhound Racing Act 2019 and the record will show that she commended me for my ongoing efforts to bring that legislation forward, almost three years to the day since I was appointed Minister of State. I set about modernising the regulations around greyhounds-----

The only regulations-----

I did not interrupt the Deputy when she was speaking. I am sincerely trying to bring this industry into focus and into shape. I will be meeting the chair and board members of the IGB this week to go through its action plan and to see to its immediate implementation.

Italy has banned the export of dogs to China and so on and while we could do that too, unless every country we export to that has good welfare standards adopts the same approach it will not be effective. We cannot control what happens in the UK on our own, but we can work with it and re-emphasise the need for it to have stricter controls on how animals exit the country. If every country in a community, such as the EU 27 plus the UK, has the same ring of steel around their exports, then no dogs will end up in countries such as China or Pakistan. We cannot do that unilaterally. We need co-operation and that is why we need to engage with the international greyhound forum to make sure that becomes a reality.

Beef Industry

The next Topical Issue matter, the impact on Irish beef farmers of the Mercosur trade deal, has been the subject of much discussion in recent days. One of the four Deputies who raised this matter, Deputy Denis Naughten, is not present but we will allow him to contribute if he arrives.

It is disappointing that we are discussing a deal approved in recent days that will be disastrous for the Irish beef sector and makes no sense from a number of points of view. From an economic point of view, farmers in Europe are getting prices of as little as €3.65 per kg for prime quality beef. Europe is currently 102% self-sufficient in beef. We have enough beef and facilitating the import of more will place considerable pressure on beef prices. The European Union's 2016 impact assessment on trade deals shows that a trade deal with Mercosur could result in a 16% fall in the price of beef in the EU. From a climate change point of view, this deal flies in the face of efforts to reduce our carbon footprint. It will result in beef produced in a much more carbon intensive manner elsewhere being shipped across the world to this country where we can produce beef in a much more carbon efficient manner. What steps does the Minister propose to take to push back this beef deal? The agreement reached between the EU and Mercosur last weekend is a tremendous political failure on the part of the Minister, the Taoiseach and the Government.

Like my colleagues, I am deeply concerned about the impact the Mercosur deal will have on Irish farmers. We all know the position with respect to beef prices, to which my colleague referred. Farmers are under pressure to survive as matters stand. The climate change plan and Brexit are coming down the line. Brexit will have a serious impact on Irish farmers, including on beef exports. I ask the Minister to take that on board. If we allow this deal to proceed, farmers will come under more pressure. I am worried about what will happen to the Irish beef industry and our beef farmers. They will not survive what is coming down the road. The Minister and the Taoiseach must ask the European Union to put a stay on this deal at least until we see the outcome of Brexit. Perhaps then, we will know what will be the future of the beef industry and whether beef farmers will survive. Will the Minister and the Taoiseach ask the EU to hold off on this deal at least until we know the results of Brexit?

Our beef industry is under major financial pressure. Since my election in 2016, the House has discussed the economic crisis facing the beef industry numerous times. The Taoiseach recently told people the Government would always have their back. That statement rings extremely hollow in light of the agreement with Mercosur, which will be the final nail in the coffin of the beef industry. The point raised most consistently with me by farmers over the weekend was the challenge they will face as a result of climate change. The Commission is talking out of the other side of its mouth on this issue by allowing beef to be transported halfway across the world to displace European beef from European shelves. Brexit will pose a major economic challenge for us. We will be 116% self-sufficient in beef when Brexit takes place, yet the Commission is selling out our beef industry. The only way to describe this agreement is that it is a sell-out by the industrial powers of Europe.

I thank Deputies McConalogue, Aylward and Cahill for raising this matter. The agreement reached on 28 June on an EU-Mercosur trade deal marks the end of 20 years of negotiations between the two blocs. While I acknowledge the importance of balanced international trade deals for Ireland's economy, including its agricultural sector, I am very disappointed that the agreement includes a significant tariff rate quota that would allow the importation of beef from Mercosur to the European Union at preferential tariff rates at a time when the beef sector in Europe is facing significant uncertainty because of Brexit. I have worked hard with other Ministers and the Taoiseach, and with colleagues in other European member states, to mitigate the potential impact of an EU-Mercosur agreement on European agriculture. While the outcome is disappointing, the length of time it has taken to arrive at this point is at least in part due to the concerted efforts over many years of Ireland and other like-minded member states to protect the European Union agricultural sector to the maximum extent possible.

In addition to pointing out the considerable difficulties that the concessions of a significant beef tariff rate quota would create for the Irish beef sector over a period when the European beef market is likely to continue to be very delicately balanced and against the backdrop of a potentially very damaging impact from Brexit, Ireland repeatedly called for coherence between the European Union's trade policy objectives and its climate change responsibilities to be demonstrated by not extending more favourable conditions to beef imports from trade partners that are producing in a less environmentally sustainable manner. We have focused not only on the EU's market impact and sustainability aspects but also on the size of the quota, the technicalities associated with quota management and the cumulative impact of potential concessions under the range of current and future negotiations in order to mitigate the outcome of these negotiations. It is worth noting in this regard that the beef tariff rate quota agreed is considerably less than that which had been sought by Mercosur countries which, at one point, were demanding a quota of 300,000 tonnes. In addition, the tariff rate quota is split between fresh and frozen product and will be phased in over a period of years. Therefore, the full impact of the agreement is unlikely to be felt for a considerable period.

We must also acknowledge that there may be some opportunities for the Irish dairy sector and drinks industry. In addition, our colleagues at the Department of Business, Enterprise and Innovation estimate that a potential doubling of annual goods and services exports from Ireland is possible over the period to 2030.

It is early days and there are still a number of steps to be taken before the agreement can be implemented. It will be first put through a process called legal scrubbing and translation which could take up to two years. It will then be submitted to the Council of trade Ministers for approval by qualified majority vote and to the European Parliament for its consent. If provisionally applied at that point, it would still take a number of years to come into full effect. The Oireachtas and other national parliaments may also ultimately have a role in ratification. We will examine the text carefully to assess its impact on the Irish economy and the agrifood sector generally and reflect on the appropriate steps in the context of both engaging further with member state colleagues and examining ways to diminish the potential impact of the agreement.

As with the Minister for Communications, Climate Action and Environment, Deputy Bruton, during Leaders' Questions this morning, I do not detect any significant push-back from the Minister in respect of this deal. Speaking recently on the issue of climate change, the Taoiseach indicated he intended to eat less beef. It appears that while people are being encouraged to eat less beef, there is no issue at European level with people eating South American rather than European beef. It defies logic that this deal is being proposed at European level. The bottom line is that it constitutes a political failure on the part of the Minister, the Taoiseach and, in particular, Commissioner Hogan who was so central to this process at European level. I know it will be subjected to the legal scrubbing process but the horse has bolted to some extent.

I ask the Deputy to conclude.

It is now a case of trying to retrieve the situation. The beef element should have been scrubbed from the deal before we found ourselves in this situation. We need to see a stronger line from the Minister and the Taoiseach in terms of ensuring this deal is resisted.

I ask Deputies to obey the rules on time. I have a job to do.

Government members like to be good Europeans. We like to be the good boys who will do whatever is asked of us in Europe. This is a serious issue. Agriculture and its offshoots are the biggest indigenous industry in Ireland. Beef is one of the main offshoots of the agricultural sector. We consume 10% of the beef we produce and export the remaining 90%. Half of our beef is exported to Britain, with 40% exported to the rest of Europe. Brexit is coming down the line in the next three months and we do not know where 50% of our beef production will go. The 40% we export to Europe will be undermined by the Mercosur deal. Something has to give here. Rather than being the good boys of Europe, the Minister and the Taoiseach must go back to the EU and say enough is enough and we must protect the beef sector, our biggest indigenous industry.

The pig and poultry sectors are also undermined by this deal. Some 25,000 tonnes of pigmeat imports will be allowed into Europe at a reduced tariff and 180,000 tonnes of poultry meat imports will also be allowed in. That will have a huge impact on the European meat market.

Commissioner Hogan, who was appointed by the previous Fine Gael-led Government, has allowed this to happen. When Ray MacSharry was Commissioner, he tailored CAP reform to suit Irish farmers. I regret that we now have an Irish Commissioner who has sold out our beef industry. A 22-month premium introduced during Mr. MacSharry's time suited steer production.

It was a vital economic lifeline for the Irish beef industry. We gained billions of euro from it. Here we have all that work now being undone by the Commissioner, Mr. Hogan.

The constraints of this particular debate do not allow for a full articulation of all of the issues.

However, I do not accept Deputy McConalogue's assertion that this is a done deal. This is a high-level agreement at a political level between the Commission and Mercosur member states. It is a deal that has not been approved by any Government, the Commission, the European Parliament, Council of Trade Ministers or, indeed, national parliament.

Has it not been written as a done deal?

I did not interrupt the Deputy.

I consider there to be a considerable distance to travel before we have an inked deal that bears the imprimatur of Europe. What we have is a proposed deal.

Certainly, we intend to use the time between now and then to influence in whatever way. In the context of this issue, we are not without friends in Europe. For example, we have made common cause with the French, the Poles and the Belgians. As I said, this is not a done deal.

In the cut and thrust of political debate, I appreciate Deputy Cahill thinks the Commissioner, Deputy Hogan, is in play for this, but I would remind the Deputy that this deal was negotiated by the Commissioner, Dr. Malmström, who is a member of Alliance of Liberals and Democrats for Europe, ALDE, in Europe which is the group that Fianna Fáil is aligned with.

Schools Amalgamation

I am glad that the Minister of State, Deputy Mitchell O'Connor, is here to reply.

In November 2018, the Cavan and Monaghan Education and Training Board made a shock announcement that it proposed to close two schools, namely, St. Bricin's College, Belturbet and St. Mogue's College, Bawnboy, and provide a new amalgamated school in Ballyconnell, County Cavan. Oireachtas Members and local councillors for that electoral area were told that at a briefing by the ETB that afternoon and later that day the ETB put the proposal to the full ETB board, which approved the proposal, unfortunately. Subsequently, the representatives of teachers and the boards of management were informed of the ETB proposal. This came completely out of the blue.

It is an area that I know well because I am from Bawnboy. There was no indication of any such proposal being considered by the education and training board. Packed public meetings were held in Bawnboy and Belturbet, where the organisers of the meetings asked for the communities' views on the ETB proposal. There was a very clear message from both meetings that the local community in each school area absolutely opposed the closure of the schools and proposed so-called amalgamation.

The meetings were representative of the school community in both cases. Speakers on the night included students, past pupils, former teachers, representatives of local sporting and voluntary organisations, and local business. Testimonies were given that night by past pupils who had gone to forge very successful careers in many different disciplines of the important influence the schools had on their development as persons and in their chosen careers. Those testimonies were from people working in our own country and people working abroad as well.

I have received correspondence from numerous past pupils of both schools who outlined clearly their appreciation of the schools' role in their education and in preparing them for careers. It was clear that these schools have had great accomplishments over the years with their students.

Both Bawnboy and Belturbet are located in north-west Cavan, as the Acting Chairman, Deputy Eugene Murphy, would know. Students travel over considerable distances to attend both schools. One has to look at the geography when one considers amalgamation or providing services in a different location than where they have been provided up to now. If a school was provided in Ballyconnell, the students furthest west of Bawnboy would be lost to a school in an adjoining catchment area, in a neighbouring county and in a different province. Similarly, the students in the Belturbet catchment area adjoining the Cavan town catchment area would be most likely to travel to Cavan town to source their second level education rather than Ballyconnell, also for distance reasons. Cavan town post-primary is already heavily subscribed with all second level schools there with full enrolments.

Detailed submissions have been made to the Department and the Minister, Deputy McHugh, in respect of the role of the schools and their accomplishments over the years. Those submissions detailed the many national award winners and scholarship winners from both schools and the participation by both of those schools in all-Ireland competitions, in European competitions and, indeed, in other international competitions where they brought great honour and glory to our country.

I am anxious that the detailed submissions are given very serious consideration by the Department of Education and Skills. I fully believe that if an amalgamated school were to proceed in Ballyconnell, it would not have the confidence or support of the local communities.

I am aware this is a serious issue for Deputy Brendan Smith and for the school community. I am taking this matter on behalf of the Minister, Deputy McHugh. In responding, I will comment on this matter because I know quite a bit about amalgamations of schools and was responsible for the amalgamation of two schools.

I thank the Deputy for raising this matter as it provides me and the Minister, Deputy McHugh, with the opportunity to clarify the position on the proposal by Cavan and Monaghan Education and Training Board, CMETB, to amalgamate St. Bricin's College in Belturbet with St. Mogue's College in Bawnboy, west Cavan.

I am aware that there is significant interest in this proposal from interested stakeholders in the area. Both schools are post-primary co-educational schools operating under the auspice of CMETB. St. Bricin's College in Belturbet has an enrolment of 195 students in the current academic year. This is a slight decrease from 222 pupils in 2014. St. Mogue's College enrolment is 227, which is an increase from 197 in 2014.

The Minister, Deputy McHugh, wishes to advise the Deputy that the initiative for any amalgamation may come from a variety of sources, such as parents, staff, boards of management and patrons. Any such proposal to amalgamate schools must involve consultation with all the relevant stakeholders and follow decisions taken at local level. If I can just comment on that, stakeholders have to buy into an amalgamation for it to be a successful one. In that regard, any proposed changes must be well planned and managed in a manner that accommodates the interests of parents, teachers and local communities and contributes to an inclusive education system. If I may add, students' views must also be taken into account. Any proposals are then subject to the approval of the Department of Education and Skills.

The Minister, Deputy McHugh, can confirm that the Department received a proposal from CMETB to amalgamate St. Bricin's College in Belturbet and St. Mogue's College in Bawnboy in December last following the unanimous approval of the proposal by the board of CMETB on 26 November 2018. The ETB proposes locating a new school entity in Ballyconnell. The Department subsequently sought further information from the ETB on the amalgamation proposal.

The ETB recently advised the Department that a series of meetings with stakeholders has taken place and further consultation meetings are planned. The object of the consultations was to provide additional information on the proposed amalgamation of both schools and to ensure that any concerns raised are heard and taken into account.

I have given an example of all those the ETB has met in the meantime.

I do want to advise the Deputy that the Department has not given a specific commitment of funding to Cavan-Monaghan ETB to develop a new second-level school. The Department looks forward to continued engagement with Cavan-Monaghan ETB relating to the amalgamation proposal. On behalf of the Minister, I again thank the Deputy for the opportunity to clarify the current position in respect of the potential amalgamation.

I thank the Minister of State for her reply. It is obvious from her response, particularly when she went off script, that she understands that amalgamation can only be brought about when there is buy-in from all stakeholders. There is no buy-in from any stakeholder regarding this proposal. Meetings and consultations are being held now that should have taken place before November 2018. In replies to a number of my parliamentary questions, the Department has stressed that there has to be detailed consultation by the patron of the school with all stakeholders before any proposal would go to the Department. That is the way it should be but, unfortunately, it is not how this has come about. I know the area very well because I am a native. There is absolute opposition to the proposal. The staff in the schools, parents of students attending both colleges, past pupils and the wider school community are all in favour of retaining the two schools. I have outlined the geographical considerations as well. Some pupils who attend those schools at present would, if they closed, go to schools in adjoining catchment areas, some of them in different counties and provinces. That is not the way to deliver second-level education in north-west Cavan.

I appeal to the Minister of State to go back to the Minister as she stated she would. For a relatively small capital investment at each school, a range of additional facilities could be provided. I have attended awards nights in the schools and have listened to people like the directors of schools at the ETB or, prior to that, the VEC, as well as guest speakers. They laud and praise the schools for the quality of the teaching and leadership, for their achievements from an educational and extracurricular point of view, for their participation in sports in so many disciplines and for their active role in many cross-Border projects. The Minister gave me a commitment some months ago that he would meet a deputation from both schools. I hope he will be able to do so before August. I appeal to the Minister of State to bring that message back to him.

I thank the Deputy. The ETB has advised the Department that the series of meetings which the Deputy talked about has taken place. The object of the consultation, according to the ETB, was to provide additional information on the proposed amalgamation of both schools and to ensure that any concerns raised are heard and taken into account. Of the meetings held with the stakeholders to date, the general consensus expressed is that the proposed amalgamation is the only means of rectifying the deficiencies within both school buildings.

The Department's view on amalgamation proposals generally is that every case needs to be considered by all involved on its own merits. In areas of mature population where enrolment numbers are reducing over time and school buildings are not being utilised to full capacity, or where there is a separate single-sex school, amalgamation can also be merited. Equally, it has to be recognised that there can be significant sensitivities involved. These are best addressed through a process of local dialogue and consultation aimed at ensuring that any proposal meets the interests of the communities concerned. The ETB has considered that a new school catering for the enrolment of 500 students would better serve the educational needs of the area and provide improved facilities for both schools. A new school would also strengthen the continuance of a post-primary school provision in the west Cavan area.

Those are the notes that I have from the Minister's office. I will absolutely raise with the Minister the very succinct points the Deputy has made.

Nursing Home Accommodation Provision

There has been a decision by the HSE to cap the number of transitional care beds that it funds for patients waiting for places in nursing or convalescent homes. In the Cork and Kerry region, as the HSE has stated, the knock-on effect of this would be that it would add to bottlenecks in acute hospitals. HSE officials have indicated that this will result in additional delays to discharges. We already know that the HSE does not have the bed capacity in acute or community hospitals to manage the volume of patients requiring care. It is all to save money and balance the budget. The national care office has stated that if it is to reach a break-even position, unfortunately there is no choice. In creating another waiting list, what will be the outcome for these people? What impact will there be on the nursing home system and hospital system, and what is going to be the overall impact on society? Last week, Sinn Féin received cross-party support in respect of a Private Members' motion for significant change to elder care provision. There are over 6,000 people already on waiting lists for home help. I appeal to senior HSE management to stop now and to reverse the decision to cap services for the sake of money.

Everybody in this House recognises the importance of the fair deal scheme and that it has served our society so well in the past. The €30 million deficit in the scheme this year is having a detrimental effect. The consequences are that beds in hospital for people who are ill are being taken by healthy patients. I refer to elderly individuals who are in hospitals and have nobody to take them home. They are kept in hospital because of a lack of funding in order to ensure that the fair deal scheme can be operated and to take that pressure off it. There is an impact on the nursing homes as well with beds vacant and no funding there to take people who would be qualified applicants. At the moment there are 6,000 people on the waiting list for home help. There is a lack of resources for home help packages. The number of people over 65 years of age is increasing by 20,000 each year. More and more people will be looking for nursing home packages and the resources have to be put in place to meet that demand as a priority.

A lot of what is happening runs contrary to what the Government says it wants to do and what it says is needed, namely, taking the pressure off the acute system and investing in community care, home care and nursing homes. However, we see a cut in respect of new people getting home help. There has also been a cut to the number of transitional care beds and there are issues regarding potential capital projects as well. This is going to cause serious problems, and not only for nursing homes and patients. It is going to put further pressure on the acute system further up the chain. If these beds are not provided, a significant number of people will not be able to leave hospital to go into a transitional care bed and on into a nursing home. Investment in community care and community health facilities is being undermined and it is going to have a real impact.

I thank Deputies Buckley, Ferris and Ó Laoghaire for raising this very important issue. I shall take this matter on behalf of the Minister of State, Deputy Jim Daly.

The overarching policy of the Government is to support older people to move to a more appropriate care setting following treatment in acute hospitals and ultimately either to return to live as independently as possible in their own homes and communities, or for those who need it to move to residential care.

The National Service Plan 2019 provides an overall financial allocation of €1.8 billion of which €862 million is available for older persons' services and more than €985 million is available for the nursing home support scheme. In 2019 some 53,000 people will receive 17.9 million home support hours. This includes supporting 550 patients to leave hospital over the winter period. A further 235 people will receive 360,000 hours through intensive home care packages. More than 10,900 people will be supported to leave hospital through transitional care funding. We take this important issue very seriously.

The provision of transitional care beds assists with patients in acute hospitals who are ready for discharge, but who need nursing home care or a period of convalescence up to a maximum of four weeks. The scheme funds these patients in private nursing home beds, thereby facilitating the discharge of the patients from the acute setting and allowing their beds to be used for other patients. The system of transitional care provision has been in place since 2015 and is available to all public hospitals in the State.

Under the HSE’s National Service Plan 2019, a budget of €28.5 million has been allocated to support discharges from acute hospitals to transitional or step-down care. Despite this significant level of funding and service provision, the demand for services continues to grow. The allocation of funding across the system, though significant, is finite and services must be delivered within the funding available.

Up to May 2019, approvals were being allocated on a demand-led basis, as requests for this type of care normally tend to decrease over the summer months. This, however, has not been the case in 2019 and the number of requests for transitional care has continued to increase. The highest expenditure for the year occurred in the months of April and May 2019. The waiting time for transitional care at present is approximately one week. As of today, there are 23 people on the waiting list for transitional care funding who have applied for the fair deal scheme.

Transitional care funding is a national support service and there is no specific allocation for any region such as the Cork/Kerry Community Health Organisation. It is administered taking account of the available resource envelope, with funding distributed accordingly across the regions over the entire year. By the end of May, funding approval was provided for 378 transitional care beds in CHO 4. Preliminary data from June indicates that about a further 60 approvals were provided for CHO 4 in that month.

The HSE is required to deliver services within its available budget. To ensure there is sufficient funding available for the remainder of the year and to ensure that expenditure is in line with the transitional care funding allocation at the end of the year the HSE is managing its allocation of funding approvals having regard to the significant volume of approvals released in the first five months of the year. This means that since the start of June the rate of approvals has reduced compared to the early part of the year. Approvals will continue to be monitored closely and funding will be adjusted on a monthly basis to ensure a balanced budget for 2019.

I thank the Minister of State for his reply. I do not have much time so I will touch on just two points, the first being that once again we are talking about money versus people. The Minister of State appears to be very supportive of the Sláintecare report, the introduction to which states that patients are treated on the basis of need rather than means. It should not be a money thing.

In his reply the Minister of State said that "Preliminary data from June indicates that about a further 60 approvals were provided for CHO 4 in that month." I had learned that it was actually in June when the social care division started to cap the transitional care approvals. I am not sure whether or not these are the blank cheques or the thanks one cashes in the banks. The Minister of State's reply also said that "the rate of approvals has reduced compared to the early part of the year." Of course it has, when they have capped it; nothing is happening.

We want this situation resolved. How we are currently treating our elderly people is disgraceful. We know there is another tsunami coming down the road.

Angela Fitzgerald, a senior manager overseeing acute hospitals, has highlighted a growth in delays releasing healthy patients from hospitals. She has said that a National Service Plan 2019 target of having fewer than 550 beds subject to the so-called "delayed discharge" is being missed. This is Ms Fitzgerald saying this, not me. The number recorded from Ms Fitzgerald's briefing from April stood at 639. Ms Fitzgerald has said that further deterioration was expected due to a funding limit. It is basically coming down to funding being made available.

The Minister of State said:

Under the HSE's National Service Plan 2019, a budget of €28.5 million has been allocated to support discharges from acute hospitals... Despite this significant level of funding and service provision, the demand for services continues to grow.

Obviously, the money available for this is not adequate to meet demand. Beds are badly needed in hospitals for seriously ill patients but no beds are available because they are being taken up by healthy patients who are waiting for a discharge. This is inexcusable and it needs to be looked at further.

The Minister of State will, I have no doubt, be aware of how severe the situation is in our hospitals, even in the middle of summer. Dr. Conor Deasy of Cork University Hospital, CUH, is reported in The Echo this week as saying that some 300 deaths per year can be partially attributed to overcrowding in our hospitals. There were 834 people on trolleys in CUH in June. It is absolutely incredible. A big factor is that nearly 54% of the bed capacity is taken up by 10% of patients. This is through no fault of their own. It is due to a lack of a place for the patient to go to. This scheme would allow those patients to get into nursing homes. The fair deal scheme is complicated, it can take time to bring things together and some people may not qualify for it. This scheme allows people, where they are fit and healthy, to leave hospital to go into another bed. The scheme should be funded adequately to ensure that every available nursing home bed, through whatever scheme, is taken up and that every potential space in the hospital system is created. As with home help, this scheme is not being funded properly. If it was funded properly it would ensure that pressure is taken off the acute system.

I take on board the points raised by the Deputies and I will bring them to the Minister of State, Deputy Jim Daly. A person who has a delayed transfer of care is a person who has been deemed clinically fit for discharge from the acute bed, but whose discharge is delayed because he or she is waiting for some form of ongoing support or care following the discharge. There has been a substantial focus in recent years on reducing the delayed transfer of care, commonly known as delayed discharges, and enabling patients to be discharged from hospital sooner. This year the HSE aims to support some 10,900 people to leave hospital through the transitional care funding. Between 1 January and 31 May there were 4,861 approvals nationally, equating to approximately 231 per week, which is 20 per week ahead of target.

Given the increase in approvals over the first part of the year, approval rates must now reduce during the summer months to ensure the service stays within its budget.

Deputy Buckley spoke of the needs of patients, which absolutely must be addressed in line with Sláintecare. Deputy Ferris pointed to the figure of €28.5 million in funding. Deputy Ó Laoghaire referred to deaths and overcrowding, which is not acceptable. We also have to deal with the bed capacity issue. The plan is to invest in more capacity in our health service.

The Independent Expert Review of Delayed Discharges report was published in November. The review recognised the points raised and that delayed discharges are caused by a multitude of factors. The review made nine recommendations that include the development of a national policy to provide for a more consistent approach to recording delayed discharges, strengthening data collection, standardising the definitions and ensuring consistent discharge guidelines.

Following publication of the report immediate focus was on reducing delayed discharges as we entered the winter season through mobilising additional resources that were made available and in ensuring that social care measures were effected without delay.

I will bring the points raised to the attention of the Minister of State, Deputy Jim Daly. We need to develop the services and deal with the capacity issue.