Saincheisteanna Tráthúla - Topical Issue Debate

Hospital Equipment

The issue at hand is that Friends of University Hospital Kerry has raised millions of euro for University Hospital Kerry over the years. I commend the group. Deputy Ferris knows those concerned as well as I do. They are ordinary, decent, hard-working people from Tralee and all around County Kerry who have supported the hospital under the umbrella of the group. They have done trojan work and picked up the slack of the current and previous Governments, which have let them down. They have raised millions of euro for much-needed equipment for our hospital in County Kerry. One item of equipment for which the group provided funding was a DEXA scanner. The scanner was staffed for a while but unfortunately it now lies idle. Patients now have to travel to Cork or pay privately to have their scans carried out privately in Bon Secours Hospital, Tralee. We are very grateful the latter hospital is in the county also. It provides an excellent service. Why, however, is a vital piece of medical equipment lying idle? The Department of Health has so many Ministers, including the Minister of State, Deputy Finian McGrath, much as we may like him, that one would nearly want a stick to wave at all of them. With the mismanagement of taxpayers' money, we cannot staff the vital piece of machinery, which was paid for through fund-raising by Friends of University Hospital Kerry. It has been lying idle for four years. There has been inaction by the current and previous Ministers and the HSE. It is disgraceful and disrespectful to the people of Kerry and the staff of the hospital, who would gladly man the equipment if they were allowed to do so.

The importance of a DEXA scanner, particularly for middle-aged women, cannot be stressed highly enough. A DEXA scanner measures bone density. I was looking at some of the statistics on bone density and the importance of a DEXA scanner, particularly in respect of fractures. The number of fractures, particularly among middle-aged women, exceeds the number of all other conditions. Women are twice as likely to have a fracture as a heart attack, five times more likely to have one than cancer, and eight times more likely to have one than a stroke. The value of the scanner to University Hospital Kerry is immeasurable.

I have data on the years prior to the four years in which the machine was in operation. Two hundred and two people went through the scanner in the first year of operation and 290 people in its last year of operation. I am told 800 people are waiting to be scanned by the scanner. As stated by Deputy Michael Healy-Rae, Friends of University Hospital Kerry raised a considerable amount of money. It bought the scanner for the hospital and installed it. The Department of Health needs to make a radiologist available so the 800 plus patients can get the scans they need in order for them to have their rights and entitlements. Having to go to Cork or receive private care is not an excuse. It should not be the case. I have spoken to the Kerry general manager on this issue. Deputy Healy Rae spoke to him also. We raised the necessity of the scanner at meetings we attended and, on each occasion, we were told that there are not the personnel to run it because the funding has not been made available. I urge the Minister of State to give this immediate consideration.

I am responding on behalf of the Minister, Deputy Simon Harris. I thank the Deputies for raising this important issue. I welcome all the Deputies back after the summer recess. Raising this issue gives me an opportunity to provide an update to the House on the DEXA Scanner at University Hospital Kerry. I agree with my colleagues and acknowledge the tremendous efforts of Friends of University Hospital Kerry, which has been instrumental in encouraging charitable contributions from the community towards the work of the hospital. I thank it most sincerely for the provision of the scanner in 2015 to meet a growing patient need. The HSE has advised that, despite numerous national and international recruitment drives, University Hospital Kerry has been unable to recruit a full complement of radiographers to provide DEXA scanning services. However, I understand that University Hospital Kerry is currently interviewing for basic and senior radiographers and the hospital hopes to appoint staff within the coming weeks, following which the hospital may be in a position to consider re-establishing the service. The hospital is also seeking to identify suitably qualified staff, other than radiographers, to undertake training in the operation of the DEXA scanner. Furthermore, other options including potential outsourcing will be considered.

It is important to note that the challenges in the recruitment and retention of radiographers are not specific to University Hospital Kerry but are also reflected right across the country. Following a decision in 2016 to conduct a national review, approval was obtained in September 2017 from the Department of Public Expenditure and Reform to appoint an independent chair to conduct the review. The terms of reference for the review include a wide range of issues for examination, including retention and recruitment. It is important to note that this review will not examine issues related to pay that are being addressed by the Public Service Pay Commission.

A series of site visits concluded in early 2018. The purpose of these visits was to gain a greater understanding of the day-to-day issues that are a cause of concern for the radiographers. It is expected that a draft report containing recommendations will be agreed by the review group in the near future. It is important to note that the radiographers comprise one of the healthcare professional groups being examined under module 2, phase 2, of the work being undertaken by the Public Service Pay Commission. This group was identified for further examination as evidence of recruitment and-or retention difficulties was found to exist during the work undertaken as part of the commission’s work for its first report. The report concerning module 2, phase 2, is due to be published in the coming weeks.

Most importantly, I thank Minister of State for acknowledging Friends of University Hospital Kerry. Some 800 patients are waiting, however. If I believed the response was going to be factual, that the scanner would be up and running in the next couple of weeks and that patients would not have to wait, go to Cork or pay for a scan in Bon Secours Hospital, Tralee, I would very warmly welcome it. If the machine can meet its full potential and be put to its full use, it would be most welcome.

I wish to advise the Minister of State of one thing. In a common, ordinary and sensible way, could I ask him to take a leaf out of the book I describe? He should note the number of people I take to Belfast regularly to have cataracts removed from their eyes. Surgeons come in on a Sunday to carry out scheduled operations. They go through a bus load at a time. Why can we not do this here in the Republic? Why can we not operate our hospitals in this way and use the machinery in place to reduce waiting lists?

I thank the Minister of State for his reply. I am just looking at answers I received when I raised this matter in the past. The answers have been somewhat similar. They stated the hospital hoped to appoint staff within the coming weeks and that it might be in a position to reconsider the service. This is typical Civil Service-speak. There is no substance to it. The response is that the hospital is "seeking to identify suitably qualified staff". This has been ongoing for four years. I cannot understand how, in the past four years, the HSE and hospital were not able to identify and appoint suitable staff. There were 202 patients and 290 patients, respectively, scanned in the first two years of operation. The number on the waiting list has grown to over 800.

I hope that what is in the Minister of State's reply comes to pass in the coming weeks, but I have heard it all before. Deputy Michael Healy-Rae and other Kerry Deputies who have met with the hospital management in recent years are in a position to vouch for what I am saying.

Of course, I fully understand the local frustrations of Deputies Michael Healy-Rae and Ferris in respect of the 800 people to whom they refer and the fact that a DEXA scanner has been provided through the voluntary donations of the people of Kerry but cannot be used due to a shortage of the radiographers required to operate it. I understand their frustration and annoyance in that regard. The HSE advises that the hospital is engaging with Friends of University Hospital Kerry in respect of progress and that the hospital is extremely grateful for the tremendous fundraising work the foundation has carried out. I encourage the management of University Hospital Kerry to work quickly to progress local solutions to this issue and I look forward to the outcome of the national radiographer review and to any recommendations that will promote the recruitment and retention of radiographers in the Irish healthcare system. Of course, I will bring the concerns the Deputies have raised here today back to the Department, to the HSE, and to the Minister, Deputy Harris.

Rehabilitation Training Allowance Payments

I defer to my colleague from west Cork.

I thank the Deputy very much. This is one of the cruellest cuts ever made to disability services. It relates to an allowance of €31.80 a week but it is not just a monetary cut. This allowance provides great encouragement to people to start courses. Not getting the €31.80 can actually stop people doing such courses. I cannot understand why the Minister of State would go ahead with these cuts. When I asked him in a parliamentary question what the money saved would be spent on, he said that it would be put into daycare services, depending on priority. I cannot see what could be a higher priority than what the money is currently used for.

I speak on behalf of those who have been affected by this cut. I hope that the Minister of State is in the House this evening to say that he is going to reverse it. It is a punitive measure which affects those who do not themselves have a strong voice. I fail to understand the economic prerogative behind this cut. People in this sector are in what is called a rehabilitative phase, which is designed to assist progression. For the sake of €31.80 per person, it seems miserly and mean to make cuts affecting people in this category. I hope that the Minister of State will reverse this decision because none of us on this side of the House understands why it was made in the first instance.

We were shocked when, during the summer break, the Government and the HSE decided to abolish the rehabilitative training allowance effective from 1 September. This means that people with disabilities will not get the allowance of €31.80 a week they received while on the programme. In the Minister of State's reply to me he said that 2,300 people receive the allowance. That means the HSE is spending €3.6 million on the scheme every year. He also said that 400 new people would lose out this year. That means the HSE will save approximately €220,000 this year. That is not a lot when one considers the size of the HSE's annual budget. The people who get the allowance really need it. It is vital for them. It can represent the difference between doing a rehabilitative training programme and not doing one. These programmes are about life skills. The allowance is about helping people with disabilities to avail of a service which allows them to learn independence. This allowance helps them to be independent, to make choices, and to begin to be full members of the community. They have a right to this and they deserve it.

I thank the Deputies for raising this important issue and for giving me the opportunity to explain the situation and to dispel many of the myths that appeared over the summer, particularly in the national media. It gives me the opportunity to outline the position in respect of the rehabilitative training, RT, bonus payment. The Government's priority is to provide access to high quality day services to as many people with disabilities as possible. The HSE currently funds day services for more than 27,000 people with disabilities. These services include rehabilitative training programmes. Placements in day services are invaluable as they provide people with disabilities with a range of supports to allow them to make the type of choices available to other adults, enabling them to live independent lives of their choosing.

The HSE's New Directions policy seeks to reconfigure and personalise HSE-funded adult day services and offers a flexible and individualised set of supports to enable each person to live a life of his or her choosing in accordance with his or her own wishes and needs. Rehabilitative training programmes are designed to equip participants with basic personal, social and work-related skills. Approximately 2,300 people attend rehabilitative training programmes and, since the start of September, approximately 400 school leavers have commenced RT programmes.

The RT bonus payment is currently paid at a rate of €31.80 per week to attendees of these rehabilitative training programmes, who can attend for a period of up to four years. The RT bonus was introduced in 2001, aligned with a similar FÁS training bonus that later became the SOLAS vocational training programme payment. It is important to note that this payment was reduced in 2011 and discontinued in 2012. Over the next four years, from September 2019, the RT bonus will cease to apply to new attendees, rather, the money that would have been spent on the bonus, estimated at approximately €3.7 million over four years, will be redirected to address unmet need in day service provision for people with disabilities. The redirected funding, which I have asked the director general of the HSE to ring-fence, will create approximately - wait for it - 148 additional full day placements or 370 additional enhanced day places nationally for those with a reduced service or no service, based on priority need. These new day services will be of great support to those with a disability and their families. Each community healthcare organisation, CHO, will have the flexibility to redirect its own savings to address local service requirements and the HSE has been asked to report regularly to the Department of Health on the additional placements realised.

I emphasise that current participants in rehabilitative training programmes will not be affected and that their payments will continue until they complete their four-year programme. It is important to note that while the majority of attendees of HSE day services qualify for disability allowance, which is paid at a rate of €203 per week and also qualifies them for a free travel pass, the additional RT bonus payment is only payable to attendees of rehabilitative training programmes. This decision will maximise the use of finite resources and, crucially, will ensure that all attendees of HSE-funded day services have the same level of support.

Gabhaim buíochas leis an Aire Stáit. During the summer, I had the pleasure of visiting the training unit in Bantry. I met many of the students there and they spoke very eloquently about what the course meant to them. It helps their confidence and gives them self-belief. Many of them said that without the €31.80 they simply could not attend. The Minister of State points out that it is only new students who will not get the allowance. That is also very cruel. In any one classroom, there will be some people who get the allowance and some people who do not. Only this morning I heard the story of one lad who does not get the allowance going to the cinema with his friends from the course, all of whom do get the allowance. He did not have the price of admission but fair play to the other lads, they clubbed together to give him the money to get in. That is a result of the Minister of State's actions. It is cruel to cut the allowance and it is cruel that some get it while others do not.

The Minister of State is telling us that the status quo will remain and that he has no intention of reversing the cut. That is clear and unambiguous.

I take little comfort from his reply to the effect that each CHO within the HSE's regions would have flexibility to redirect its own savings to address local service requirements. All of us on this side of the House are used to dealing with the HSE at local level and we know that that money will go into the so-called black hole of Calcutta. It will not be redirected to the people who most need it. What the Minister of State is taking away from people is the modicum of independence for which they strive. The payment represents that independence, but it is being swiped from them and given to the CHOs. It is a disgraceful decision on his part and one that need not have been made. For the sake of ensuring equality within the system, everyone should have kept the right to retain the payment.

The HSE's proposal to cut the training allowance to make it equitable with mainstream ETBs does not stand up and should be rejected. This was acknowledged by a former Minister of State, Kathleen Lynch, in 2012 after a previous attempt by the HSE to cut the allowance. The same arguments were put forward, but Ms Lynch refuted them. That was during a time when many painful spending cuts were being made. The allowance was deemed worthy of protection in light of its value to people with disabilities.

The Government has signed the UN Convention on the Rights of Persons with Disabilities. The policy is to empower people with disabilities to live independent lives. The payment in question is perhaps the clearest example of a direct payment empowering people with disabilities to live independently. I cannot think of another example which reflects that need as clearly. The decision goes against the policy and makes no sense. It saves very little money and deprives people with disabilities of the opportunity to be independent and live the lives they want. It hits a group of people who already find it more difficult to take part in society. They deserve better than this. I call on the Minister of State to put this decision on hold and review it. No one is fooled - it is a money-saving measure by the HSE at the expense of the most vulnerable. I ask that the Minister of State stand up for them.

I reassure people with disabilities and their families that the phasing out of the bonus will not affect anyone currently attending rehabilitative training programmes, RTPs. That is the fact.

The HSE will continue to pay the €31.80 per week, or a pro rata amount based on attendance, to the more than 2,300 people currently attending RTPs until they complete their programmes in 2022.

So, the payment will go over time.

The Deputy is ignoring the point that the redirection of the money that would have been spent on the bonus payments will allow the HSE to provide critical investment in the provision of day services to many people with disabilities who might otherwise have been disadvantaged due to a lack of access to services. The Government remains committed to providing services and supports for people with disabilities that will empower them to live independent lives, provide greater independence in accessing the services they choose and enhance their ability to tailor the supports required to meet their needs and plan their lives.

The commitments outlined in the programme for Government are guided by two principles, namely, equality of opportunity and improving the quality of life for people with disabilities. I assure the House that the decision to phase out the rehab training bonus payment was not taken lightly and was only done when assurances were given that any money saved would be used to ensure that all HSE-funded day services were provided on an equitable basis. We have 26,000 people attending day services every day who do not get this bonus at all. Does Deputy Brendan Ryan want me to pay them as well? Of course-----

Will the Minister of State review the decision?

-----I would love to do so, but I have emergency places and day services to run and I want money for those.

Will the Minister of State look at this decision again?

The action is designed to bring equity and consistency between people with disabilities attending HSE-funded RTPs who receive the payment and those attending HSE-funded day services or other State schemes, such as ETB schemes, who do not.

I will not take lectures from people who cut the respite care grant-----

Will the Minister of State review the decision?

-----to 101,000 families when they were in power. That is what the Labour Party did.

Will the Minister of State review it?

Labour Deputies should hang their heads in shame. In the HSE social care plan for this year-----

The Minister of State's time has expired. I call Deputy Cassells.

-----we are spending €1.904 billion, an increase of 7.5% on last year's figure. This is an investment in services. Do not be distorting the truth to score political points.

Will the Minister of State review the decision?

It is very disappointing to hear the Minister of State say that.

Respite Care Services Funding

I thank the Minister of State for taking this debate, given that he is personally aware of the issues that I am raising in respect of Oatfield House. The Talbot Group recently purchased Oatfield House on the outskirts of Athboy, County Meath, to provide a residential home for adults with intellectual disabilities. Substantial works have been carried out on the property to bring it up to a HIQA-approved standard. However, what parents, carers and the local community want is for Oatfield House to provide respite services for adults with intellectual disabilities as opposed to a residential service. Like many public representatives in the area, I have been making representations to the Minister of State and the HSE. We have been advised that funding is not available in this year's budget to provide respite services at that location, but funding is not really an issue. Given that it has already been provided for a residential care facility at Oatfield House, it is more a question of out of which pot the money would come.

The families of adults with intellectual disabilities in north-west Meath and the rest of the county are looking for a respite facility that will support the needs of more than 70 families. The figures speak for themselves. As a residential service, the facility can look after five to six families. As a respite service, it could look after 70 families. This is an opportunity for those in Meath with special needs and their families that should not be missed.

The Minister of State has taken a deep and personal interest in this case. For many years, Meath has been near the bottom of the table in terms of respite services. There is effectively no respite option for families of over 18s with intellectual disabilities in my county.

We must compliment the fantastic work done by the Special Hands Activity Group in County Meath. It has been leading the campaign to get respite services for people with intellectual disabilities in the county and further afield. It is acutely aware of the importance of respite care facilities and the lack of respite services in Meath and many other areas. Families in neighbouring counties, including Westmeath and Cavan, would also benefit from this service.

We have a property that is ready and waiting to provide respite services. We cannot let this opportunity pass us. The house has been fully kitted out to a HIQA-approved standard and can provide the services in question to many people. If we let this opportunity pass, the Special Hands Activity Group and families all over Meath will be back to square one in terms of much-needed respite services.

I wish to press the Minister of State on two important issues. First, there is a short timeframe in which to get funding for respite services at Oatfield House in Athboy. If the Talbot Group does not get an indication from the HSE by November that funding will be provided for respite services, the group will begin the process of opening the property as a normal residential care service. Second, if funding is approved, which I hope it will be, it must be ring-fenced for respite care at the property. We need this facility to offer respite to families for many years to come and to be able to give assurances re same.

I thank the Deputy for raising this important issue and for his work on supporting disability services in Meath. It is important that we understand the position as regards the provision of funding for respite services for adults with intellectual disabilities in Athboy, County Meath.

The Government's ongoing priority is the safeguarding of vulnerable people in the care of the health service. We are committed to providing services and supports for people with disabilities that will empower them to live independent lives. This commitment is outlined in A Programme for a Partnership Government and is guided by two principles, namely, equality of opportunity and improving the quality of life for people with disabilities.

Respite services are an important part of the range of services supporting people with disabilities and their families. Respite care is crucial in helping to reduce family stress, preserve the family unit and provide stability. The need for increased respite services is acknowledged and the HSE continues to work with all service providers to explore various ways of responding to this need in line with the budget available. As part of its ongoing service provision, the HSE will this year provide 182,500 respite nights and 32,662 day respite sessions to families in need across the country. In 2018, there was a significant improvement in respite. An additional €8 million was provided to fund 12 new respite houses. That is one in each HSE CHO area, plus an additional three houses in the greater Dublin to respond to the high demand for respite from this area. These extra houses are providing additional respite for families that need it.

All 12 houses are now fully open and operational.

An extra €2 million was also provided to target alternative respite services. These are practical and important solutions and include summer camps and evening and Saturday clubs. There is €2 million again available to the HSE this year for the provision of similar activities in each CHO area. This alterative respite is benefiting hundreds of adults and children.

With reference to Oatfield House, Athboy, I am informed by the HSE Midlands Louth Meath disability services that a house was recently purchased by the Talbot Group and registered with HIQA for the provision of respite services to adults with disabilities. The decision to proceed with the purchase of this house was made independent of the HSE. Meath disability services do not currently have the available resources to fund a new respite service. While Midlands Louth Meath CHO sought funding to further develop the residential respite service in the county, as part of the Estimates process for 2019, funding was not available to proceed with same. However, I am informed that Midlands Louth Meath CHO will continue to seek additional funding for residential respite in Meath and this will be included in Estimates process for 2020.

As Minister of State, I am pushing this issue. I am focusing on the provision of services such as respite, emergency residential services and quality day services.

I thank the Minister for his reply but will take him up on something he said towards the end of his comments. He said the decision to proceed with the purchase of the house was made independent of the HSE. I view that as the Talbot Group taking the lead and the initiative by seeing that there was a requirement and then establishing the facility having recognised the need for it. Talbot Group has listened to the voices of people on the ground in Athboy. I know those families and I listen to them every week because my constituency office is half a mile down the road from this facility. The families are frustrated because they see a fully-equipped facility that could assist many families. If a change of attitude is not taken, it will only assist a small number of families.

I refer to the final points made by the Minister of State, namely, that there will be an attempt to seek additional funding for this. The Minister of State has said he will try to assist with that. Can we get assurances that, if such funding was acquired, there would be a pathway to see this developed as a respite service? Could we give the Talbot Group some indicative assurances that the Minister of State would personally like to see that happen, notwithstanding that he has to go through the process of budgets and so on? Can he assure us, as Minister of State, that this is a type of care that he backs and that, if additional funding is attained, it can be ring-fenced and apportioned to establish this respite service? Can I get assurance from the Minister of State that he backs this concept and that, if additional funding was to come into his pathway, that this could be established as a respite service to look after those 70 families at Oatfield House in Athboy?

I am very much aware of the importance of access to planned respite and agree with many of the comments Deputy Cassells has made. We must ensure that people with disabilities receive opportunities to socialise as it facilitates families to receive a break from caring, preserve the family unit and provide stability.

I will, of course, do all in my power to assist to develop these services. I am well aware of the Talbot Group and agree with Deputy Cassells that it is an excellent service provider. I am aware of the group as a Minister of State and I know its staff, the high standards that it upholds and the confidence in which it is held by families. I must also be conscious of the necessity for it to be independent, away from the Minister.

Respite services are an important part of the range of services supporting people with disabilities and their families and are crucial to reducing family stress. Short breaks can provide an opportunity for individuals to meet new people, widen their social circle and gain new experiences. The need for increased respite services is acknowledged and I agree with Deputy Cassells about that. The HSE and I will continue to work with all service providers to explore the various ways of responding to this in line with the available budgets.

There are currently 18 residential respite beds available to adults and children in County Meath. I accept Deputy Cassells's reference to 70 families because that is also what I am hearing from people and families on the ground. As I said earlier, I am informed that the Midlands Louth Meath CHO will continue to seek additional funding for residential respite in Meath and this will be included in the Estimates process.

Energy Production

I do not need to tell the Minister that climate action is an enormous challenge for our country and, indeed, our planet. Warnings of increasing global temperatures have been made by scientists over the past number of decades. We can see ourselves that the climate is changing and we have been challenged to rethink how society will function through the changes that we as individuals, communities, business and industry must make.

I am from west Offaly, brought up in Belmont and Ferbane. Offaly is a county where energy generation has been a part of the fabric of life for decades since the establishment of Bord na Móna and the building of the ESB power stations across the county. One third of our land mass comprises peat so it is no surprise that peat harvesting for energy generation was focused there. Offaly experienced less emigration than many other counties in the 1950s due to the number of jobs available in Bord na Móna and the ESB. In parts of the midlands, small towns and villages grew rapidly when houses were built for Bord na Móna and ESB employees. The staff and their families contributed both economically and socially to their communities. As such, Bord na Móna has been an integral part of the commercial and social development of the midlands for decades, creating significant employment in the region. Employment peaked in Bord na Móna at 7,000 in the early 1980s and the company now provides approximately 1,500 direct jobs which in turn support at least another 1,800 indirect jobs. Consequently, Bord na Móna holds an iconic status in the midlands, particularly in my own county of Offaly, and is part of the social glue of many local communities.

The transition from peat harvesting in the midlands has been flagged for many years and it has been accepted by Bord na Móna and ESB workers that electricity generation would be peat free by 2027. The planned managed transition out of peat has been significantly impacted and complicated by the recent An Bord Pleanála decision to refuse planning for the west Offaly power station in Shannonbridge beyond the end of 2020. The application sought planning permission for the plant to co-fire peat and biomass until the end of 2027. The expectation was that, from early 2020, the plant would operate by gradually reducing the volumes of peat and increasing volumes of biomass so that, by the end of 2027, the station would be fuelled exclusively by biomass. This decision has huge implications for the workers, their families and communities. It has all the hallmarks of a potentially devastating blow to Offaly and the wider midlands area. This matter must be resolved for the protection of the workers and their families and a solution must urgently be found.

The Government and the EU institutions have all committed to a just transition for workers and it is an imperative that action is taken on this immediately. This will have significant implications for the wider economy and I repeat my call on the ESB and Bord na Móna to communicate in an open and transparent way with workers about this situation. Uncertainty and speculation cannot be allowed to reign and, to this end, I ask the Minister to consider meeting with the Bord na Móna group of unions. I understand that they have proposals on the work required to carry out the rehabilitation and restoration of former peat production areas. I will not go into the reasons for the An Bord Pleanála decision but suffice to say that I hope the ESB will seek leave to apply for judicial review of the decision. Time is running out and is of the essence.

There are huge concerns at local government level in Offaly as to the financial implications for Offaly County Council's rate base in the county. The rate base in recent years has remained static but it is of huge concern that, at present, the ESB's west Offaly power station and Bord na Móna's Edenderry power plant account for just over 25% of the county's rate base. This has the potential to leave a €4.5 million hole in the council's budget.

Offaly has made efforts to increase its own revenues locally with the local county councillors making a decision yesterday to increase the local property tax which will mean that 78% of households will pay no more than €33 extra per annum, but cumulatively it will make a considerable difference locally.

We are doing what we can at local level but Offaly and other midland counties require urgent action from the Government and our EU partners. We are being disproportionately impacted by the decarbonisation transition and will require financial assistance to allow Offaly make this transition.

I thank the Deputy for raising this issue. I am aware of her concern, having met her and other Deputies during the summer.

The climate action plan, which was launched in June, includes an increase in electricity generation from renewable sources from 30% to 70% by 2030. This includes replacing the use of peat and coal for electricity generation with onshore and offshore wind, as well as solar power. This will reduce our CO2 emissions intensity from electricity generation, which is currently above the EU average. The plan commits to early and complete phase-out of coal by 2025 and peat, as the Deputy stated, by 2028 for electricity generation. This is in line with the commitments under the Paris Agreement.

The three electricity generating plants in the midlands - Edenderry, owned and operated by Bord na Móna, and Lough Ree and west Offaly, owned by the ESB - have been planning for some time to reduce and eliminate the use of peat at the plants. Bord na Móna currently co-fires with 30% biomass. Both the ESB plants have been granted support under REFIT 3 for co-firing with 30% biomass. The ESB is in the process of seeking planning permission to co-fire with biomass at Lough Ree. A recent decision by An Bord Pleanála refused planning permission for the west Offaly power station to co-fire and eventually run only on biomass. The ESB is evaluating this decision to see if a revised planning application can be submitted to achieve approval. A planning application for the Lough Ree power station to co-fire with biomass is currently with Longford County Council.

As the Deputy indicated, Bord na Móna has been an integral part of the commercial and social development of the midlands for decades, creating significant employment in the region. In its strategy to exit peat, Bord na Móna envisages the development and scaling up of new business opportunities to ensure the future commercial viability of the company and enable it to continue its mandate as an employer in the midlands. It aims to develop a transition from peat or, as they say, from brown to green. The ESB is also fully committed to the process of decarbonisation. Following this decision, my Department and I are intensively assessing the options. lf an earlier exit from peat than planned is required, the Government is determined to ensure a just transition. I have met the board of Bord na Móna and its worker directors and the Oireachtas midlands representatives, the midlands regional transition team, the midlands regional enterprise strategy team and the regional skills fora team. I intend to meet shortly the Irish Congress of Trade Unions. There are several strands being explored to support a just transition, including Bord na Móna diversification, accelerated bog restoration by Bord na Móna, wider restoration of non-Bord na Móna bogs, an area-based retrofitting initiative and other special initiatives for regional development.

I have secured the inclusion of the midlands in the Platform for Coal and Other Carbon Intensive Regions in Transition, which supports regions affected by climate. I met Commissioner Canete in Brussels and he confirmed in July that peat is being included and that the region would be included as part of that platform. Membership of the platform enables the midlands region to avail of the support of a dedicated country team, comprised of Commission experts, to assist with the development of strategies and projects for the region, focusing in particular on the employment challenges faced by workers affected by decarbonisation. The team will also assist in identifying appropriate EU funding opportunities for the midlands. The meetings of the platform also enable the exchange of knowledge and ideas between carbon-intensive regions. A preliminary meeting of this team and officials from relevant Departments and other stakeholders is planned to take place in the middle of October.

The Government is committed to delivering a whole-of-Government approach in response to this and that a just and fair transition is provided to those affected. Following the final Government meeting before summer, An Taoiseach reassured the midlands that a just transition plan would be worked on to find alternative employment in the region. An interdepartmental group led by the Department of the Taoiseach has been established to develop a just transition plan for the midlands. This work cuts across a number of Departments, including my Department, Public Expenditure and Reform, Business, Employment and Innovation, Rural and Community Development and Agriculture, Food and the Marine.

I thank the Minister for his response. I very much welcome some of the new information he provided on his intention to meet with the Irish Congress of Trade Unions, which will be very helpful, and also that the county team will come to Ireland in November. It is crucial that the local midlands regional transition team would be an important part of the discussions with that county team.

I commend Offaly County Council, which has been proactive in the response to recent events and which has established a regional transition team, bringing together all the stakeholders in Offaly County Council - the elected representatives, the local enterprise office, Enterprise Ireland, IDA Ireland, Bord na Móna, AIT and Offaly Local Development Company. That is a very good example of how everybody pulling together can be proactive in responding to it. The council is coming up with ideas and I sincerely hope there will be support for one of its aims, which is to explore ways the regional transition team can work with Bord na Móna to assess the viability of upskilling the Bord na Móna workers to carry out the work required under a deep retrofit scheme. Would the Minister consider Offaly for a pilot scheme to establish how we would get the deep retrofitting done? That would be important.

I acknowledge that the Minister turned the sod recently on an exciting project initiated by Lumcloon Energy. It is a battery storage project and is the next phase in the energy field in Offaly. I thank him for attending on that occasion.

I thank the Deputy. I assure her that the midlands regional transitional team will be central to the process the EU is now establishing whereby there will be a country team visiting Ireland.

I recognise that there will be issues about developing a retrofit and ensuring that there is a skill-fit. I am conscious also that Offaly has some very good training facilities in Mount Lucas where there is the capacity to do any necessary reskilling. I would certainly be sympathetic to trying to pilot something specifically in the midlands. As I have indicated in the climate plan, we need to find a way of scaling up the level of activity. Area-based schemes may be a good way to do that and it would dovetail with the particular needs that may arise.

I assure the Deputy that I and my staff, and the wider Government with the co-ordination role of the Department of the Taoiseach, is taking this very seriously. We recognise that to a significant extent this is a test of our capacity to manage difficult changes like this that are being thrown up by the climate challenge in a way that is fair to people and supports them to make the changes in their lives and to support a region that is particularly affected.