Saincheisteanna Tráthúla - Topical Issue Debate

Hare Coursing

Táim buíoch don deis atá agam labhairt ar an ábhar seo agus go bhfuil an tAire i láthair. There has been clear expert advice from scientists at the National Parks and Wildlife Service that the RHD2 virus could potentially wipe out the entire hare population. The hare is iconic in our culture. The virus is highly contagious and we have the facts in that regard. It was first reported in China, where it killed millions of animals within the first year of its discovery. In 2010 a virulent strain emerged in France, similar to the one in Spain. Within a few days of infection what was seen was partial paralysis, bleeding from the eyes and mouth, convulsions and fits, with the animal then dying. Distress among hares and rabbits has also been witnessed in Ireland where the RHD2 virus has appeared I think animals have tested positive in eight counties. On 24 September the Minister's own words were:

Based on what we have been able to establish over the last 7 weeks, [the virus] appears to be widespread in Ireland ... It is known to be highly contagious and easily spread and environmental contamination presents significant difficulties in terms of any biosecurity responses ... Netting and collecting hares for coursing meetings has been identified as a significant risk factor in spreading the disease.

We know that rabbits and hares are vital to the wild ecosystem. The National Parks and Wildlife Service has stated, "Should this disease [be] as infectious and lethal here as it has [been] in Europe, the impact on the [Irish] hare could be catastrophic." On 10 October the Minister's words were that "the catching of hares in nets, their transportation in boxes and the collection and holding of hares in confined areas [will] increase the risk," all very clear signs that the right decision was made when she suspended the hare netting licence. In spite of this and other outbreaks, she lifted the suspension. It was obvious there had been lobbying by Deputies in her party, Fianna Fáil, Sinn Féin and the rural alliance. I know that we are talking about a few Deputies in each group because when we debated my Bill to ban live hare coursing, I had Deputies from all parties come to tell me that they wanted to support the Bill but that, because of the Whip, they were not able to do so.

I ask the Minister to imagine a greyhound owner finding a sick or infected hare captured for coursing. Does she think the greyhound owner will contact the National Parks and Wildlife Service? It would not be in his or her interests to do so, even though it is a condition of the licence, because coursing would be stopped. I ask that all live hare coursing meetings, including those involving hares in captivity at compounds, be monitored closely.

In a reply to former Deputy Clare Daly, the Minister said she would re-evaluate open coursing. Her understanding was that in open coursing hares "are not captured" but just happened to be there when the owners and the greyhounds arrived. There is video footage evidence of 19 hares who just happened to be in an area when the greyhounds arrived with their owners. Have open coursing meetings ever been monitored? I ask that the open coursing meetings on the 2019-20 fixtures list be closely monitored by the National Parks and Wildlife Service.

"Reckless" is the word I would use to describe the Minister's U-turn on the decision to issue licences. We are now into the 16-week coursing season, which allows courses to capture hares in the so-called unaffected areas. Is the Minister 100% confident that all other counties, apart from the eight where rabbits and hares have tested positive, are clear of the disease? The hare is normally a solitary animal. Netted for coursing and kept in a confined space, it is in ideal conditions to spread the virus, something the Minister is now allowing to happen. There is an alternative to live hare coursing, namely, drag coursing. A recent RED C poll found that 77% of Irish people agreed that live hare coursing should be banned, with 9% disagreeing and 14% stating they did not know.

I thank the Deputy for raising this issue. It is important to be aware of the potential impact of the RHD2 virus and my original decision in August to suspend the licences to the Irish Coursing Club on foot of the outbreak of the virus, which was confirmed in wild rabbits and hares. The Deputy eloquently set out the reasons and my words.

As the Deputy mentioned, the disease was first reported in domestic or farmed rabbits in 1984 in China where it killed millions of animals within one year of its discovery. As the Deputy also mentioned, in 2010 a new and more virulent strain of the virus known as RHD2 emerged in France. It causes death. The Deputy set out very explicitly the symptoms involved which are quite distressing. Most distressingly, before the animal dies, there are fits and convulsions which are very upsetting to witness. The virus has been detected throughout Europe in wild rabbits and hares. As the Deputy said, the hare is iconic and native to Ireland. Should the disease prove to be as infectious or lethal here as it has elsewhere in Europe, the impact on the hare population would be catastrophic, something I absolutely accept.

RHD2 has been seen in wild rabbits in the UK for a few years and the brown hare has also been hit by RHD2 in the UK. A single record of RHD2 was reported from a wild rabbit in Cork in 2016 but no further records were confirmed in the wild here until last August, when two records came from rabbits, one in Wicklow and the other in Clare. The first positive report for an Irish hare was on 9 August, an animal found dying in the Wexford Wildfowl Reserve. There is no cure for this disease and although pet rabbits can be vaccinated against the disease, it has not been tested on hares. There would, clearly, be significant difficulties in vaccinating animals in the wild. There are approximately 250,000 hares in Ireland in addition to approximately 2 million rabbits.

Hares are solitary animals and the scientific advice available to me at the time indicated that the catching of hares in nets, transporting them in boxes and keeping them in confined areas like coursing hare parks can all be considered to increase the risk of disease spread. In these circumstances, and given my responsibilities specifically for the conservation status of the Irish hare, I decided to suspend the licences issued to the Irish Coursing Club on 9 August to capture and tag hares for the season until we had a clear understanding of the extent, spread and implications of the RHD2 virus. Members will be aware that licences under the Wildlife Acts are required by the Irish Coursing Club, on behalf of their affiliated clubs, to facilitate the netting and tagging of hares for closed park meetings.

Since these initial incidents, a request for public involvement has led to more than 75 reports of dead rabbits and hares across the country. Each report has been followed up vigilantly by the local National Parks and Wildlife Service, NPWS, rangers. RHD2 has been confirmed in four hares found in Dublin and Wexford and 21 rabbits found in counties Carlow, Clare, Cork, Kildare, Leitrim, Meath, Offaly, Tipperary, Wexford and Wicklow. Since the suspension of Irish Coursing Club licences on 9 August, discussions have been ongoing between the NPWS, the Department of Agriculture, Food and the Marine and the Irish Coursing Club on the impact of this virus. I recently issued revised licences to allow the netting and tagging of hares but there are specific restrictions and conditions explicitly attached to the issue of those licences. The capturing of hares and coursing activity is prohibited in areas within a 25-kilometre radius of where wild rabbits or hares have tested positive for the virus. New zones will be added on an ongoing basis if further positive tests arise and, in these new zones, the capturing of hares will have to cease immediately and coursing will only be possible with already captured hares, where the hares are certified in writing by a veterinary surgeon as being healthy, as such hares will only be released on foot of such certification. This has already impacted on some coursing events.

I thank the Minister for her very graphic answer, which has confirmed the need to have suspended the licences and continue the suspension. The Minister has an awful lot of faith in the Irish Coursing Club and the advocates of coursing to report a diseased hare if they come across one. It will not be in their best interests to do so.

I read about the road map the Minister had been drawing up on this and I was struck by the extent of the work that is involved in this, with the field studies, tests, secure paddocks, CCTV, micro-chipping, nominated personnel to monitor this and a scientific literary review of the respective impact of RHD1 and RHD2. I wonder what the additional cost will be, as opposed to a straightforward ban on netting.

I know the Minister met Deputies and lobbies who are pro-coursing. I wonder if she facilitated those who are against coursing and also gave them time to put their points to her.

Was the Minister informed that if the suspension was not lifted, it could lead to a cull of those greyhounds that course, because such greyhounds are not really suitable for re-homing?

The Irish Coursing Club has said it will vaccinate the hares it captures against the disease but no vaccination will protect hares from being mauled, tossed and euthanised after a coursing meeting. While the vaccination is licensed in Europe, I do not believe it is available in Ireland and applies only to rabbits, not to hares. Of course, the lovely irony is that the Irish Coursing Club is going to continue to liaise with the NPWS and work to protect the status of the Irish hare. I note the use of the word "status". It is not referring to the survival or well-being of the hare, but then we know that the club is responsible for the injuries and deaths of many Irish hares and we have the facts on that.

Reissuing the licences was a retrograde step and I hope it will not come back to haunt us and mean the end of the iconic Irish hare.

I thank the Deputy and appreciate her concerns. Suffice to say that, from my own perspective, protecting the conservation status of the hare is my primary concern. I must ensure a balanced response from Government to this particular issue. It should assuage her concerns somewhat that strict conditions have been set down. The Irish Coursing Club vet has to certify in writing that all the hares that are captured are healthy. The number of courses will be reduced proportionately. As for the number that can be coursed, it can only be done twice. These trials and field tests that are ongoing should give us a clearer picture as to the status and condition of the hares and rabbits.

No new hares have tested positive since the beginning of October and that is important. Field tests are ongoing in Limerick, Tipperary, Cork and Cavan town and will take ten weeks to conclude. It is important that we brought the Irish Coursing Club onboard, together with the Department of Agriculture, Food and the Marine in order that we had a collaborative approach to dealing with this.

I am satisfied that there is swabbing, tagging and microchipping and that the certification is in writing. All of these things should ensure that we can serve the population of the hare. The hare is not at risk in Ireland at the moment, there are 250,000 of them in the country and there is no reason why that should change. There are also 29 conditions attached generally to the licences for coursing, including an insistence on not coursing sick or injured hares. These are additional conditions. If it turns out that more hares test positive, we will have to review these licences again. It is constantly being monitored.

My door is always open to talk to both the pro-coursing and anti-coursing sides in trying to achieve a balance.

School Catchment Areas

While I note the Minister for Education and Skills, Deputy McHugh, is delivering legislation in the Seanad, I am disappointed that he is not here to hear this debate.

I have been advised by the Minister in reply to a previous parliamentary question that the country is divided into 314 school planning areas. Skerries is one of those planning areas but I am afraid there is no evidence of any planning going on. Skerries Community College is the only second level school in the area under the patronage of the education and training board, ETB. The Government plan for new schools from 2019 to 2022 does not include a new second level school for Skerries.

The community college is taking in 180 students in September 2020. There were 257 applicants. As of Monday, there were 68 children on a waiting list which may reduce somewhat with some parents sitting on two offers. However, there is no alternative school in this designated planning area. Some families in Skerries decide to send their female children to the all-girls Loreto secondary school in Balbriggan but the 68 children on the waiting list are from the catchment area and have attended one of the six designated feeder schools in the enrolment policy. The school has three criteria for enrolment, namely, catchment area, feeder school and sibling. Children who are the first born in a family are the ones mostly affected in the points race for priority and they have to go into a lottery for priority on a waiting list. There are many such families in Skerries today. They are not in the catchment area or feeder schools for any neighbouring school planning area. What are they to do? Where are they to go? The school currently has 975 students. It was built as a 900-pupil school.

I met the school principal this week to get the facts. I spoke to Paddy Lavelle, who is the chief executive officer of the patron ETB, to highlight the crisis. Skerries is a growing town where building continued at a low level right through the crash and has accelerated in the last couple of years. The Department has dropped the ball when it comes to planning for post-primary education in Skerries. It must pick up the ball and accelerate with it. There is no excuse for not doing so, given that this problem was highlighted last year.

I understand that the Minister, Deputy McHugh, cannot be here. I do not mean to be disrespectful to the Minister of State, Deputy Mitchell O'Connor, when I say it is disappointing that he is not here to hear what we have to say. I have raised this issue with him on several occasions.

I would like to give an example to illustrate the point I am making. I will not use the child's name. His parents have written to me to say it is a source of great ongoing concern for them that their son cannot get a place in the local school. They have a connection to the school that goes back to its original foundation as a De La Salle school in 1947. They have relatives who attended the school throughout the intervening period. They have tried to secure an alternative place in other schools. More than 190 children are on the waiting list for Ardgillan Community College and more than 70 children are on the waiting list for St. Joseph's secondary school in Rush. This boy is at the bottom of the list because he does not attend any of the feeder schools for those two schools. Another parent has corresponded with me to say that when the first lottery was done, she got a letter to say that her son was in 17th position on the waiting list. She had her fingers crossed in the hope that some girls would choose to go to Loreto and her son would still get a place. Just eight places were offered in the second round. The boy in question is now in seventh position on the waiting list. His parents are gravely concerned.

I have received a response to a parliamentary question confirming that the Department has received an application for additional accommodation from Skerries Community College. Will that additional accommodation be in place in time for the September 2020 intake? Parents are already gravely concerned not just that their kids cannot go to the local school, but that there will no school places at all for them. It is unacceptable that we are finding ourselves in such a situation. This issue has been raised because north County Dublin is a growing area. As I live in Skerries, I know that building is going on all over the locality. There does not seem to be any sense of urgency on the part of the Department to get schools built and to accommodate these children.

I thank Deputies Ryan and O'Reilly for raising this matter. I am sorry that the Minister, Deputy McHugh, is not here. I have been given an answer by the Department. I will go back to the Minister with the extra information. I will make sure he contacts both Deputies. I spent approximately 18 years working as a school principal. I understand all the issues around education. I am pleased to have an opportunity, on behalf of the Minister for Education and Skills, to set out for the Dáil the situation around school places in north County Dublin, particularly at Skerries community college. The Department divides the country into 314 school planning areas to plan for school provision and to analyse the relevant demographic data. It uses a geographical information system, with data from a range of sources, to identify where the pressure for school places across the country will arise. The Department uses this information to carry out nationwide demographic exercises to determine where additional school accommodation is needed at primary and post-primary levels.

As the Deputies will be aware, in April 2018 the Government announced its plans for the establishment of 42 new schools over the four-year period from 2019 to 2022, including five new primary schools and three new post-primary schools in the north County Dublin and Fingal area. In addition, four new primary and seven new post-primary schools have been established in the area in recent years. The requirement for new schools will be kept under ongoing review and will have particular regard to the increased roll-out of housing provision as outlined in Project Ireland 2040. The Department's capital programme provides for devolved funding for additional classrooms, if required, in schools where an immediate enrolment need has been identified or an additional teacher has been appointed.

The Department is aware of the enrolment issues in the Skerries area for 2020. It is in ongoing direct contact with the patron of Skerries community college in respect of capacity in the school. Skerries Community College has expressed a willingness to increase its long-term projected enrolment to 1,000 pupils. In this regard, interim temporary accommodation has been approved for Skerries Community College, pending the assessment of future accommodation needs. The patron of Skerries Community College is currently tendering for the interim accommodation approved. It is expected to have all interim accommodation in place for September 2020. The assessment process to determine the school's permanent accommodation needs is nearing completion. The provision of additional accommodation on the site must be carefully planned with consideration to the limitations of the site. While I understand the enrolment situation may result in some pupils not obtaining a place in their first-choice school, my Department's main responsibility is to ensure existing schools in the area can, between them, cater for the demand for school places in September 2020.

Although I am grateful to the Minister of State for reading the reply that was provided to her, I have to say that every piece of it was complete and utter nonsense. A solution must be found for the children of Skerries for next September. The Minister of State must give the House an indication that she understands the seriousness of the matter. She must give parents some hope. There is no hope in the reply she has read. In accordance with the up-to-date and accurate numbers I have put on the record of the House, there will be a requirement for two additional classrooms. The three modular classrooms referred to in the Minister of State's reply are due to be delivered to the school in the new year. They will not provide additional capacity. They will relieve the pressure within the school from the previous efforts to push up capacity. Storage closets and the school hall are currently being used as makeshift classrooms. The things that are being done in the school hall and all over the school represent last year's delayed response to the problems that exist. This is not new capacity and it will not deliver against what Deputy O'Reilly and I have raised. The children we are talking about do not have alternative options. It is nonsense to talk about different schools in different areas because there is no other option. Skerries is a school planning area in and of itself. It is not connected with any other area. The Minister and the Department must respond to the real crisis that exists in Skerries now. Skerries is a designated school planning area. We need proper planning and delivery. I urge the Minister of State to bring what we are saying to the attention of the Minister, Deputy McHugh. Based on the reply she has read, which I have described as nonsense, it is clear that we need to meet the Minister as a matter of urgency.

I agree that we need to have a meeting with the Minister as a matter of extreme urgency. The Minister of State has said that it might not be possible for children to go to their first-choice school. Deputy Brendan Ryan and I have outlined that they might not be able to go to any school. As Skerries is a school planning area of its own, they will go to the bottom of the list in neighbouring schools. The children in the catchment areas of those schools will be accommodated before the children of Skerries. The suggestions for dealing with the school accommodation crisis that have been made by the Minister of State will do no more than alleviate the current pressure. We need proper facilities and additional capacity to cope with the waiting list. We have already outlined that the children who are on the waiting list cannot be accommodated in the other schools because there is no space for them. It is not a case of saying that children cannot have their first-choice schools. The fact is that they might not have any school at all.

What is needed is additional accommodation that will provide additional capacity, rather than merely alleviate the pressure on the school.

I will relay to the Minister that the Deputies wish to meet him. They referred to the need to provide additional capacity from next September. The information I have in front of me indicates that the Department is in ongoing direct contact with the patron of Skerries Community College regarding capacity in the school. The Deputies have stated there are approximately 900 students in the school. The information I have is that the school has expressed a willingness to increase its long-term projected enrolment to 1,000 pupils and that the Department of Education and Skills will provide temporary accommodation on an interim basis. I take the Deputies' point that such accommodation will cater for existing pupils. I will ask the Minister to revert to them to clarify the matter and deal with their request to meet him.

The problem is what will be done about providing additional capacity from next September, not in the long term.

I am aware of that issue.

Life Insurance Policies

I thank the office of the Ceann Comhairle for selecting this important issue. I compliment the Minister of State, Deputy D'Arcy, on his work on the insurance sector. I raise an issue of which he is aware as I have previously brought his attention to it, namely, unfairness in the insurance sector. The issue needs to be highlighted at the highest level.

I refer to a married couple, George and Mary, who are aged 90 and 86 years, respectively, and effectively being penalised for living too long. That is a damning indictment of the aspect of the insurance industry I wish to highlight. In 1984 they took out a whole-of-life insurance policy to provide for their funeral expenses and so on. In 1984 Mary was paying £50.79 for life cover to a value of £25,394. In 1989 George took out a policy at a cost £50.15, with a sum of £12,697 to be paid at the end of his life. The couple were planning for the future by putting in place a fund for their final days. They were doing the right thing which they were being encouraged to do. However, they have been crucified for doing so. Mary has paid £34,000 and George, £48,000. Mary is now paying €242.98 for cover to a value of €34,890, while George is paying €311 for cover to a value of €29,622. Each year they are given the option to increase their monthly payments or reduce the level of cover. If they decide to stop paying their premiums, they will lose every penny they have paid during the years. They have paid a significant amount of money in the past 35-odd years to provide more than adequate cover in their final days, including to meet funeral expenses and so on. They are being penalised for living too long.

This is an example of the price gouging seen in all segments of the insurance sector in recent years which extends to the public liability insurance issues, whereby companies have gone out of business because they were unable to afford to pay their insurance premiums. Under the whole-of-life policy system, those who are encouraged to do the right thing well in advance of their later years are being penalised for living too long. I ask the Minister of State to begin an investigation and give this issue the attention it urgently requires.

Last year the Department of Finance insurance policy team sought information from the Central Bank on the nature and workings of this type of insurance product. The Central Bank has advised that whole-of-life insurance policies are designed to provide consumers with life cover for their whole life. As long as the policyholder makes regular payments and the payments are sufficient to maintain the chosen benefits, under this type of policy a lump sum will be paid on the death of the policyholder.

Regular payments under the plan cover the cost of providing the chosen benefits. In the early years payments are higher than the cost of the policyholder's benefits, with the extra money paid going into the plan fund. However, protection benefits become more expensive as policyholders get older, with the result that payments into the plan begin to equal the cost of the chosen benefits. In the latter years of reviewable protection plans the cost of the benefits increases significantly. In order to keep the level of benefits at the current level of payments, the difference is made up from the plan fund.

In order to determine whether the consumer's regular payment, plus any fund which has been built up, is enough to cover the chosen benefits for the reviewable protection plan, the insurance company carries out regular reviews of plans. They may be completed every five, six, ten or 12 years, depending on the product involved.

During such a review, the insurance company may find that the consumer's current level of payments is enough to maintain the level of cover which the consumer wants. However, the insurance company may also find that the current level of payments is not enough to maintain the level of cover desired. I understand it is generally following these reviews that some people, particularly those who are more elderly, may find that their level of payments is being increased. This invariably places some of these individuals under increased financial pressure.

I encourage people who are dissatisfied with the outcome to go to the Financial Services and Pensions Ombudsman. The Financial Services and Pensions Ombudsman Act 2017 was amended to provide for changes to the six-year rule for long-term financial products, which are products with a term of five years and one month or more. A six-year limit normally applies in all cases. This means the ombudsman will not investigate a case arising from events that happened over six years ago.

However, for long-term products, a person may now make a complaint to the ombudsman within any of these following limits: six years from the date of the conduct concerned; three years from the date at which the person becomes aware or ought reasonably to become aware of the conduct; where it appears to the ombudsman that there are reasonable grounds for a longer period that would be just and equitable in the circumstances. The time limit can be extended.

I know of these cases. There are too many of them. In my view there was a mis-selling of a product to people especially when they get older and when the review kicks in. On too many occasions I have seen these presented to me and in effect if the person continues paying it means that it would be so expensive the insurance company will take all of the product from the person in the next five-year period rather than pass on anything if somebody passes away which is the term of the actual product that the company sold. This is a very live issue about mis-selling of products and it should go to the Financial Services Ombudsman and Pensions Ombudsman.

The Minister of State's last few sentences sum up the point I was trying to make. I may not have made it forcefully enough in the first place. There is inherent unfairness in what we are discussing. This couple have obviously worked hard all their lives. They are now aged 90 and 86 and at the end of their lives. They were planning for those end-of-life expenses. Most people approaching that stage of life like to have a certainty for themselves. They do not want to have to leave bills for those coming after them. They were planning for that and doing what they were told to do. Now, as the Minister of State accepts, they are being unfairly treated by an insurance company.

This is not an isolated incident. Many people in similar situations are being crucified as a result of living too long. They have paid in an enormous amount of money already - more than the cover they required 35 years ago. Now because they want to pay the same amount of money, they are being crucified for doing so. Going to the Financial Services and Pensions Ombudsman may be an option for them, but at this stage is it fair to ask a couple aged 90 and 86 to pursue this case through that process? There must be a fairer and more equitable way of doing so. At this stage in their lives, they want a bit of comfort and not to have to go through a process of hassle and hardship dealing with these people who effectively do not want to deal with them.

I thank the Minister of State for coming to the House to discuss the matter and accepting that there is an issue here. Is there a deficit in legislation that could be addressed to deal with this matter in future? In addition to this present issue, there are people who are younger than this couple and who may have to endure the same difficulty in coming years. That should be looked at from a legislative point of view.

If that elderly couple had set aside that amount of money in a deposit account, they would have been far better off. Unfortunately, on some occasions the product was the wrong type of product and it was mis-sold to people who believed that they or their heirs would at some point be able to have the benefit of the product in question. There is a solution which lies with insurance company treating elderly couples in a fair and equitable way. This is not something that pleases me much. I am the Minister of State with responsibility for insurance. I have no powers to instruct insurance companies as to what to do. I do not believe, because the product was sold and the contract was signed many years ago, there is anything we can do from a legislative point of view. However, that does not mean that the insurance company is not dealing with an elderly couple in a very immoral way.

Deputy Brassil wishes to give an explanation.

There was a misunderstanding. I had submitted a Topical Issue today relating to FEMPI cuts affecting pharmacists and it was accepted. Unfortunately, no Minister from the Department was available to take the matter. I got a phone call from the Minister's office about an hour ago asking me to defer the issue and I agreed to do so on the basis, first, that no further action would be taken until the matter got resolved and, second, that I could raise it again next week. That was agreed with the Ceann Comhairle's office. Unfortunately, that message did not get to the Leas-Cheann Comhairle's office. It is not that I am not looking to take the issue on; I most certainly am. In co-operation with the Minister it will be heard next week.

I thank the Deputy for that explanation.