Léim ar aghaidh chuig an bpríomhábhar

Dáil Éireann díospóireacht -
Wednesday, 18 Nov 2020

Vol. 1001 No. 1

Saincheisteanna Tráthúla - Topical Issue Debate

School Staff

I thank the Minister for being here to discuss the issue of the bank of 72 hours which, should work be available, special needs assistants, SNAs, can be called upon to do from time to time. Constituents in my home town of Carlow have contacted me. They are members of a union which is in the process of pursuing a claim with the Department of Education to remove these hours on the basis of their widespread abuse. Issues have arisen with regard to the manner of scheduling their use and the tasks or duties that SNAs are requested to do by employers, which can include gardening, cleaning toilets, directing traffic, building maintenance, cleaning windows and floors, administration or clerical work that would normally be completed by a school secretary. The list of possible duties is non-exhaustive and there are many tasks set which SNAs simply should not be doing. The union has sought the pausing of these hours during Covid-19 on health and safety grounds, stating that SNAs should not be required to be in the workplace for any longer than is absolutely necessary for the provision of education to the children in their care. The union recommends that SNAs should not be required to work the 72 hours now to reduce the risk of infection and to ensure their own safety, that of their families and that of the children in their care.

Are the 72 hours compulsory and must they be worked? The most recent circular in this regard does not state that the hours are compulsory. Instead, it sets out in very clear terms how they must be used and the duties appropriate to same. Are there any plans to pause these hours for health and safety reasons, given the current unique and difficult circumstances?

I raised this issue with the Minister yesterday at the meeting of the Joint Committee on Education, Further and Higher Education, Research, Innovation and Science. At the outset I must state that the Department's treatment of SNAs has been appalling over the most recent period in terms of the lack of respect shown to them. I refer to the redeployment debacle, the issues around face coverings and then, when there is an ongoing discussion between the Department and the Fórsa trade union over the issue of these 72 hours, with the subtlety of a bull in a china shop, a letter arrived last week detailing issues referred to in Circular 0071/2011. At the end of that letter, the Department says that disciplinary procedures are available to employers under the same circular in the event of the failure of an SNA to perform a contractual obligation.

I am blue in the face listening to political representatives saying every day of the week that teachers are heroes, SNAs are heroes and every front-line worker is a hero. At the same time the Department issues a threatening letter regarding the 72 hours that it feels SNAs should be doing outside of their ordinary working day. We are in the middle of a pandemic and the Department knows that these 72 hours are controversial. We know that it is a contractual requirement for SNAs to fulfil these 72 hours but it is understandable that the trade union would suggest that these 72 hours are not required in a level 4 or level 5 scenario because being in a school or workplace setting is not safe for those workers. Into that mix, the Department predictably makes a bags of its communication to patron bodies and individual school principals.

This letter needs to be withdrawn and the Department needs to apologise for it. The Minister must state quite categorically in this Chamber that no SNA is required to do any hours outside of contact work with vulnerable students during a restrictive lockdown such as level 4 or level 5.

At the outset, I want to acknowledge the hugely significant and important role played by special needs assistants in the education sector. They are an invaluable resource within our schools.

In reference to the points made by the Deputies, I acknowledge that a letter issued from my Department. It was sent out in response to the confusion that had arisen as a result of a communication issued by Fórsa to schools stating that there was no liability for SNAs to complete the 72 hours of non-contact hours to which the Deputies referred. It was important that my Department issued a clarification because that was what was being requested on foot of the previous correspondence. The letter reminded schools of the provisions relating to the 72 hours requirement for SNAs. That requirement has been in place since 2005 and forms part of an SNA's contract of employment, which was agreed with unions. The letter did not, in any shape or form, change the terms and conditions of SNAs or amend previous agreements.

Under the terms of the standard employment contract agreed in 2005, SNAs were required to be available for a number of days at the start and finish of each school term, not exceeding 12 days in total. Under the Croke Park agreement, it was agreed to convert the previous requirement of SNAs to be available for 12 days outside of the school year to a requirement of 72 hours, applying pro rata for part-time SNAs. It was agreed by all parties at the time that the 72 hours would be used by schools as an additional bank of hours to be utilised and delivered outside of normal school opening hours and-or the normal school year. These arrangements were notified to schools in 2011, in Department Circular 0071/2011. Both the original 2005 agreement and the Croke Park provisions were negotiated and agreed nationally between management and trade unions. No additional hours were required of SNAs under the 2011 agreement.

Some recent commentary has referred to the 72 hours as being "unpaid". In fact, remuneration for the 12 days or 72 hours is included as part of the normal salary paid to an SNA under the terms of the 2005 agreed contract. As part of the 2011 agreement on reconfiguration, it was agreed that the scheduling of the hours is at the discretion of school management. Schools were informed that they should ensure that accurate records in this regard are kept. Fórsa, the trade union which represents SNAs, has formally sought abolition of the contractual requirement for the 72 hours through industrial relations channels. In addition, the union has formally sought that the 72 hours be frozen and that employers do not request their completion for the duration of the Covid pandemic. As I indicated, some confusion arose as a consequence of the communications issued by Fórsa to schools. This led schools and management bodies to ask the Department to clarify the position, which it did. During the course of discussions on the former claim, all parties were notified that the Department intended to issue a letter to school management bodies to remind schools of the provisions relating to the 72 hours.

The agreed uses of the 72 hours include for special educational needs pupil-centred activity such as assistance with care planning, learning resource administration such as preparing class rooms and materials, class and school planning and development, assistance with special examination centres for the State examinations, and training. The duties listed in Circular 0071/2011 form part of the normal range of SNA duties and are, therefore, liable to be performed at any time during normal working hours, including during the 72 hours. The 72 hours allow for very important support work, such as assistance with care planning, learning resource administration and training, to be carried out without reducing SNAs' time with the pupils in their care. Accordingly, the suspension of the requirement to complete the 72 hours would have a direct negative impact on pupils with special educational needs as it would impede on normal class time.

Fórsa has claimed that SNAs are being asked to carry out duties inappropriate to the grade as part of the 72 hours, as referred to by the Deputies. The Department's recent letter reminded schools of the agreed list of uses for the 72 hours under Circular 0071/2011 and stated that the grievance procedures should be used where allegations of inappropriate use arise. Neither I nor my Department would support uses outside of those listed in the circular.

I thank the Minister for her reply. We are living in unprecedented times. I know from her work in education how much the Minister values SNAs and teachers, as we all do. It is important to acknowledge that. However, it remains my view that the 72 hours should be frozen. Given the situation we are in and the impact of the Covid-19 crisis on particular families and children, who are among the most vulnerable in our society, we must do our best for those families. I again thank the Minister for her reply.

The Minister made reference to agreements made in 2005 and a circular issued in 2011. We were not in the middle of a pandemic in 2005 or 2011. There is no recognition from her Department that things have radically changed and that schools would not be open if it were not for special needs assistants. There must be some accommodation by the Department of the need for flexibility at this time. I have said before that if one is not a teacher or a building, the Department does not know what to do with one. There is an incredible inability to be in any way flexible. I will put my question to the Minister again. Does she expect SNAs to go into their workplace outside of contact hours and complete the 72 hours? Any reasonable and rational person would suggest that during periods of level 4 and 5 restrictions, which are considered to be very at-risk scenarios for everyone, this is an unreasonable expectation of SNAs.

I reiterate that the 72 hours in question allow hugely important support work, such as assistance with care planning, learning resource administration and training, to be carried out without reducing SNAs' time with pupils in need of their care. It is vital that the maximum time is availed of by the students in needs of SNA assistance.

The recent letter issued by my Department came on foot of discussions between parties, as I outlined. I restate that the letter did not, in any shape or form, alter the terms and conditions of SNAs. It was simply a reminder to schools regarding the management, communication and recording of the 72 hours which are part of the SNA contract. It was an aid to ensure schools could plan effectively for the optimum use of those hours to support the care needs of pupils. Circular 0071/2011 is very clear as to the appropriate uses for the 72 hours. As I said, grievance procedures are available to SNAs to report cases of alleged misuse.

To reiterate, neither I nor my Department would support anything outside of the agreed format set out in Circular 0071/2011. I am aware that Fórsa has sought the abolition of the 72 hours requirement and is pursuing it through the normal industrial relations channels. I do not intend to comment further on that claim at this juncture as it would not be appropriate to do so.

Road Projects

I thank the Ceann Comhairle and his office for facilitating me in raising this matter. The N22, which travels from Cork city westwards through Macroom and onwards to Ballyvourney, Killarney and towards Tralee, is the major access artery for the economy of the south west. That economy is the quintessential mixed economy, being dependent on foreign direct investment but also the indigenous industries of tourism, agriculture, food processing, the fishing industry and forestry. In fact, along this stretch of road can be found very significant timber processing and food industry activity.

The case I am making is that it is good planning to make preparations now for the future. I really appreciate that the Minister for Transport is in the Chamber for this discussion. This stretch of the N22 may not be upgraded today or tomorrow but we need to do the planning for it today and tomorrow. This project represents the last clasp in the necklace of the N22. There is already significant investment being made in the road, including in the Macroom bypass. In fact, that project represents the single biggest investment in Cork by the State since its foundation, at a cost of more than €300 million if one takes into account the pre-construction costs. In addition, there was the previous investment in the Ballincollig bypass. The upgrade to which I refer today would link those two investments.

The project encompasses approximately 24 km of route. It includes 25 significant junctions, many of which have seen serious and sometimes fatal accidents.

Along the route are several businesses, the village of Lissarda and the smaller settlements of Srelane and Farran. It is also adjacent to Farnanes. It is a very busy artery. With regard to traffic, the traffic data site of Transport Infrastructure Ireland, TII, has some interesting information. It says that, in 2019, there was an average of 13,614 vehicles on the stretch of road between Lissarda and Macroom every day. On the same route, the stretch between the Ballincollig bypass and Ovens, at the other extreme of the road, saw 22,016 vehicles per day. By comparison, over the same period in 2019, there was an average of 12,000 vehicles per day on the stretch of the M8 between junctions 3 and 4. There is less than half the level of traffic on an existing national motorway than on part of this route. All of those in the villages, businesses and individual residences on this roadway are living a nightmare. The level of traffic outside their doors daily is really challenging from the point of view of quality of life, not to mention the risk these people must take every day when entering and exiting their properties.

Given that the local authority, in conjunction with the National Roads Authority, ten years ago sterilised a preferred route corridor, which has now lain in splendid isolation for more than a decade, we should now begin more detailed preparatory work and invest in design, land acquisition and all other necessary preparatory works. As I have said, we will not build this today or tomorrow but, as inevitably as night follows day, when the Macroom bypass is finished, the €300 million investment in which is really welcome, there will be the same bottlenecks coming off it as we see coming off the Ballincollig bypass, which will continue. There are tailbacks of ten, 15 or 20 minutes most evenings of the week caused by traffic going home from the city. It is prudent to invest in preparatory work now so that when the lightbulb moment arrives and we decide we need to invest, we can press the go button and tender for construction.

First, I would like to explain that once funding arrangements have been put in place through the Department of Transport, under the Roads Acts 1993-2015, the planning, design and construction of individual national roads is a matter for TII in conjunction with the local authorities concerned. Overall, TII is responsible for the delivery of the national roads programme in accordance with Project Ireland 2040 and the national development plan, NDP. In that context, TII provides the Department with regular updates on its delivery of the national roads programme. Within the timeframe given in the lead-up to this debate, the following information was the most up-to-date information available to me.

Within the overall context of Project Ireland 2040, the NDP was developed to underpin the successful implementation of the national planning framework. This provides the strategic and financial framework for the national roads programme for the period from 2018 to 2027. The focus of TII's activities is, accordingly, being directed towards the development of the major national road improvement schemes that are included in the NDP, along with the maintenance of the existing national road network.

The section of national route to which the Deputy refers is approximately 20 km in length and goes from the completed Ballincollig bypass to the works currently under construction on the N22 Ballyvourney to Macroom project. Some works were completed on a proposed new or upgraded route design between Macroom and Ballincollig in 2002 and 2003 and a number of possible route options were considered until the scheme was suspended during the economic downturn due to lack of funding. This new scheme is not listed for delivery in the NDP and therefore remains suspended. As a result, there are no current plans to reactivate the planning, design or appraisal of this project. However, it should be noted that the programme for Government commits to bringing forward the planned review of the NDP and to use the review to set out an updated NDP for the period out to 2030. The review of the NDP will be aligned with the national planning framework and Project Ireland 2040. Work is under way within my Department to contribute to this planned review.

I would also like to take this opportunity to highlight the fact that all projects, including those listed in the NDP or any revision to it, require statutory approval and must be in compliance with the public spending code.

The Deputy will, of course, know about another national road project in the vicinity which is included in the NDP and on which there is good ongoing progress, namely the Ballyvourney to Macroom section of roadway, to which he has already referred. The previous Government approved the award of the contract in October 2019 and construction on the site commenced in December of last year. The estimated cost of the project is approximately €280 million. Good progress on construction is currently being made and it is expected that the dual carriageway will be operational in 2023. This new road development consists of the upgrade of 22 km of the N22 national primary route between Ballyvourney and Macroom to a dual carriageway standard. This will comprise a bypass of Macroom town and the villages of Ballyvourney and Ballymakeera in County Cork. This scheme is on the Trans-European Transport Network, TEN-T, comprehensive route and will strengthen the link between Cork and Kerry.

Through the provision of reliable transport infrastructure, this project will improve connectivity between Cork and Kerry ensuring enhanced regional accessibility, which is a national strategic objective under Project Ireland 2040. The project will significantly improve journey times and allow for safer and more reliable journeys for road users. In diverting daily traffic away from Macroom, the project will improve the urban environment of the town by reducing air and noise pollution. In addition to this, and with traffic redirected to the Macroom bypass, existing roads will be developed to facilitate safer cycling and walking routes. In addition, some pavement improvement works have been completed in Lissarda village, which is located on the N22 between Ballincollig and Macroom. These works were completed in 2017 at a cost of €1.67 million over a length of 1.3 km.

I thank the Minister for his response. It is in the context of the review of the NDP that it is appropriate to consider this matter. A very significant commitment of funding for construction is not sought at this stage but it is critical that the preparatory work is done now. In the context of that review and the projects that will then find their way into planning, I ask the Minister to have an open mind in respect of this project. We are bedevilled by numerous examples of failing to plan and failing to see what is imminent and ahead of us. With the completion of the Ballincollig bypass on one end and the Macroom and Ballymakeera bypass on the other, this is the last link of the N22 requiring investment. The extraordinarily positive cost-benefit analysis carried out for the Macroom-Ballyvourney route would be replicated if an analysis of this route was carried out because it represents the completion of the investment on the N22. Its completion would enable more sustainable living and commuting patterns to develop. I anticipate, for example, that Macroom will grow substantially following the investment already made but it will not grow to its full extent without ultimate investment in this stretch of roadway. There are numerous calls on TII to invest significant funding in major junctions along the existing stretch of road but, to be honest, that approach would only be a sticking plaster. We need the new road and, above all else, we now need the preparatory work so that at a point in the not-too-distant future we will be ready to go to construction. I ask that the Minister keep an open mind about that and enable us to move at the appropriate time by doing the preparatory work now. The route corridor has been identified. It is now merely a question of committing resources within TII. It has the expertise and it is very good at what it does. We must commit the resources now to plan for the construction of this road.

I always keep an open mind but I should also speak my mind, although I will do so in a very respectful way because this is a useful debate. Under the national planning framework, it is clear that we want to restore life to the centre of villages, towns and cities. I will be honest. If the section from Ballincollig to Macroom costs the same as the section from Macroom to Ballyvourney, and there is no reason to expect it would not, we would be talking about at least €250 million and up to €300 million, as the Deputy himself has said. Some €250 million could help us to build a really high-quality public transport infrastructure in Cork city, which is needed. This would start to bring life back into the centre of Cork and to ensure that it can be a counterweight to our over-reliance on the growth of Dublin. Deputy Aindrias Moynihan tabled a very interesting parliamentary question in recent weeks which pointed out that places like Macroom and Ballyvourney do not have proper bus connections to Cork city. If we were to invest in the public transport alternatives, we could potentially have lower volumes in the traffic jams coming out the EMC factory and Cork city in the evenings. We could start to provide sustainable transport to ensure the whole system works for everyone.

We have to start moving away from roads-led development, which is leading to further sprawl and which is undermining the strength and development in the centre of our towns, villages and cities. We need to move towards investment in sustainable transport modes that bring life back into towns.

I agree with the Deputy that Macroom will grow. With the bypass, we have the potential to invest that €750 million in the centre of Macroom town. We should do the same thing that has been done in Clonakilty and improve the public realm by improving the walking and other facilities there so that it is a strong town in its own development and is not just a commuter town for Cork city. That is the way the national planning framework is set to work and that is where we should be investing our money, rather than constantly going back to building bigger and bigger roads. The Deputy is right about that section of the N8 that has about 12,000 vehicles per day. It has the capacity for about 80,000 vehicles per day. Therefore, we are massively overproviding. Similarly, on a lot of our national road network, we are providing capacity that will never be needed. The problem is that at the same time, we do not have the public transport capacity or infrastructure. We need that infrastructure to direct where our housing goes.

Vaccination Programme

The school vaccine programme is of huge concern. The 2021 programme has been suspended in community healthcare organisation, CHO, 8 and the midlands areas of Laois, Offaly, Longford and Westmeath. It is not happening. It was fully suspended from 9 November and never really got started this year. It would normally kick off in this semester and carry through into next year for the 2021 programme. Children in both primary and secondary school have not been vaccinated as normal since then, even though the front-line community nurses are there and are available to proceed with the programme, which is puzzling. My information is that there is a plentiful supply of the vaccine for all the required immunisations for schoolgoing children, both in primary and secondary school. It is widely accepted that these vaccination programmes are essential to prevent measles, mumps and rubella along with cervical cancer and other medical conditions that arise in later life.

We all understand that earlier in the year the health services had to do extraordinary things and it will have been necessary to suspend the immunisation programme for a period of time during that first lockdown in March, April and May, in particular. Public health nurses were redeployed to carry out other Covid-19 related work and were flexible, and we commend them on that. However, the situation is now different and has changed. My information from the ground is that there are dozens of community Covid-19 testers who are available and trained up to take Covid-19 swabs. There is no need, therefore, to hold back public health work that would normally carry on. The school vaccination programme is proceeding apace in other regions I have checked in, such as Carlow and Kilkenny, for example. Why is the same not happening in Laois, Offaly, Longford and Westmeath, which are included in the HSE designated area of CHO 8? This is an essential front-line service that is preventative in nature. It can be operational and available very quickly.

I often stand up here and I will complain about shortcomings in the health services and we all want reforms in this area, but there are some good things about the health services. These school vaccination programmes have been one of those good things down through the decades. It is a huge body of work that is undertaken by the front-line staff, mainly by the community health nurses. A huge volume of vaccinations are carried out every year with the co-operation of the schools. It is one of the things that is done well and effectively in the health service. My understanding from schools is that they want to have it done. They sincerely wish to have the children available for that and parents who I have spoken to also say they are concerned about the suspension of the programme.

It is supposed to be recategorised by the HSE. The HSE gave a reply of sorts to a query of mine about it being recategorised from what it called priority 1 to priority 2. It needs to be priority 1. We need to keep essential health services going during this pandemic as we move out of level 5 and back to, it is hoped, level 3 or level 2. What can be done about this to get it moving again?

I thank Deputy Stanley for giving me the opportunity to update the House, on behalf of the Minister, Deputy Stephen Donnelly, on the schools-based immunisation programme in the midlands. We know from international literature that the highest uptake is obtained if immunisations are delivered in schools. It is vital, therefore, that children have an opportunity to avail of their immunisations in this way.

We are all too aware of the disruption that has been caused globally and here in Ireland due to the pandemic and, unfortunately, the schools-based immunisation programme has not escaped interruption. Due to the closure of school buildings in mid-March as a result of the Covid-19 pandemic, the schools-based immunisation programme was suspended. At that time, approximately one-third of students in junior infants still had outstanding vaccines. The visits to second level schools had only just commenced for the second dose of the HPV and the meningococcal vaccines. Therefore, about 90% were outstanding.

To address this issue, all CHO areas provided clinics for the outstanding immunisations to school-aged children in catch-up clinics over the summer months. Children who were unable to attend the catch-up clinics were offered additional chances to receive the immunisations in the academic year 2020 to 2021. Regrettably, the schools-based immunisation programmes, which were scheduled to begin in September 2020, were deferred in the counties covered by the midlands, including Louth, Meath, Laois, Offaly, Longford and Westmeath. This was due to staff being redeployed to support testing, contact tracing, and the public health departments.

I am pleased to advise that the HSE has reviewed the situation and a recovery plan has been prepared for school immunisation for 2020 and 2021. It is intended that the schools-based immunisation programme will resume in the coming weeks. In addition, it is important to note that those who are targeted for school immunisation in 2020 and 2021 will have their necessary vaccinations fully completed by summer 2021.

There is some positivity in that reply, which is welcome. Since I started raising this issue, there has been huge concern around it. Parents have been at the forefront of sharing their concerns with me on this. The Minister of State mentioned in his reply that it was necessary to suspend the programme. I accept that and anyone with common sense would say that back in the earlier part of the year, it was all hands to the pump in terms of dealing with Covid-19, and those working in the health services and the Department of Health in administering that deserve our credit for the heroic work they have carried out. They have saved people's lives and they have managed in very difficult circumstances.

I accept that while some clinics were provided in CHO 8, it is also widely accepted that schools are the best place to have this administered because there is a captive audience. The Minister of State will accept that where children are in school, there will be a better take-up of the programme because the children are present and because it is happening on the one site. There is no reason for this not to kick off in the midlands counties again. The Minister of State mentioned that it will resume in the coming weeks. He might give me an indication of when that will be and if it will happen before Christmas.

One particular concern I have is on the vaccine for cervical cancer that boys and girls get. That is the way it is administered according to my information. My concern is that there are two jabs for that and that they have to be given six months apart to first year pupils. It is important that the first jab of that HPV vaccine is administered as quickly as possible to allow the second jab to be given later on in the year.

That is of primary concern. We must ensure that girls are not left exposed to cervical cancer later in life.

Deputies Cowen and Flanagan have raised this issue as well. Vaccination is recognised as one of the most cost-effective and successful public health interventions that exists. The World Health Organization, WHO, estimates that 2 to 3 million deaths a year are prevented by vaccination, and a further 1.5 million could be avoided if global coverage of vaccinations improved. I thank Deputy Stanley for his kind remarks. We are all supportive of the schools-based immunisation programmes and recognise that the uptake of these vaccines is higher when delivered in schools.

However, we must acknowledge the significant challenges that have been encountered in delivering the programme this year. The HSE has been striving to overcome these challenges and put in place alternative arrangements to ensure that the schools-based immunisation programme can continue to be delivered as soon as possible. The HSE is committed to continuing to offer the recommended immunisations to school-aged children, with as little disruption as possible. I will pass on the Deputy's concerns regarding the cervical vaccine to the Minister for Health, Deputy Stephen Donnelly. We will be keeping abreast of developments regarding the recovery plan and the resumption of the schools-based immunisation programme in the coming weeks.

Planning Issues

In recent years, our dairy processors, with the support of Enterprise Ireland, have made investments to diversify into new cheese categories such as continental cheese from Glanbia, mozzarella from Glanbia and Carbery and Jarlsberg from Dairygold. I read with concern in recent weeks references to such investments being made by such processors facing, and continuing to face, significant planning hurdles, which impacts on when they can make a tangible contribution to diversifying the Irish cheese product mix. We have spoken at length in this House about the challenges which we face with Brexit. Here we have our processors meeting that challenge head on, but serious hurdles are being put in front of them. In recent days and weeks, I have received representations from dairy farmers in my constituency of Tipperary, and also from the south-east region more generally.

Those people are concerned that this key Brexit diversification cheese investment plan by Glanbia Ireland, which was announced nearly two years ago, has yet to have a sod turned due to planning objections by the environmental activist group, An Taisce. This €200 million investment in south Kilkenny has the potential to generate 400 construction jobs, 100 full-time jobs and deliver a new market for milk for 4,500 families across 16 counties. This plant will be able to process 40,000 tonnes of cheese for the continental market and reduce our utter dependency on the cheese market in the UK. This is a major and significant investment.

A potential lengthy court delay to the project will be a blow to these farm families and will impact on the company's ability to diversify its products. It has been more than 12 months since this project was granted planning permission by Kilkenny County Council on 14 November 2019. My understanding is that An Taisce appealed this decision to An Bord Pleanála in December 2019. According to the website of An Bord Pleanála, this project was granted permission on 30 June this year. I understand, however, that An Taisce lodged papers in the High Court in August seeking a judicial review of this decision. This matter is expected to come before the High Court next week, which will be 21 weeks after the An Bord Pleanála verdict. My understanding is that the window for seeking judicial review is meant to be eight weeks after An Bord Pleanála's decision.

I respect the rights of citizens and properly-constituted groups to take their objections to An Bord Pleanála. We must, however, be careful that we do not allow the planning and subsequent processes to make Ireland a country where it becomes impossible to do business. Based on the information from the Charities Regulator, An Taisce secured two thirds of its income in 2019 from central Government and local authorities. Can we tolerate a situation with delays such as these? We know what happened in Athenry with Apple. This is a hugely important project for the country, not only for farmers and Glanbia, but for the economy of rural Ireland. Can we allow this legal process to continue to undermine it?

An Bord Pleanála has made a decision. My understanding is that An Taisce is basing its objections on the fact that there will be extra production in the south east for this plant. The planning process should deal with the plant in question to ensure that it meets the highest possible environmental standards. I am quite certain that when this plan stood up to an inquiry in An Bord Pleanála it is meeting these highest possible standards. It is absolutely essential that permission is granted quickly and that the legal process is not used to thwart a vital investment for our economy and for the farmers and people of rural Ireland.

I thank Deputy Cahill for raising this important issue. He will understand, however, that due to it being sub judice and before a judicial review that I do not want to get into the specifics of the matter. I do not want to prejudice any matter before the courts. In general, however, I understand the concern which the Deputy raises. It is an issue of which I was aware. The importance which the Deputy placed on developing alternative markets for Irish dairy produce is absolutely key. I refer to the title of this Topical Issue matter. The planning system has dealt with this issue, the courts will deal with the judicial review next week, hopefully, and the system will take care of this situation in that regard. We have a clear separation, and it is the right of those who wish to make submissions to do so along the way in respect of such planning matters.

In the broader view, though, I assure the Deputy and the House, as the Minister of State with special responsibility for new market development, of my ambition to develop new markets. That is even more important considering the challenges Brexit is bringing forward for us. We know that Ireland is probably accepted as the most exposed EU member state in respect of Brexit and negative outcomes. No sector is more vulnerable than the agrifood and fishery sector, which comes in under my Department. My responsibility for the area of new market development, therefore, is critically important for the dairy sector, as it is for so many others. That is why the continuance of the policy of market diversification within my Department, in conjunction with Bord Bia, is one on which we have put a big focus. The onset of Covid-19 has created challenges in that regard for us, but it has not stopped us from continuing to push on with virtual trade missions. I refer to the trade mission schedule.

The Minister, Deputy McConalogue, and I are leading dairy-focused virtual trade missions to Indonesia, Malaysia, the Philippines, Thailand and Vietnam over five dates in November and December. The objective of these trade missions is to advance market opportunities for Irish exporters by showcasing our industry to 250 buyers from markets with combined import demand of more than 2.6 million tonnes of dairy ingredients per annum. These markets serve a total population of 553 million people, many of whom are increasingly urbanised and middle class. This dairy-focused trade mission will see 13 of Ireland's processors and exporters engage in business-to-business meetings with local buyers and distributors, allowing them to market their products and capabilities to a commercial dairy audience.

These markets all feature in Bord Bia's marketing strategy 2019-2021 as a priority. It is forecast that the event will deliver up to 500 new leads for Irish client companies participating. High potential leads will be targeted for follow-up engagement as part of the 2021 Gathering Moments Bord Bia inward buyer event. Even though it is an online event, the ambition of the mission will serve as classical trade missions have in the past. I refer to building understanding, reputation and business. There will also be follow-up from my Department and Bord Bia. The ability of my Department and Bord Bia to do that detailed follow-up, from these new leads, is enhanced by the additional resources allocated for this activity in recent years, including the creation of new agricultural attaché posts in our embassy network and a new division in headquarters dedicated to international trade. Additional funding of €4 million was also secured in the recent budget for Bord Bia to help it in the important work being done to develop our dairy industry.

I take on board the concerns raised by the Deputy on that specific point, which is before the courts. The Deputy can be assured of my determination and that of my Department to continue to drive new market development for the dairy sector.

I thank the Minister for his reply. Glanbia and other dairy processors are facing this significant difficulty at the moment. Feasibility studies have been done on routes to market and on acquiring suitable partners on the Continent for developing this product. A huge amount of money is invested. As I said in my original statement, eight weeks is usually the timeframe within which a judicial review should be heard after An Bord Pleanála's decision. We are now at 21 weeks. We cannot allow the legal process to delay a decision on this project. It has been cleared by An Bord Pleanála. It is absolutely urgent that a strict timeframe is adhered to for a decision to be reached. I fully respect the rights of citizens to make objections, but I object when the apparatus of the system is used to delay a decision unnecessarily and I believe that is what is happening here. We see clearly that it is nearly three times the permitted timeframe. This is causing huge concern for people in my constituency and in the south east. This opportunity is knocking on the doors now for these processors. I accept the Minister of State's bona fides, and those of Bord Bia, in what he is doing to establish markets and for the huge ongoing efforts to establish markets and to diversify from the British market, upon which we have depended for centuries. When we have an opportunity, we have to seize it.

Obviously, the proper environmental standards must be adhered to. I am absolutely sure that is the case with An Bord Pleanála's decision. At farm level, farmers recognise fully that sustainable food production is the way forward and that we have to meet the climate change challenges that are in front of us. Farmers will meet that, and our processing industry is also meeting that head on. This will be a modern plant, just diversifying product, which is exactly what the doctor ordered for the challenges we face with Brexit. Some 40,000 tonnes of cheese production is hugely significant. I urge the Government to make sure that the tightest possible timeframe is employed to ensure a decision is reached and that this investment can proceed.

I thank the Deputy for that point, which I take on board. I share the seriousness the Deputy places on this particular development and its overall impact in that part of the State and for the dairy sector in general. Given its importance I will not be drawn into speaking about it specifically because I do not want to prejudice any matter before the courts. Suffice to say, I believe that steps were taken - I say this wearing my hat of responsibility for research and development - and that funding was allocated in that regard to better place growth for the dairy sector and to meet the sustainability and climate challenges. I am very confident that agriculture and the dairy sector has a very positive story to tell in that regard and will stand up to any scrutiny, whether through a planning process or a judicial system. I am very confident it can do that and I would like that to be dealt with as quickly as possible. I understand the matter is before the courts next week.

I believe the dairy sector will meet head on any questions asked of it about its sustainability. Consider, for example, the increased innovation across the dairy sector. New market development is not so much about new market development in dairying, it is actually about growing existing potential within existing markets. Our dairy sector is in most markets already. We are in 140 countries on the dairy side. The beef and meat sector would be jealous of the access the dairy sector has. It is about growing the markets we have there. The sustainability piece that will be relevant to the case the Deputy has referred to is just as important for all of those new markets and for growing the markets we already have. Our dairy sector is telling a very robust story and we are continuously working with the sector to improve our output with regard to sustainability and to develop new technologies and innovation. Companies such as Glanbia and others are leading the way in that. I am very proud to be associated with that. I have no doubt that they and the dairy sector will stand up to any scrutiny put to it.