Saincheisteanna Tráthúla - Topical Issue Debate

Children in Care

Before we start, if this happens again, I will take the last group here, which was just two, and then adjourn. It is not fair to the other Deputies who are here. It is certainly not fair to the Ministers who are all here. I direct that to nobody in particular. That is to everybody.

Apologies, a Leas-Cheann Comhairle. Unfortunately, as a Dublin Deputy, I had to go home to deal with family issues. I was attempting to stick to the schedule. It is not fair. We talk about this job not being family friendly, but it is not fair to-----

If we could deal with the Topical Issue matter, the other matters can be dealt with at the Business Committee.

What I wish to raise as a Topical Issue matter is the issue of support for parents who are engaged with Tusla in respect of child protection concerns and whose children are in care. The reality is that this is a group of parents are often quite stigmatised and receive very little support.

Tusla will do its best to support a family to prevent a child coming into care but once a child comes into care, the child becomes the centre. We are told children's welfare should be paramount. The child becomes the centre and the parents are frequently left behind. This causes several problems.

First, it undermines the parents fundamental rights. We have seen in a recent study from UCC which looked at the use of voluntary care agreements how parents can be left confused, bewildered and unsupported and this ultimately undermines the free and informed consent required for a voluntary care agreement and their own fundamental rights.

Furthermore, when a child comes into care, this is a horrendous process. It is often a necessary process but it is a process that engenders huge amounts of loss, anger, grief and bereavement, all of which is totally understandable. My experience has been that parents are left sitting with those feelings and they are not given supports. This creates hostility between them and the social workers which makes the social workers' job harder, which puts more stress on them and, ultimately, the children lose out because parents are less able to engage with access, are less able to engage with reunification and are less able to engage meaningfully with the social work department.

Ultimately, this is about children's rights. By providing these supports, we can meet children's rights better. A parent who is supported to engage with the family safety plan, reunification and access, and who is able to process that loss and grief so that the child does not get caught in the crossfire between a suffering parent and the social workers where access becomes a front in the battle, ultimately supports those children.

There are some local support projects doing this, for instance, Clarecare which provides excellent and wide-ranging support, but we need something at a national level. I know this works for two reasons. All one needs to do is look at Clarecare and the work it does, but also at Empowering People in Care, EPIC. EPIC supports young people in care. It is an independent advocacy service for young people in care which could do so much more with proper resourcing. They support young people with a care history, some of whom are parents and some of whom are parents whose children are being taken into care.

I worked as a social worker taking a child into care from a parent who had a care history herself and she had an advocate from EPIC. That was a significant benefit. The case was not easy. It still had its difficulties but we had somebody there who could help the parent engage in the process, who could provide counselling supports for them, who could link them in further with other supports, and who could help them engage meaningfully with those in the social work department to make the process less traumatic. It helped them to engage in access after the fact that so that even though their child was in care, the trauma did not have to continue and they ultimately had a more stable placement supporting the rights of the child and supporting the child in care.

This is a much-needed service. There have been ad hoc attempts within Tusla and the HSE over the years which often have been met, not with outright hostility but certainly with a slowness or reluctance because the focus has been on the child. It is time we looked at the child in the context of his or her family even if that child is in care.

I want to express my appreciation to Deputy Costello. The Deputy posed this Topical Issue matter a while ago and he facilitated me by moving it to today. I thank the Deputy for that.

The issue the Deputy has brought to our attention is a very important one. There are approximately 6,000 children in care in the State. Of those, a very large proportion, 93%, are in foster care and a small number live in residential care. The vast majority of children in care need to stay in contact with their parents, siblings and extended family. Good relationships between parents, children and carers lead in the best outcomes for children in care.

Placing a child in care and away from his or her birth family is a serious decision and it is only made after extensive social work intervention, assessment and consideration. When a decision is reached that a child needs to come into care it is preferable if this can be done with the consent and agreement of the child's parents. Such an agreement enables the parent or parents and the social worker to work more effectively to address difficulties within the family which led to the need for alternative care, and to work towards the safe return of the child to the care of the parent or parents.

Sometimes it is not possible or feasible for such an agreement to be reached and in those circumstances Tusla will apply to the courts for a care order. It is more common for children to enter care with the voluntary agreement of their parents. Where the child's care plan identifies that a child should stay in care for a longer period, best practice is that Tusla applies to the courts for a care order. From his professional background, Deputy Costello will be well familiar with all of these processes. Providing a positive experience to children in alternative care is a key aim of the Irish care system and central to this is the provision of secure and stable placements.

Data collected by Tusla indicate that a very small proportion of children in care have three or more placements within a year - 2% in 2019 - which is indicative of good overall placement stability within the care system. Data also show that at year end the proportion of children in care who are on a care order is higher than when children are admitted to care. At the end of 2019, almost three quarters of the children in care were on a care order. This may mean that children are staying in care longer and as a consequence, his or her status has moved from a voluntary agreement to a legal order. This is also indicative of good placement stability.

Throughout lockdown, my Department has heard from many parents about their views on contact with their children over that difficult time. Tusla issued guidance for parents, carers, staff and children on how best to manage visits and stay in touch. Tusla's CEO emphasised that face-to-face visits were to happen if at all possible, even during the most stringent periods of lockdown.

As we emerge from Covid, my Department and Tusla want to learn from that experience and hear the experiences of parents throughout the crisis, including their ability to continue engaging and having familial relationships with their children. Mr. Bernard Gloster has met the Children's Rights Alliance on the issue of supporting parents whose children are in care. There are plans for a scoping of potential services for parents affected by this issue. That work is in its early stages, but there is a clear plan in Tusla to consider what supports can be provided to parents.

Officials from my Department have met representatives of an existing service that has worked with parents of children in care over many years. That organisation also produced supportive guides for parents during lockdown. It is hoped initiatives like those, which were initially developed to address local needs, can be scaled nationally.

I will look into the particular service that the Deputy mentioned, Clarecare. I am happy to continue engaging with him to see how we can develop the research further.

Regarding voluntary care agreements, a recent study by UCC highlighted some of the contentious issues and outlined options for reform. If it has not already done so, it would be useful if the Department engaged with the team in UCC that conducted this research and suggested these reforms.

I sent the Minister's office some information. These independent advocacy services are important, and they are commonplace in other jurisdictions. In Ireland, they occasionally provide support for parents who are in care, but that is done on an ad hoc basis and if the parents happen to be part of those advocacy services already.

I am happy to engage with the Minister again. I appreciate he is not in a position to micromanage Mr. Gloster and the operations of Tusla, but he is in a position to show leadership to and influence Tusla. Strong support for parents' rights as well as for parents in their journey through their children's time in care ultimately supports the rights of their children as much as supporting the children while they are in care does. Frequently, children are left with a conflict in loyalties between their placement by Tusla in a home in which they can grow up safely and their family of origin, to whom they are still deeply connected. Anything that can support that connection while maintaining their safety supports children's rights. It is a matter of parents' rights and children's rights. We need to lead strongly.

Regarding alternative care and the wider care system, as the Deputy knows, there has been a long-running review of the Child Care Act 1991. We hope to make proposals for a significant amendment of that legislation in the near future. I look forward to working with Deputy Costello and other Members on the Joint Committee on Children, Equality, Disability, Integration and Youth. There is a great deal of work to be done and we can significantly reform the law in that area.

Regarding voluntary and representative groups that support children in the care process, I met Empowering People in Care, EPIC, early in my tenure as Minister and was impressed by its commitment to children and young people in care and by the structured way in which it sought to advocate for children.

I take on board the Deputy's comments about the importance of parents having a voice in this process. I am happy to engage with the Deputy further on understanding what that voice would look like and how it could be best amplified, for example, by directly representing parents in particular situations and, on a wider level, influencing policy.

The Deputy is right about the conflict some children in care experience for a while. The stresses and strains of time spent in care should be lessened as much as possible for the child, but also for the parent. We will consider what we can do in that regard and I will continue to engage with Tusla. Mr. Gloster has always shown leadership on these issues and is reform minded. I am happy to continue engaging with the Deputy on the matter as well.

Local Authorities

I thank the Leas-Cheann Comhairle for the opportunity to discuss this important issue, which I have been raising at various forums in recent years, namely, the disproportionately small amount of funding that is being allocated to Cork County Council for the county under various headings. Cork County Council commissioned a report by Maynooth University to examine its funding streams, including the roads budget, the town and village renewal scheme, the rural regeneration fund and LEADER. It is not getting a proportionate amount of funding. The Department has to accept there is a funding shortfall for County Cork.

County Cork is not just Cork city. It is a vast county. I represent its Duhallow and Charleville regions right down to Dunmanway and from Ballydesmond to Ballincollig. It is a huge area. Our constituency is as large as some counties. The geographical spread of the county needs to be reflected on by all Departments that are issuing funding. While they can tick a box and say that so many projects are funded in each county, a proportionate amount of funding is not being given to the County Cork.

Down the years, the local authority has administered the county in three different regions: the north, the west and the south. These areas could be three independent units for funding. The Government and its Departments need to consider this matter seriously. Despite the amount of CLÁR and rural regeneration funding that has come to Cork in recent years, some fantastic projects are still without funding. Through LEADER companies or the local authority, they have made significant efforts to apply to, or make expressions of interest to, Departments for funding, but they have been shot down.

I would like to see a recognition that there is a lower amount of funding going to the county per capita. The size of the county needs to be reflected on. There are ways of ensuring more funding goes to the county. Since it already has three administrative areas, legislative change is not required to ensure sufficient funding can be provided. I could talk about the amount of funding coming through other schemes as well. It does not reflect the county properly.

I am raising this matter because there is a significant opportunity. We have fantastic communities across the county. I am privileged to represent some that have proposed great and innovative ideas. As we have seen in recent months, people are now looking at rural areas as a viable option. Despite the crazy planning policies of the past 20 years, they view rural areas as the best places for them and their families to live. We should follow them and enable that.

We should examine rural areas to ensure adequate funding is being provided to them under the various headings and schemes. Those Government schemes are innovative, excellent and well thought out in terms of their aims and aspirations, but it is important County Cork get a fair and balanced amount of funding under each and every heading through which funding is provided by the Government to local councils.

I thank the Deputy for giving me the opportunity to outline the Government's supports for local authorities, with particular reference to County Cork.

The All-Ireland Research Observatory, AIRO, report the Deputy refers to was received by the Department of Housing, Local Government and Heritage on 9 June and is under consideration by officials. It is a wide-ranging report which covers funding from a variety of different Departments for a range of issues and schemes. Many of the funding lines are outside the remit of the Department. The report has also been sent for consideration to other relevant Government Departments.

The funding system for local authorities is complex with authorities deriving their income from a variety of sources, including local sources such as commercial rates, charges for goods and services and funding from central Government. Most of the funding from central Government must be used for specified services. These can be grouped into five broad programme categories: recreational, education, environment, housing and transport.

On funding streams specifically from the Department of Housing, Local Government and Housing, €135.3 million and €167.5 million was provided to Cork County Council in 2019 and 2020, respectively. The increase between 2019 and 2020 is due to an increase in housing funding, as well as funding in respect of the Covid-19 commercial rates and other Covid-19 related expenses which occurred in 2020. It is a matter for each local authority to consider how it can maximise local income sources and manage its own spending in the context of the annual budgetary process.

Local authority members may decide, as part of the process, to vary the annual rates on valuation, ARV, and local property tax, LPT, in order to increase the revenue available to them. I note for 2020 and 2021, Cork County Council raised its LPT rate by 5% and 7.5%, respectively, forgoing the maximum 15% raise, or just over €3 million in 2020 and €2.4 million in 2021.

I also refer to the recently announced plans to reform the local property tax. These reforms will involve bringing new homes which are currently exempt from LPT, into the taxation system, as well as providing for all money collected locally to be retained within their county. This will be done on the basis that those counties with a lower LPT base are adjusted via an annual national equalisation fund paid from the Exchequer, as is currently the case.

The Minister for Finance, Deputy Donohoe, recently published the heads of the Finance (Local Property Tax) (Amendment) Bill 2021. The Bill will give effect to a package of measures, in line with the programme for Government, to address the future of the local property tax. The legislation required to implement those changes falls under the remit of the Department of Finance, as a tax policy matter, and will be considered by the Houses of the Oireachtas in due course. The Minister, Deputy Donohoe, also signalled the Government's intent to move to 100% local retention from 2023. Any changes to the allocation process may be considered in that context.

I might take the minute left over from the Minister of State's response, if that is allowed.

It is not allowed.

The local property tax, LPT, is a separate argument. The issue here is the findings of the report we are talking about. The report stated that we are not getting our fair share of funding under various schemes. The report has been independently verified. The research was commissioned by the county council.

The residual and persistent shortfall in financial allocations to Cork county is evident across several Departments and public bodies and these are associated with a failure to allocate it on the basis of three established administrative divisions and the persistence of a county basis or a branded tiered model. That is the finding of the report. The independent report states residual and persistent shortfalls in financial allocations to Cork county are evident across several Departments.

It is as clear as that. I can talk about all the schemes and communities which need funding. They are all worthy of being mentioned here, but the reality is there is a residual and persistent shortfall. I ask the Minister of State to take my concerns back to the Department, to the officials who are going through this. We need clear political leadership to say County Cork has had shortfall across all Departments and that shortfall will be addressed, whether it is in the town and village renewal scheme, CLÁR, the rural regeneration programme or the roads programme.

I plead with the Minister of State to take these concerns back. I am raising this issue out of the most genuine concern for the communities I represent, because they need funding from the Government. When we are not getting our fair share of Government funding, it is clearly an injustice to our people.

That report was received by the Department on 9 June and is under consideration. I will be relaying Deputy Moynihan's message to the Minister of State, Deputy Burke, and the Minister, Deputy O'Brien. As I stated, the report has also been shared with other Departments.

I refer to the unprecedented support for local authorities during the Covid-19 pandemic. One of the earliest priorities of the Minister, Deputy O'Brien, and the Minister of State, Deputy Burke, was to secure funding to provide a waiver of commercial rates for businesses impacted by the pandemic, while supporting local authorities. In 2020, Cork County Council applied a 100% commercial rates waiver to just over 9,000 businesses and recouped €34.7 million from this Department.

In recognition of Covid-19-related income losses and additional Covid-19-related expenditure incurred in 2020, the Department of Housing, Local Government and Heritage provided funding of €6.7 million to Cork County Council. Given the ongoing impacts of Covid-19, the Government's support for local authorities continues. The Government has introduced a commercial rates waiver for 2021, which has been extended to the end of September, at an estimated cost of €480 million. This waiver applies to businesses most seriously affected by ongoing restrictions.

As with all public health measures and associated supports, the waiver of commercial rates will be kept under review, as has been the case since the outset of the Covid-19 pandemic. The Department will continue to engage with the local government sector and individual local authorities on the financial impacts of the pandemic and provide them with the necessary financial supports.

Brexit Issues

I am delighted to raise this Topical Issue matter. I appreciate the opportunity given by the Leas-Cheann Comhairle and the Minister of State, Deputy Byrne, coming to the Chamber to take this Topical Issue matter. At the weekend, the world's eyes descended on a beautiful part of Cornwall, St. Ives, for the important G7 summit. It was the first G7 summit since the onslaught of the Covid-19 pandemic and the change of administration in the United States. It was an important change of administration which gave great hope to those of us who truly believe in multilateralism, international relations and common sense among liberal western democracies.

Sadly, the entire summit was overshadowed by the continuing failure of the British Government to implement the basic elements of the Northern Irish protocol in the withdrawal agreement, an agreement signed, ratified and introduced mere months ago. It was signed, ratified and introduced by this British Government. This British Government negotiated and ratified this protocol. This British Government won an 80-seat majority in its parliament on the back of this protocol.

However, this British Government has utterly failed to approach this in a sensible way. We approach another looming deadline. This entire sorry Brexit process has been punctuated by looming deadlines and cliff-edge moments. We see the British Government approaching the end of a grace period when it comes to chilled meats, among other things.

The approach has not been one of conciliatory measures, being proactive and productive or meeting responsibilities in their most basic form. Unfortunately, we have seen a British Government absolutely trash the protocol it negotiated, ratified and sought election on. What is even sadder is seeing the British Government minister who negotiated these Brexit agreements continue to undermine them in his own press, at parliamentary committees and among other leading politicians.

It is a worrying approach and it is a difficult approach for those of us in Ireland. There is no such thing as a good Brexit, but at least with the protocol and the trade and co-operation agreement, TCA, we can limit the worst damage.

However, the decision by this British Government to go for the hardest of Brexits has serious consequences for this island, North and South. The impact of those consequences has been largely offset by the protocol, but that protocol needs to be implemented. If there are difficulties in implementing it, we can address them. I, in no way, underestimate the displeasure, especially among the unionist community in Northern Ireland, with aspects of the protocol.

However, I also do not accept some of the exaggerated claims about the protocol. The supermarket shelves in Northern Ireland are not lying empty and the protocol is not responsible for riots in the street. It is, however, being used and abused by people across this island who should know better and who are responsible for dialling down the rhetoric.

People ask where we go from here and what the most obvious solution is. The obvious solution is, of course, a sanitary and phytosanitary, SPS, veterinary agreement between the EU and the UK, which would remove 85% of the necessary checks under the protocol. Brexit creates borders and checks and the protocol allows for very limited and minimal checks at the ports of entry into Northern Ireland. It also provides Northern Ireland with a great deal of opportunities and it is sad that only a very small minority of politicians in Northern Ireland have a forward-thinking approach to realising those opportunities. The question I am putting to the Minister of State this evening is how we ensure this protocol is implemented in a manner that protects Ireland, the European Union and the very fragile peace on this island.

Gabhaim buíochas leis an Teachta Richmond as an ábhar tábhachtach seo a ardú anocht. The protocol on Ireland and Northern Ireland is a joint solution by the United Kingdom and the European Union to the serious challenges raised by Brexit on the island of Ireland. The agreement took more than four years of negotiations between the United Kingdom and the European Union, exploring all the other options and ruling them out. The UK and the EU together found and agreed a solution, which was the protocol. It was a joint effort by the EU and the UK and so its implementation must also be joint. In that regard, the UK must show a commitment to delivery and to working alongside the EU.

Notwithstanding the many challenges we face, large parts of the protocol are being implemented and the sky has not fallen in. Last week, a meeting of the EU-UK Withdrawal Agreement Joint Committee took place, offering an opportunity for the EU and the UK, working together, to take stock of progress in the implementation of the protocol to date and to consider ongoing challenges. Engagement at official level to try to find solutions to the outstanding issues is continuing and we fully support and encourage those efforts. It is worth remembering that a majority of elected members of the Northern Ireland Assembly and a majority of the elected MPs in the House of Commons from Northern Ireland supported the protocol and continue to do so. Quite frankly, that is not a narrative we hear in the British media.

In recent days, G7 leaders made clear to the UK Government their concerns around the implementation of the protocol, the peace process and political stability in Northern Ireland. A small country like Ireland was present at the G7 because the European Union, through the Presidents of the European Commission and the European Council, was there representing all of us. That is the power the European Union gives to all of us, and to small member states in particular. Further UK unilateral actions without consultation and agreement would be problematic and damaging to the technical efforts that are under way to agree further flexibilities. We need to have genuine partnership and to work in problem-solving mode for the benefit of all the people of Northern Ireland, not just those of a particular viewpoint. There has to be compromise and the protocol is the compromise. The European Union has shown time and again that it is a willing partner. The UK must show its willingness by honouring the commitments to which it has already signed up, which it negotiated, agreed and voted through its parliament, and it must solve challenges in good faith.

An SPS agreement, as Deputy Richmond said, would be a pragmatic way forward, even on a temporary basis, and would create the space for longer-term arrangements to bed down. This would immediately reduce the level of checks on agrifood products by up to 80%. We have heard from people right across the political, business and farming sectors that they want such an agreement. It would be simple, concrete and popular. President Biden has been clear, as was I in my media engagements last week, that such an agreement would not stand in the way of a UK-US trade deal.

The protocol has never disrupted the supply of medicines and the EU will ensure there will be no disruption to the supply of medicines in Northern Ireland. We will continue to look for flexibility in order that the negative impacts of Brexit on the people of Northern Ireland are minimised. That is what the protocol is about. I had engagements last week in Slovenia and Austria and I saw the EU's solidarity and unity on this issue, which for so long has been a mark of the EU's approach to Brexit. The same holds for this Oireachtas. Across all parties we have been united in support of the protocol, the majority united on Northern Ireland, and we have engaged in detailed implementation. We will be calm, measured and united in our approach.

I appreciate the Minister of State's clarity, not just in his response here this evening but also in the continued discussions and iterations from him and the Minister, Deputy Coveney, in such a calm, reasoned, sensible and realistic manner. Even though the G7 should have been talking about far weightier issues such as the Covid-19 pandemic, the climate emergency and vaccine solidarity across the world, I welcome the engagement of all G7 members on the legacy of Brexit and the importance of the Northern Ireland protocol.

One thing that is very important and which always bears repeating is that the British Government has ownership over this protocol. This is not a foreign construct or something being foisted upon the unionist community in Northern Ireland by the European Union or, indeed, by Irish Government Ministers here in Dublin. Ultimately, the problem here is not the protocol. The problem is Brexit. Brexit is causing all these problems and the protocol offers the easiest set of solutions. Every opportunity must be taken to engage North-South, east-west, across the European Union and across the global community, and to reiterate that there are solutions to the issues some people have with the protocol. Crucially, there are also opportunities for everyone on this island in this protocol. We need to dial down the rhetoric, engage with people and seriously address their realistic concerns. Some of the language chosen by certain people in the United Kingdom, Great Britain and Northern Ireland to describe Ministers in this Government has been absolutely disgraceful. I urge the Minister of State to use every effort to engage with our friends in London and clarify the very constructive and productive role the Irish Government has always played in this sorry Brexit process, as well as across the EU and across this island.

The politics of Brexit are proving to be corrosive in the already sensitive situation in the North of Ireland, polarising opinion and increasing tensions. I reiterate that the protocol makes no change to the constitutional status of Northern Ireland. That is set down in the Good Friday Agreement. I want us to get to a place where the implementation of the protocol is fully realised in a way that works for Northern Ireland. There is an onus on all of us leaders and politicians to engage openly with citizens, businesses, politicians and community leaders on the protocol. We need to be clear and honest that the alternative to the protocol is not life as it was before Brexit but much deeper and more difficult disruption. There is no agreed alternative to the problems caused by Brexit on the island of Ireland. We spent four years going through those alternatives until we came to the protocol. It was the best available solution to those challenges, to which the UK and the European Union agreed.

Brexit has inevitably meant changes for businesses, sometimes difficult ones. However, there are some businesses in Northern Ireland that have no issues whatsoever with the protocol. Some major companies have examined its contents and adapted their business models. There are significant potential opportunities for Northern Ireland through the protocol, with open access to the rest of the UK internal market and to the entire EU Single Market. No industry is greater placed to avail of those opportunities than the Northern Ireland sausage industry because the biggest pork plant in Britain and Ireland is in Northern Ireland. For all this nonsense about a sausage war, there is massive production of it in North of Ireland. There is evidence of increased interest in Northern Ireland as an investment location but stability and certainty are needed to ensure this and realise that potential. We know that unilateral action on sensitive issues in the North of Ireland never works. The only sustainable approach to the current challenges requires the UK and the EU to work together to find pragmatic solutions. I urge all parties in this House to remain resolute in their support for this measured and calm approach, and I know they will do so. I also thank our EU colleagues for their continued engagement and solidarity on the detail of this issue.

Aviation Industry

Stobart Air ceased operating over the weekend and it was the operator of the public service obligation, PSO, routes from Dublin to Kerry and Donegal for Aer Lingus. Aer Lingus has stepped in to ensure the international routes are filled and we have now heard an Estonian airline has taken the Dublin to Kerry route but has left Donegal behind. We must ask how the Department was not aware of a potential problem in the first place. In addition, many people are now left without a service, and many of those were using Donegal airport to access connecting flights to get to work in England, for example. The most difficult situations of all are perhaps those of the cancer patients who depend on these flights to get their treatment in Dublin. The local cancer care committee had eight patients booked in for flights this week. Members of the committee are now going to travel with patients to ensure they get their treatments and they are not left alone. If only our Government had that kind of commitment to our citizens, we would not have been in this kind of situation in the first place. However, it is vital this situation is addressed now and a new operator is found for Donegal Airport.

I spoke to the Minister for Transport, Deputy Ryan, on Saturday as the news emerged of the liquidation of Stobart Air. I pleaded with him to drop the idea of going for the tender process and to embark instead upon the emergency procurement process. I am glad to say that has been announced this morning, and it could mean we can have these services up and running within what the Department estimates will be several weeks, by early next month. I welcome that our concerns, which we put in writing, have been taken on board and that this approach has been adopted.

However, I implore the Minister of State to recognise the importance of every day which passes. As Deputy Pringle said, this service is of great importance and especially for cancer patients. I spoke to Mary Coyle of Ionad Naomh Pádraig who operates that community service. Every cancer patient leaving west Donegal who cannot take a flight faces a nine-hour round trip. Some of those people simply cannot make the journey by car. They are not doing it and appointments are being cancelled. Therefore, it is very important the Department fast-tracks this process. The middle of July is too late. I want to see this service back up and running in a few weeks and I implore the Department to bring this about.

The aviation industry has been one of the hardest hit sectors and that was unavoidable. However, staff and unions have been warning that jobs would be lost without a proper plan and appropriate supports. The closure of Stobart Air brings this reality home and highlights the vulnerability of our airports. In the past year, Cork and Shannon regional airports have been hit with losses. Job losses in airports are being disproportionately felt by precarious workers such as cabin crew, which is also a disproportionately female workforce. We saw the closure of the cabin crew base in Shannon and a temporary lay-off of staff in Cork has also been announced. To add insult to injury, staff are also facing a 20% pay cut and the removal of sick pay. Small employers in west Cork and everywhere are going above and beyond in their efforts to retain their staff with the employment wage subsidy scheme, EWSS. Why is an international airline not doing the same? How will the Minister of State respond to ensure the protection of these jobs, and especially the more precarious ones, such as cabin crew?

The ongoing crisis in aviation has had a devastating impact in the mid-west. When is the Minister of State's Department going to wake up to this crisis? How many job losses and warnings will be needed before action is taken? Shannon Airport is on its knees and we see no action being taken by the Minister responsible for aviation. To be clear, commissioning yet another report is not acting. It is pushing the solution further down the runway. Sinn Féin's position has been absolutely clear. We called for robust checks and controls at our ports and airports, including at the pre-departure stage, as well as post-arrival testing, 100% follow-up and a support package for workers in the industry to protect jobs and strategic connectivity. In May, Sinn Féin called for temporary temperature screening at airports. We again called for this in June and for a traffic light system.

The recommendations of the aviation task force report have not been implemented and neither have those contained within the Oireachtas report. Independent reviews were undertaken by the Limerick Chamber of Commerce and others, and yet nothing has been done. A threat now hangs over 500 jobs at the Lufthansa Technik operation at Shannon, 81 cabin crew have already lost their jobs with Aer Lingus and no action has been forthcoming from the Minister. The time for more reports is over. It is time now for action. We are potentially witnessing the collapse of an international airport, huge damage is being done to the mid-west economy and the Minister with responsibility seems devoid of any idea of how to respond.

I am delighted to have the opportunity to update the House on what the Government is doing regarding the sudden announcement by Stobart Air that it was ceasing operations. I refer to the impact of this announcement on connectivity to Kerry and Donegal, Government support for the aviation sector and affected employees, and the current crisis in the aviation industry and its impact on the mid-west.

As Deputies will be aware, Stobart Air contacted the Department in the early hours of Saturday morning to advise that it was terminating the franchise agreement with Aer Lingus and its wet lease agreement with British Airways, BA, with immediate effect. This resulted in all Aer Lingus regional flights to the United Kingdom operated by Stobart Air also ceasing with immediate effect. Regrettably, Stobart Air's plans to secure a new buyer failed over the weekend and this action resulted in Stobart Air commencing a process of voluntary liquidation. The announcement is deeply regrettable in respect of the 480 Stobart Air workers directly impacted by this decision.

The restoration of regional connectivity is of critical importance to the Government. The market has already moved to fill some of the lost routes, with Aer Lingus and BA CityFlyer now operating temporary replacement services which will cover most of the affected routes operating out of Dublin and Belfast City airports. Together with rerouting options, this will allow passengers impacted by the situation to return home. Regarding the PSO air services from Dublin to Donegal and Kerry, work is under way in my Department to launch an emergency procurement process to try to restore air services on these vital regional routes as soon as possible. My Department plans to issue a request for quotes directly to airlines in the coming days in accordance with applicable EU rules on air service public service obligations. It is anticipated the emergency procurement process will be completed by early July with a view to services being recommenced by the new operator or operators as soon as possible thereafter. The new contract will be subject to a maximum term of seven months and will operate according to EU law.

To mitigate any further disruption to these services, my Department will also launch a procurement process, for a maximum of four years, for the continued provision of the services after the temporary contract has expired. The Minister, Deputy Ryan, and I will continue to engage closely with aviation stakeholders, including those in Kerry and Donegal airports, to keep them informed of plans in this regard. I am happy to advise that several airlines have been in contact to indicate their interest in operating these routes.

The Government is aware of the ongoing impact of the pandemic on the aviation sector and it has put in place a range of supports for businesses, including the aviation sector. These supports include the wage subsidy scheme, the waiving of commercial rates, deferral of tax liabilities and the Covid restrictions support scheme, CRSS. Liquidity funding is also available through the Ireland Strategic Investment Fund, ISIF, pandemic stabilisation and recovery fund for medium and large enterprises, and this is being availed of. The Government also allocated funding of €80 million for aviation-specific support in 2021 in recognition of the impact of Covid-19 on our smallest airports in Donegal, Kerry and Knock. In addition to the €21 million in funding under the regional airports programme, a further allocation of up to €6 million to regional airports under a state aid compliant scheme will also be available in 2021. Applications for funding under this scheme are being assessed by my Department and I hope to be able to allocate funding in the coming weeks.

In acknowledgement of the severe impacts on our two State regional airports and in recognition of the importance of these airports to the south west and mid-west regions they serve, an unprecedented €32 million is also being provided in support to Cork and Shannon airports this year. Additionally, my Department is assessing applications for funding of these airports and Dublin Airport under a €20 million Covid-19 supplementary support scheme, and I expect to be able to provide funding under this scheme shortly. This support will allow the airports the flexibility to provide route incentives and airport charge rebates to stimulate recovery and lost connectivity.

I thank the Minister of State for her response. It is interesting that she noted that "the market has already moved to fill some of the lost routes". If that is what we are depending on, then we are in bother straight away. I also note the Minister of State said a move had been made to make the PSO service happen. That is good, and I hope it will happen in weeks rather than anything else. There is some foresight in seeking to run the tender for the next four years in tandem. I hope that happens because, in reality, that is what is going to make the difference. The last thing we want is to be back here in seven months' time facing another crisis. Therefore, I wish that process will continue.

I reiterate that I welcome going with an emergency process that I discussed with the Minister on Saturday. I also discussed with him the fact other airlines were interested in this lucrative PSO deal.

I am pressing the Government tonight to see if this process can be shortened in any way. The Minister for Transport said that the process would begin next week but the Minister of State has just said that it will begin in the next "number of days". I must emphasise again that every single day counts, with patients being able to travel to Dublin by air for cancer treatment instead of having to make a nine-hour trip by road. Can we shorten this by any amount of days so that we can get it up and running quicker than envisaged in the written response, which refers to early July?

There will be a temporary lay-off of cabin crew in Cork due to runway works but staff have also been warned that their employment depends on "operational capability and business need". Similar letters were sent to Shannon cabin crew before the permanent closure of the base. The employment wage subsidy scheme is much more appropriate than pushing people onto social welfare. It is worth noting that employees in the same sector such as pilots and engineers are not being temporarily laid off, only those in the more low-paid categories. How is the Government going to address this specific issue? Where is the plan and the supports for employees in a sector that was bound to be disproportionately affected by the pandemic?

To maintain Shannon as a viable international airport, it is crucial that connectivity be maintained, especially the routes to London Heathrow, Boston and New York. Having worked in the travel industry for 19 years, I have no doubt that travel restrictions were necessary to combat the pandemic. What is also evident is that the lack of Government support for the industry has put us in a situation where we may lose an international airport and the associated jobs and connectivity. Aviation workers need a recovery plan. In fact, they needed such a plan months ago. It is simply unacceptable that we do not have chairperson of the Shannon Group. At a time of crisis, it is simply staggering that the position remains unfilled. I appreciate and am sympathetic to the challenges posed by protecting an aviation industry when passenger flights have been grounded due to public health but dithering does not save jobs or airports.

In response to Deputy Cairn's concerns regarding employees, I chair a subgroup of the Labour Employer Economic Forum comprising representatives of employers and employees within aviation, which is examining the further needs of the sector. There are also references in the national economic recovery plan to additional supports for the aviation sector, if required. All of this is under consideration. I am aware of the stresses and concerns for employees in the sector but the Government has acted quickly. We have been watching the situation closely. What we wanted to do straightaway when Covid struck was to protect our airports and infrastructure to make sure they were in a position to rebound through this.

On the PSO and expediting that process, we engaged on that over the weekend. Officials have been engaging with the European Commission on that process. I assure Deputies that the process will happen as fast as possible. This week the Department will write directly to airlines. They will need a week to reply but every effort is being made to expedite the process. I am hopeful that by the time we open up international travel on 19 July, we will have those routes in place, all going well.

On the issue of the market responding, it is a positive step that the market responds and is a good sign for Ireland. We should look at that positively. The fact that the market stepped in and that there are expressions of interest for the PSO routes is positive. The Deputies can be assured that regional connectivity and restoring international travel in a safe way are priorities for Government.