Léim ar aghaidh chuig an bpríomhábhar

Seanad Éireann díospóireacht -
Tuesday, 14 Nov 2017

Vol. 254 No. 3

Commencement Matters

Agriculture Schemes

The first matter is raised by Senator Tim Lombard. You have four minutes. I welcome the Minister of State to the House. Tá fáilte romhat.

I thank the Minister of State and the Chair. Today I raise the matter of having the Targeted Agricultural Modernisation Scheme, known as TAMS II, include the generation capacity that is required for farmyards. As the Minister of State is aware, TAMS II has been a very successful scheme. It provided important funding for farm equipment in order to ensure expansion. Under the dairy equipment scheme, TAMS II has funded milking parlours, milk cooling equipment, water heating, and also in-parlour feeding systems. The anomaly in the system, unfortunately, is generation capacity, which is required when or if there is an outage of power.

In the middle of October this year, we had a weather event which was amazing in so many ways. The south west of Ireland was greatly affected. At one stage, 385,000 were without power. This included farms, businesses and the wider members of the public. The knock-on effect that had on the agricultural community was immense. There has been a large expansion in agriculture, particularly in the dairy herd. Over the last four years the number of dairy cows has increased by 300,000 to 1.4 million. With such a large expansion, there has been a major increase in plant size and capacity. Milking parlours and bulk tanks have all been expanded. At the back of that, the one thing that has not increased is the generating capacity. The hardship that farmers and animals went through during this unfortunate weather event was immense. It took ten days for some of these areas to have power again.

In many ways, for those of us that were affected, it is very hard to describe. There were situations where generators were being moved continuously in order that cows could be milked at least once a day. There was an article in the Southern Star a few weeks ago describing how one man milked 1,200 cows, moving a generator seven times in a 24-hour period. That was the level of work required to ensure that his cows, or the cows in his community were milked. People worked together.

What I am seeking here today is that TAMS II should be amended to include generators. Generators are a huge part of the industry. We have seen a deficit in generating capacity. TAMS II allows for so many things to help the agriculture industry to expand. I have mentioned milking parlours, cooling systems, store equipment, water heating and in-parlour feeding systems. It is certain that the anomaly is the lack of generation. We need to include that as an important part, so that the industry that is worth billions to us and to this economy can develop. It is, in many ways, the last piece of the jigsaw. I hope today that we can put on the agenda that the Minister of State can review TAMS II, to ensure the anomaly can be addressed, and that the generating capacity shortfall in the dairy industry, that unfortunately we have all seen, can be addressed as well. I thank the Minister of State.

I thank Senator Lombard for raising this matter and welcome the opportunity to outline the position regarding TAMS, known as TAMS II.

During 2015, a suite of six measures were announced under TAMS II. These measures were launched under the Rural Development Programme 2014 to 2020 and are co-funded under the European Agricultural Fund for Rural Development, EAFRD. The measures provide grants for capital investment in physical assets to assist the Irish agriculture sector to respond to a range of policy challenges. The six measures initially launched were: the young farmers capital investment scheme; the dairy equipment scheme, the organic capital investment scheme, the animal welfare, safety and nutrient storage scheme; the low emission slurry spreading scheme, and the pig and poultry investment scheme.

Among the objectives of the scheme are to enable growth and competitiveness in the sector, addressing environmental and climate change issues, supporting the increased efficiency on holdings and improving animal health and welfare.

In addition to these objectives, the young farmers capital investment scheme aims to address one of the key structural issues in the sector by specifically targeting support at young trained farmers by offering them a higher rate of grant aid of 60% compared to the standard rate of 40%. In March of this year an additional measure, the tillage capital investment scheme, was added to the list of measures. One of the objectives of this scheme is to facilitate the tillage sector to develop a targeted and precise approach focusing on environmental dividends, efficiency and growth.

There is a huge variety of items available under the suite of seven TAMS II measures. As in all measures, applications and payment claims must be made online, either by the farmer or by an adviser authorised to act on their behalf. The financial allocation in respect of TAMS Il for the full Rural Development Plan period will be in the region of €395 million. In order to encourage the drawdown of funding, provide increased budget certainty and to ensure that all farmers can avail of funding over the entire period of the Rural Development Programme, the length of time in which to undertake the works approved under the sixth tranche onwards was reduced from the three-year period in previous tranches to six months for mobile equipment and 12 months for fixed building works. The period for the completion of works approved or to be approved under previous tranches remains unchanged.

I am delighted that the scheme has proved to be so popular with Irish farmers with over 15,000 applications submitted to date. Of these, over 11,500 or over 75% have been approved to commence work. Approvals issue on an ongoing basis with approvals under the most recent tranche due to commence shortly. The figures are much lower, however, when it comes to submission of payment claims by farmers. It is open to approved applicants to submit an online payment claim as soon as they are in a position to do so. The timing of the submission of a payment claim, within the approved deadline, is entirely a matter for the individual farmer and it is up to them when they carry out the approved works. To date, only 2,670 payment claims have been submitted. The Department has actively encouraged all approved applicants to submit payment claims, including by contacting approved applicants individually by text message. I would urge all approved applicants who have completed their works to submit a payment claim as soon as they are in a position to do so.

To date, payments have issued to just under 2,000 cases amounting to over €27.8 million. Payment claims submitted are examined and paid as soon as possible after they have been submitted.

Where issues arise with a payment claim the applicant concerned is contacted directly by the Department to resolve outstanding issues. All 11,500 approvals issued represent potential outstanding liabilities for the Department. As regards the addition of generators or any other investment, it is simply the case that until the existing approvals mature to payment stage or the timeframe of the approval expires, then we must wait and maintain a budgetary provision to make payments. There is a commitment which we have made to farmers under the scheme and it is our full intention to honour this commitment.

At this point in time I am not in a position to add generators to the comprehensive list of investment items already approved under the suite of seven existing TAMS measures. I do appreciate the logic behind the Senator's case but I hope he will appreciate that until we know where we stand with the budget commitments, it is very difficult to commit to anything further.

I will be very brief as the Minister of State spoke very comprehensively on the issue. It is amazing that out of 11,500 applications only 2,650 have submitted payment claims and only 2,000 have been paid. That suggests to me that by the end of the scheme not all of the 11,500 applicants might be looking for payment as they might not go ahead with the work as they could have changed their mind due to finance or a myriad of issues. In that scenario would the Minister consider adding generators? A suite of measures has been granted but there has been a failure to grant the back-up measure which is key to ensuring that the industry which is so vital can develop.

As I said, a total of €395 million has been allocated for the scheme. Senator Lombard has seen for himself the very low rate of claims for payments submitted so far amounting to €27.8 million, which is less than 10% of the full allocation. The reason for changing from three years to one year was to try to speed it up so that there would be a more real-time assessment. Until we get to that point it will be difficult to commit but it is intended that the money will be spent. In future, there may well be an opportunity to revise the scheme further.

Water and Sewerage Schemes Funding

Cuirim fáilte mhór roimh an Aire Stáit go dtí an Teach tráthnóna inniu. I thank the Minister of State, Deputy John Paul Phelan. He is very welcome to the House. I thank him for his presence. I wish to raise with him the Milltown group sewerage scheme which is located outside Monaghan town. I raised the issue with his colleague, the Minister of State, Deputy English, earlier in the year. We were hopeful the announcement would be made before the end of the current year, 2017. Milltown was one of six schemes identified for funding under the multi-annual programme 2016 to 2018. What we are dealing with here is a cluster of approximately 30 septic tanks that are causing some environmental issues and are a cause of concern. The case has been proven and it has been submitted to the Department, which is fully aware of the situation. In order for the scheme to proceed it is vital that 90% funding is secured. Otherwise, the scheme will not go ahead. Earlier in the year the Minister of State, Deputy English, gave a verbal commitment when he was in the House that that would be the case.

I commend the residents of the Milltown area on the significant work they have put into getting to this point. The work they had to do was exhausting and onerous. I acknowledge the contribution of Monaghan County Council in that regard also. What we are seeking this afternoon is an announcement from the Minister of State that the 90% funding has been ring-fenced and secured for this project and that the work will commence in 2018.

There are two other issues on which I would like the Minister of State to comment briefly, if he does not mind. First, could he or his Department indicate when the next scheme will commence? The current one expires in 2018. Has he any proposal to announce a new one for 2018 onwards? I hope there will be an increase in the number of successful applicants. As he knows, only six schemes have been funded in the entire State over the past three years. This is a very low number. We are all conscious of the issues that septic tanks can cause for the environment.

Second, the scheme is very onerous on residents and communities. A considerable amount of work is involved for them in submitting an application. Those concerned have to form companies, become company directors and hire engineers. It is very onerous and unfair on people whose skills might not lie in this area. I would like to believe that, in the future, the relevant local authority will be funded and that it will manage the entire project from start to finish.

I thank the Senator. I am answering on behalf of the Minister, Deputy Eoghan Murphy. With regard to his two final points, on a new scheme and the make-up of the current one, there are no firm proposals yet but the Department will be considering how the scheme worked and examining factors that the Senator mentioned, such as the workload for local communities before making any announcement on whether there will be a renewal.

The Department's new multi-annual rural water programme for the period 2016 to 2018 includes funding of group sewerage schemes through measure 4(d) where clustering of households on individual septic tanks is not a viable option, particularly from an environmental perspective. In 2015, the Department received sanction from the Department of Public Expenditure and Reform to increase the maximum grant per household to €6,750, up from €6,500, to cover a limited number of new demonstration group sewerage schemes — two per year. In addition, sanction was given for these new demonstration group sewerage schemes in exceptional circumstances to avail of a supplemental grant subject to the Department's approval where the project represents the most economically advantageous option. Where a supplemental grant is approved, the overall funding from the rural water programme is limited to 90% of the cost per house, subject to a minimum contribution of €2,250 per house.

In January 2016, local authorities were invited to submit bids for consideration by the Department under the new multi-annual water programme for the period 2016 to 2018. In total, 83 bids were received from 17 local authorities for funding under measure 4(d) of the new programme. The proposed Milltown group sewerage scheme was included by Monaghan County Council in its funding bids under the new measure. The proposed scheme, with a then estimated cost of €280,000, was expected to cover 32 houses and have a unit cost of €8,750 per house. I understand that the Milltown group sewerage scheme proceeded to tender stage in 2016, with an estimated overall cost of €358,000, to cover 30 houses, giving a unit cost of €11,933 per house.

Under the new multi-annual funding framework, an expert panel was convened by the Department to examine the 2016 bids from local authorities for projects under a number of the programme's measures, including measure 4(d), and to make recommendations to the Department on funding. The panel recommended a priority list to the Department under this measure, including the Milltown scheme, at priority 5. The Department accepted the recommendations in full when approving schemes under the new programme and making funding allocations for 2016. As only two demonstration group sewerage schemes can be advanced in any given year, funding was not available to Monaghan County Council for the Milltown scheme in 2016 or 2017. The Department intends to make funding allocations under the programme to local authorities for 2018 early in the new year. Monaghan County Council will be advised on funding for the Milltown scheme at that point.

I thank the Minister of State for his response to the question. I stress again the importance of an announcement early in the new year to facilitate the residents in going ahead with the works involved.

Where is Milltown?

It is on the outskirts of Monaghan town.

The Minister of State mentioned at the outset that the Department would be considering new proposals in assessing how the scheme has worked to date.

I ask again that he take into consideration that the responsibilities local communities must undertake and submit in the application in order to qualify are quite onerous. That is something that needs to be looked at.

Of course, I would like to see an increase in funding so that more groups could apply. The Minister of State said in his response that 17 local authorities applied. Only six were successful. It clearly shows that we have a problem with septic tanks that needs to be addressed.

I will bring back those points. They are fair and we could all agree with them.

Water Services Funding

I thank the Minister of State, Deputy John Paul Phelan, for coming into the House to update us on the Government's plans to provide equity and fairness for group water schemes.

The lack of information on this issue has been frustrating for those in group water schemes. At a time when Irish Water is actively informing all those who are due refunds, there is little detail available regarding how equality for other water users can be achieved. I am hosting a public meeting later this week in Mayo on the issue which reflects the frustration of those who do not yet know how their access to water will be provided and how it will be funded into the future. Even when the Minister, Deputy Eoghan Murphy, was introducing the Water Services Bill in the Dáil, he noted that the legislation provides clarity on public water and wastewater services but that there is still some distance to go in achieving clarity for the group water schemes.

As the Minister of State will be aware, the Joint Committee on the Future Funding of Domestic Water Services reported earlier this year and stated that the committee recommends that the principles of equity of treatment and equivalent financial support should be applied equally between households on public water supplies and those on group water schemes, group sewerage schemes and those using domestic wastewater treatment systems and individual domestic water supplies. It is not good enough that many low-income households in rural Ireland have to continue to pay twice for water as matters currently stand. I ask why such a key recommendation of both the expert report and the Joint Committee on the Future Funding of Domestic Water Services has not yet been implemented. The legislation being put forward at present should have included, as my colleague, Deputy Eoin Ó Broin, stated, provision for group water schemes.

The key difference is that group water schemes receive an annual subsidy of €70 per household but it does not cover the full annual cost of accessing the water supply. Those connected to a public water supply who are currently customers of Irish Water do not pay an annual charge for accessing that supply and equity would mean that the State would cover the full annual cost of the group water scheme users accessing the water supply.

The submission of the National Federation of Group Water Schemes to the special committee showed the experience and extraordinary voluntary effort that goes into every scheme and this is often neglected in the debate around the water supply. These are friends and neighbours. They are not debt collectors. They have all of their own issues, their own household bills, their own health concerns, etc. These are volunteers and they find it increasingly difficult to collect payment for what is an essential service which should be supplied.

Another important matter is the need for a proper timely programme to be put in place to facilitate the takeover of schemes. This currently takes far too long and the schemes are left in doubt as to when the necessary upgrades and takeovers will happen. There is a need for clarity around that as well.

How far progressed is the review process on the subsidy and will the Exchequer funding in the form of subsidy payments be reflected in the provision of water to households on group water schemes in the same manner as the rest of the country out of general taxation? If the only clarity to come out of the Water Services Bill is that water is now paid for through general taxation, it is only fair to ask for the same regime to apply right across the State.

I thank Senator Conway-Walsh for raising this matter, which I am taking on behalf of my colleague, the Minister, Eoghan Murphy, who could not make it to the Chamber today.

Group water schemes is an issue close to my own heart. My late father was a founder member of the group scheme in our area, along with another local man. Both have gone to their eternal reward at this stage.

In regard to the specific question asked, in recommendation 6.1 of its report the Oireachtas Joint Committee on the Future Funding of Domestic Water Services recommended that the principles of equity of treatment and equivalent financial support should be applied equally between households on public water supplies and those in group water schemes and group sewerage schemes, those using domestic wastewater treatment systems and those using individual water supplies. It also recommended that the Department conduct a review, in co-ordination with the National Federation of Group Water Schemes and other relevant stakeholders, to quantify what additional investment will be required to equalise treatment between those availing of domestic water services and those availing of private services. It recommended that, following this review, identified investment should be provided.

I am happy to inform the Senator that the Department has already engaged informally with the National Federation of Group Water Schemes regarding the committee’s recommendation for equal treatment for households on group schemes. The Water Services Bill 2017 is currently being considered by this House. Once the Bill is enacted, a working group involving the National Federation of Group Water Schemes and other relevant stakeholders will be formally established to advance the recommendation of the Oireachtas joint committee.

The Minister, Deputy Eoghan Murphy, is committed to holding this review and to ensuring we have a vibrant, sustainable future for the group water sector. The Minister assured the National Federation of Group Water Schemes of this when he recently met it and also when he addressed the recent rural water services conference. It is also worth highlighting that since domestic water charges for Irish Water customers were suspended, the operational subsidy provided by the Department to group water schemes has been restored to pre-2015 levels.

It is important to note that funding is currently provided to the group water schemes either through subsidy or capital grant, and this is provided for by section 16 of the Water Services Act 2007. Within this framework, the precise subsidy and grant arrangements, and associated eligibility, are set out in departmental circulars. Therefore, no legislation is required to change either the subsidy arrangements or the grant provisions.

To ensure a vibrant future, the rural water sector requires clear funding and governance structures and it was for this reason that the Government reformed the way it funds the sector. The aim of the new multiannual rural water programme 2016-18, with its more scheme-based or project-based approach, is to provide enhanced funding certainty for priority investment needs in the sector. This year, the Department allocated €17.8 million in funding for the rural water programme. In addition to this capital investment, the Department is providing operational subsidies to the group water sector and an amount of some €20.5 million is being provided in 2017. The Department is also engaging with the sector on an ongoing basis on a range of other issues, including improving water quality, supporting a viable future for the sector and facilitating a strong voice for the sector in the national dialogue on water issues. I can assure the Senator that this active engagement with the sector will continue into the future.

I thank the Minister of State for the update. I welcome the initiatives that are being taken in terms of the discussions that are ongoing and the formal group that will be set up. It is very important there is ongoing communication with the volunteers on the group water schemes so they know what is happening and that there is also a line of information to the local authorities so they are able, in particular, to facilitate those schemes that want a takeover and to ensure the investment is available.

I am glad to know that a change in legislation is not required and that, therefore, all it takes is a budget allocation or an allocation to make sure the funding is there for the schemes that needed to be upgraded, so they can be taken over in a timely manner. I ask that the Minister of State keeps this front and centre of all the discussions around water so people in rural Ireland have equity around this very important issue.

I assure the Senator that as long as I am in this office and dealing with the Department in regard to group water schemes, while it is not my direct responsibility, this will have an advocate in me because I know the work that goes into maintaining these group schemes.

I thank the Minister of State.

Respite Care Services Provision

I raise this issue in the context of Fermoy Community Hospital. While this facility is not in my own area of Cork North-Central, it does in fact accommodate some patients from that area for respite care. I understand that there are nine respite beds available in the hospital but that difficulties have arisen around GP cover there. I know that the hospital and the HSE have done everything possible to get new GPs on board, but what seems to have happened is that GPs who had been providing back-up support in the hospital have since retired.

The availability of respite care is extremely important both for elderly people and for families who are providing care at home and who need a break from this work that they are doing on a voluntary basis. I understand that a restriction was placed on the use of the facility and I would like to hear what efforts are being made to bring it back into full use and make the services there fully available to the people of Cork East and indeed of parts of Cork North-Central.

I thank Senator Colm Burke for raising this very important health issue. I am taking this matter on behalf on my colleague, Deputy Jim Daly, Minister of State with special responsibility for mental health and older people. The overarching policy of the Government is to support older people to live in dignity and independence in their own homes and communities for as long as possible. This is clearly what older people want and only those in genuine need of residential care should go down that route. Short-term beds including respite and rehabilitation beds contribute to the provision of an integrated model of care for older people enabling them to return home following a period of hospital care or postponing admission to long-stay residential care.

The Health Service Executive is responsible for the delivery of health and personal social services, including those at facilities such as St. Patrick’s Community Hospital, Fermoy. St Patrick’s provides long-term, respite, convalescent and palliative care. It was registered with the Health Information and Quality Authority on 28 June 2015 for a period of three years. The hospital normally caters for people over 65 years of age but also provides care to a number of young chronically ill sick patients and palliative care to adults. These are important services.

The Senator will be aware that the five-year capital programme announced last year includes refurbishment works at St. Patrick’s Community Hospital. Challenges have emerged in the last few months, however, in respect of medical cover at the hospital which is provided by three local GP practices. One practice provides this service three days a week. The remaining two practices provide the service on the fourth and fifth days. Following the resignation of a medical officer in 2017, the Health Service Executive managed, with great difficulty, to engage another GP to provide the service. However, in September 2017 a second medical officer retired. Despite strenuous efforts to engage another GP in the area the HSE, unfortunately, has been unable to source GP cover for the fifth day. This is the core problem. Contact was made with GPs in and around Fermoy and as far as Glanmire and a general email to all GPs in the GP training scheme was also sent out through UCC. To date, no GP has expressed an interest in the post as they are unable to commit to the time involved due to the demands in their own practices. Nor has the HSE been able to get agency cover.

The HSE has assured the Department of Health that efforts are continuing to source a GP. In order to protect the 54 long-stay beds, respite service affecting nine beds in Fermoy has been curtailed for the moment.

This service is now being provided by local nursing homes. The local public health nurse is liaising with families to accommodate their relatives in alternative facilities while efforts are ongoing to source GP cover. The Minister of State, Deputy Jim Daly, has asked me to reassure Senator Burke that the officials from the Department will continue to monitor this position carefully and I have asked the HSE to keep me updated on progress. I will bring the Senator's concerns back to the Minister of State, Deputy Daly, as well.

I thank the Minister of State for his comprehensive reply. This is a major challenge. There are nine respite beds not in full use. I am not clear about it but I know some people have had to transfer to Mallow and other areas for respite care. It must be prioritised. We are facing into the winter season and families face major challenges now. It is important that the respite facility that was there is restored. Is whatever is being offered to GPs to provide that cover adequate? Perhaps we should review why we can only get GPs for five days and how we can cover the final two days. It must be given priority because we cannot afford for this service to be curtailed in any way, especially with the large number of elderly people in the area, right up to Cork city. People are being looked after by their own families and they need a level of support. It is very important that we prioritise this.

I thank Senator Colm Burke and I agree that it is a major challenge. We must consider this matter in Fermoy seriously. The Senator raised the point about respite care, and that is something the Government must prioritise, particularly in the severe and cold winter months. I reassure the Senator that while there is a crisis, cover comes from local nursing homes. I agree that we must examine this as a priority.

I will bring the Senator's other point back to the Minister of State, Deputy Jim Daly. It considers why it is difficult to get GPs, particularly on the fifth day. We must think about this as there is a broader debate in my Department about social care workers; I want to ensure there are well-paid, high-quality social care personnel working with people with disabilities. The same idea applies here. Is there an issue with payments or cover? I do not know the details but we must find out and see if the position can be improved. On a positive note, the local health nurse will work very closely with families in the local area to try to accommodate people and bring up alternative facilities. In the meantime, I will bring the Senator's concerns straight to the Minister of State.

Sitting suspended at 3.15 p.m. and resumed at 3.30 p.m.