Léim ar aghaidh chuig an bpríomhábhar

Seanad Éireann díospóireacht -
Thursday, 8 Feb 2018

Vol. 255 No. 14

Commencement Matters

Carer's Allowance Delays

I welcome the Minister of State, Deputy Andrew Doyle, to the House. I acknowledge this is not his area of expertise but I appreciate that he is here to consider my worthy request.

Many people applying for the carer's allowance are coming to my office. A lady whose ten-year old daughter is very ill told me it took 17 weeks for her application to be assessed. The husband of a woman with pancreatic cancer who applied for a carer's allowance was told it would take up to 17 weeks just to process his application. A man caring for his wife, who cannot go out on her own, was not awarded the carer's benefit for one year. It seems to be taking an awfully long time. Many of those affected are very ill. They are very dependent on their loved ones for care. The carers are saving the State money because the people being cared for are in their own homes and being looked after by their loved ones. Sometimes, however, there is no income in the household while an application is being considered. Is it possible to address this? Is there a shortage of staff? What is the problem? What is occurring is another hurdle to be overcome by people who are at a certain stage of their lives and who are very ill.

I am very happy to be able to address the Senator's concern. The issue arises regularly in our constituency offices.

I assure the Senator that the prompt processing of applications remains a priority for the Department of Employment Affairs and Social Protection. Each scheme area is continually monitored and reviewed to ensure customers are responded to as quickly as possible, and their applications are processed as expeditiously as possible.

Schemes that require a high level of documentary evidence from the customer, particularly in the case of illness-related schemes, can take longer to process. Similarly, means-tested payments can also require more detailed investigation and interaction with the applicant, thereby lengthening the decision-making process. Delays can also arise where information is required from social security organisations in other jurisdictions and where additional information has been requested from the applicant but remains outstanding. This means that processing times vary across schemes, depending on the differing qualification criteria. For example, in December 2017, it took on average one week to award a jobseeker's benefit payment, which is based on social insurance contributions, but two weeks to award a jobseeker's allowance payment, which is means-tested. In the same month, it took on average ten weeks to award an application for carer's benefit, which is based on a medical assessment as to care requirements, an assessment of the level of care being provided and social insurance contributions, whereas it took an average 17 weeks to award an application for carer's allowance, which has similar medical and care provision conditionality but which is means-tested.

As part of the Department's programme of service delivery modernisation, a range of initiatives aimed at streamlining the processing of claims, supported by modern technology, have been implemented in recent years. Operational processes, procedures and the organisation of work are continually reviewed to ensure processing capability is maximised. For example, staff have been reassigned within the carer's allowance area to work on claims processing, and it is expected that this will improve the processing times for this scheme over the coming weeks.

The staffing needs for all areas within the Department are continually reviewed, taking account of workloads, management priorities and the competing demands arising, to ensure that the best use is made of all available resources with a view to providing an efficient service to those who rely on the schemes operated by the Department.

As with all Departments and agencies, the Department of Employment Affairs and Social Protection is required to operate within a staff ceiling figure and a commensurate administrative staffing budget, which for this Department has involved reductions in staff numbers. Reducing waiting times is a key priority. With this in mind, the Department will continue to prioritise efficient turnaround times of applications and for the filling of critical posts.

I thank the Minister of State. It is good that the Department has acknowledged there are problems in certain areas. I note that it is putting additional staff into certain areas to alleviate those problems. We will have to monitor this. We will note in our own offices the expediency with which the applications are being processed. I appreciate that the Department is aware of the matter and that it is trying to do something about it.

Climate Change Policy

Today the Dáil will vote on the Petroleum and Other Minerals Development (Amendment) (Climate Emergency Measures) Bill 2018, introduced by Deputy Bríd Smith. It is similar to a Bill the Green Party has put forward on this issue. That Deputy Smith's party and mine have produced these Bills indicates the groundswell of public support for a sea change in politics recognising the need to keep fossil fuels in the ground. The Minister of State might have noted today that the singer Cher has personally asked our Taoiseach, Deputy Leo Varadkar, to support the Petroleum and Other Minerals Development (Amendment) (Climate Emergency Measures) Bill. It is time to believe in life after oil.

To map the seabed for fossil fuel exploration, sonic cannons, also known as seismic airguns, are towed behind boats to create dynamite-like blasts, which are repeated every ten seconds for 24 hours per day for days and weeks at a time.

The blasts reach acoustic levels 100,000 times more intense than a jet engine. The tests are conducted every summer without ever being subject to a comprehensive environmental impact assessment.

In July 2017 when the Minister of State, Deputy Seán Kyne, granted consent to drill in the Porcupine Bank area, I spoke to the Seanad about how fossil fuel exploration was deadly for Ireland’s sealife and how drilling and seismic airgun testing led to deafness and disorientation among dolphins, whales and porpoises for up to 100 miles. A deaf whale is a dead whale. In fact, over Christmas I helped with the removal of a dead bottlenose dolphin which had been stranded on Tramore beach. We sent the remains to University College Cork for an autopsy to discover why it had died. The number of strandings recorded has increased by 30% since 2016 alone. I have spoken about how in June 1991 the Government made Ireland a whale and dolphin sanctuary. I inform the House that new research from the ObSERVE programme, commissioned in 2015 by the petroleum affairs division of the Department of Communications, Climate Action and Environment, shows that, as amazing as our seas were to warrant protected status, we have actually overlooked just how incredible they are.

A few days after making my speech and mere weeks after consent to drill in the area was given, Ireland’s deepest cold water coral reefs were found in the Porcupine Bank. Also in late 2017, UCC, from research commissioned by the Department’s ObSERVE programme, released information which showed that every summer 250,000 bottlenose dolphins came to Irish waters; that last year Ireland had the highest numbers of blue and fin whale sightings ever recorded; and that there were 50% more whales and dolphins in our waters than we had ever thought possible. The blue whale is the largest mammal on the planet, while the fin whale is second largest and they are both to be found in Irish waters.

To give an example of this incredible ocean wealth, let me focus on the Porcupine Bank area off the south west coast of County Kerry, near the Cathaoirleach's homeland. The Porcupine Bank is home to some of the deepest and most unique cold water coral reefs ever found. Along the cliff face in 2015 the Celtic Explorer found near vertical habitats full of species of coral, sponges, crab and fish. Last year the Granuaile found reefs at depths of 1,600 m in areas of the Porcupine Bank and continental shelf which had already been licensed for oil and gas exploration. Coral reefs are the building blocks of a healthy and flourishing marine ecosystem. They provide food and shelter and are breeding grounds and refuges for fish. They balance the ecosystem at a time of increased ocean acidification due to climate change. They are also essential in providing support for krill and plankton – the basis of the marine ecosystem. However, since 2013 the level of oil and gas exploration in the Porcupine Bank has intensified to the point where it is now the primary focus of fossil fuel exploration in Ireland. The surprise is that the Department of Communications, Climate Action and Environment in the first place risks seismic exploration or drilling in the Porcupine Bank area when it is the home of healthy mackerel spawning grounds and, formerly, large migrating tuna populations. Ireland’s biggest fishing quota and thus our biggest industry under the Common Fisheries Policy is for mackerel. As I have stated before, seismic testing kills 100% of krill, or zooplankton, larvae and 64% of adult krill for a distance of up to 0.7 miles. Fishermen are reporting a dramatic fall in the tuna and whale populations in the Porcupine Bank area and that certain species no longer live there. This is most likely due to the kill-off of krill larvae as a result of the five years of oil and gas exploration and seismic testing.

I ask the Government to carry out as soon as possible an environmental impact assessment of the area of the Porcupine Bank where it is conducting research to ensure we will have the evidence to prove to the Minister of State and the Government that we must keep oil in the ground. We have to support the Bill before the House today. I ask the Minister of State for his answer to that question.

I thank the Senator for raising this very topical issue. The Government is fully committed to tackling climate change and protecting the oceans, but it has no plans to ban oil and gas prospecting offshore. Ireland’s transition to a low carbon energy future will involve progressively moving to lower emission fuels, for example, moving initially from peat and coal to natural gas and, ultimately, towards an even greater reliance on renewable energy. In that regard, the Government has introduced a range of policy measures and schemes to incentivise the use of renewable energy and deliver energy efficiency. However, oil and natural gas will remain significant elements of Ireland’s energy supply in the transition period.

The Corrib gas field demonstrates the impact indigenous supplies can have on Ireland’s import dependency. It went from importing 89% of its overall energy needs in 2015 to 70% in 2016. However, production from the Corrib gas field will peak and decline from 2019 onwards. Thereafter we will become increasingly dependent on imports of gas and be dependent on imports for 100% of our oil.

I note that the Minister of State with responsibility for natural resources has invited the joint committee to hold a broad policy debate on national energy policy to consider issues of competitiveness, sustainability, security of energy supply and Ireland’s offshore exploration policy. Such a debate would inform future legislation in this area.

The Government was not in a position to support the Solidarity Bill debated in the Dáil yesterday evening. If passed, it would not reduce Ireland’s greenhouse gas emissions or change or reduce our use of fossil fuels. It would, however, lock Ireland into permanent dependency on imports to meet our future fossil fuel needs after the decline in supplies from the Corrib gas field.

There are several elements to regulating the industry's exploration activities offshore. In 2015 the Irish offshore strategic environmental study, IOSEA5, process was completed with the adoption of a plan underpinning IOSEA5 and publication of the IOSEA5 statement. The objectives of IOSEA5 were to inform the Department of Communications, Climate Action and Environment of specific environmental considerations in its future petroleum activities in licensing rounds in the Atlantic margin basins, as well as informing the award of licences in the Celtic Sea and the Irish Sea and providing exploration companies working offshore with an operational baseline against which they could conduct their work and ensure the protection of the marine environment.

Applicants to the Department are required to submit an environmental impact risk assessment and a Natura impact screening appropriate assessment statement in support of their application to commence surveying or exploration drilling activities. A review is undertaken for the Department by an independent consultancy appointed for its expertise in ecological and conservation marine biology. The review of the application considers, inter alia, the effects of seismic sources on adult fish, as well as eggs and larvae, based on the information provided in the application and additional scientific sources. There are also other steps, including consultation with fishing representative bodies, a requirement to have marine mammal observers on board vessels and engagement with fishery liaison officers.

I know that the Senator is very passionate about this issue, but we are well over time. I will allow her to ask a brief supplementary question. I am sure the Minister of State's answer does not meet with her approval.

I will be brief. The Minister of State and the Government are swimming against the tide, but they have every opportunity to embrace renewable clean energy sources. This is an opportunity to back out of the Porcupine Bank and move towards the use of renewable energy sources. As I said, the Government is swimming against the tide. It is driving us down a big abyss which will not do the country or future generations any good. I will be pursuing this issue because it is the reason I am in the Seanad. I will pursue it with the Minister of State and the Government for as long as I can until they develop some sense on the issue.

I take issue with the Senator's use of the words "some sense". I was Chairman of the Joint Committee on Communications, Natural Resources and Agriculture in the last Dáil when it discussed energy policy.

I was also a member of the previous committee on climate change and energy security and we did a lot of work on renewable energy. There is resistance all over the country to every type of renewable energy that is available. People say they do not want it. They do not want wind energy, solar energy, anaerobic digestion or biomass. We are saying one thing and doing another. People do not want wind energy or pump storage. I can see Turlough Hill from my kitchen window. The water is pumped up at night with energy generated from off-peak wind. It is the most clean and effective of all types of renewable energy but that would not be allowed to be developed nowadays. In the late 1960s it was considered a miracle. Environmentalists would not let us do it anymore. We must be honest.

In the previous Dáil we were criticised for not harnessing enough of a share of the exploitation of natural resources so we did a big study on managing the offshore oil and gas resources with a profit resource rent tax. A lot of work was done on an all-party basis on how it should be configured. I accept there were no Green Party Members in the previous Oireachtas. The work sought to ensure there would be benefit to the State from profits accruing. I accept that we have moved on and we continue to make progress. As the opening statement outlined, this is a transition period but if we just do what the Bill suggests we will only increase our dependence on imported energy as we would be locked into that until we find alternatives. We are all at one in terms of trying to get alternatives as quickly as possible.

To coin a phrase, the Minister of State is between the devil and the deep blue sea.

That is a very apt phrase.

Planning Issues

I welcome the Minister, Deputy Eoghan Murphy, to the House. It is good to have the senior Minister present. I am sure Senator Lombard will be grateful for that. He has four minutes.

You are correct, a Chathaoirligh. I acknowledge the presence of the senior Minister this morning. It is a great honour to have him here. I compliment him on the good work he has done, in particular the work he is doing with the national planning framework in recent weeks and months.

I tabled this Commencement debate on the Flemish decree made in 2013. It is a European Court of Justice ruling that has been rolling on and has been debated in many quarters ever since. Employment is a big issue in rural areas but housing is even more significant. This decree has brought uncertainty to one-off rural housing and who can apply for it. The issue has been debated in many local authorities, communities and households because of the fear that it could go one of two ways. It could open up such housing to everyone, which could have a major impact on the environment, or it might restrict it too much. I believe there is a middle ground that must be explored. The Flemish decree affects the "locals only" designation, which is a significant issue for rural areas. If we do not have a thriving one-off housing market that allows people who were born and bred in a locality to live there then communities will become eroded. We must ensure that communities are fostered. In order for that to happen we need to make provision for the development of one-off housing so that people who are from a community can live there.

The decline of rural areas is a significant issue. The sustainability of rural areas and such housing are crucial issues for society. Clarity is required. Before the national planning framework, NPF, is announced the Government must make its views clear on housing policy for one-off housing and whether only people actively involved in farming will be granted planning permission or if permission for such housing will be based on social and economic grounds. The latter is the key to ensuring rural communities survive. If social and economic grounds are not accepted then, unfortunately, the knock-on effect will mean the decline we have seen in the past two or three decades will continue. I urge the Minister to provide clarity on this important issue in order that we can move on together. Clarity on one-off rural housing is necessary for councils and people in rural communities.

I thank Senator Lombard for giving me the opportunity to outline the current position regarding the impact of the Flemish decree case on one-off housing in rural areas, and to provide an update on the revision of the 2005 planning guidelines on sustainable rural housing issued under section 28 of the Planning Act and also to clarify some misconceptions regarding rural policies on the issue contained in the national planning framework.

Under the 2005 guidelines planning authorities are required to frame the planning policies in their development plans in a balanced and measured way that ensures the housing needs of rural communities are met, while avoiding excessive urban-generated housing and haphazard development, particularly in those areas near cities and towns that are under pressure from urban generated development.

The guidelines also aim to ensure that sites being developed for rural housing are suitable with regard to vehicular access, wastewater disposal and also from landscape and design perspectives. The guidelines suggest a number of criteria to be taken into account in local authority development plans for the purpose of assessing whether planning applications for rural housing are intended to meet a rural-generated housing need. That need will only increase as the population grows in the future. Those criteria primarily relate to familial or occupational ties of planning applicants to the rural area in question. The European Commission issued an infringement notice against Ireland in relation to the rural housing guidelines in 2007, which was subsequently deferred pending the outcome of the European Court of Justice, ECJ, Flemish decree case against Belgium. The decree linked the transfer of property in certain Flemish communes to the condition that there should exist a sufficient connection between the prospective property buyer and the relevant commune. This connection had the practical effect of precluding non-locals from purchasing property in the Flemish communes in question.

In 2013, the ECJ ruled that the Flemish decree constituted an unjustified restriction on fundamental freedoms under the EU Treaty, in particular that it breached Article 43 of the treaty on the freedom of movement of citizens. Further to the ECJ judgment, the European Commission re-engaged with my Department on the 2005 guidelines. Arising from that and further subsequent engagement between my Department and the European Commission, a working group - comprising senior representatives from my Department and planning authorities - was established last May to review and, where necessary, recommend changes to the 2005 guidelines, to ensure that rural housing policies and objectives contained in county development plans comply with the relevant provisions of the EU Treaty without undermining rural communities. The working group concluded its deliberations in September 2017 and my Department is now consulting with the European Commission on the matter, with a view to issuing revised guidelines to planning authorities, as soon as possible after the finalised national planning framework is adopted and published. Planning authorities, and where appropriate, An Bord Pleanála, will be required to apply the revised guidelines in relation to the assessment and determination of planning applications and appeals in respect of rural housing proposals. Pending the issuing of the proposed new revised guidelines, planning authorities were advised by way of circular letter issued by my Department in May 2017 that the existing 2005 guidelines remain in place, and that they should not amend the rural housing local needs policies in their development plans until the revised guidelines have issued.

In relation to broader rural policies, the Senator is no doubt aware that the national planning framework is currently being finalised by the Government - he has championed a number of policies in it - and while its remit goes much further than rural settlement, today's debate gives me a good opportunity to quell any misplaced fears that may have been generated that the framework will present some sort of clampdown on rural housing. That is far from the truth. It is in fact unhelpful and detracts from wider and more strategic messages in the NPF around linking our planning vision with our capital investments and new tools to deliver sustainable development, both urban and rural. I wish to make it clear that the NPF fully supports the concept of living in the countryside. Nothing in it suggests any sort of a policy shift from what local authorities are supposed to be doing at the moment in terms of implementing the rural housing guidelines, which is broadly to apply a general siting and design-based policy across the country for the purposes of determining rural housing planning applications and in some limited areas around the main cities and towns that are under genuine pressure from significant unco-ordinated and ribbon type development, to ensure that in such areas, housing need should be determined by social, economic or occupational linkages to the rural area in question.

Moreover, while the framework endorses a more rigorous approach to assessment of housing needs in general, the reference to a housing demand need assessment, HDNA, is very simply a local authority-led comprehensive assessment of the housing needs of its area, in other words assessing the housing expected to be built within the area, including in rural areas. In a nutshell, what the NPF is really calling for is a properly planned approach to identifying, meeting and managing the real housing needs arising in rural areas. There is nothing to fear in it. Like Senator Lombard, I believe in balance when it comes to planning throughout the country.

If I ever go back to college I will do a thesis on rural planning.

I was thinking as much. You have a great knowledge of it, a Chathaoirligh.

I compliment the Minister on his comprehensive statement which hits all the key points. In particular, I welcome his determination that social and economic links will be very much a part of the national planning framework. That is a welcome statement from the Minister this morning. It provides the necessary clarity and it gives certainty to those people who are concerned. I thank the Minister for his contribution.

I thank the Minister and Senator Lombard. The Minister gave the Senator a comprehensive answer which has made him smile. I hope he is happy with it as well.

Sitting suspended at 11 a.m. and resumed at 11.30 a.m.