Nithe i dtosach suíonna - Commencement Matters

Disabled Drivers and Passengers Scheme

I welcome the Minister of State, Deputy Stanton.

I welcome the Minister of State to the House. I have asked him to come to the House today to discuss the need to expand the qualifying criteria for a primary medical certificate for the disabled drivers and disabled passengers scheme to persons with severe cases of autism spectrum disorder and severe sensory disabilities.

This issue is close to my heart. As a GP, I come across it frequently in my practice and I believe that this scheme needs to be altered. This issue was brought to my attention by Councillor James O'Connor who I welcome to the House today. A constituent of Councillor O'Connor who would have had to spend a small fortune on a vehicle which would be suitable for a child with autism spectrum disorder, ASD, expressed dismay that due to the lack of a severe physical disability her child, who requires constant care and attention, would not be considered eligible for a primary medical certificate. There is a clear and obvious need for the legislation to be updated to account for those with cognitive as well as physical disabilities.

The Disabled Drivers and Disabled Passengers (Tax Concessions) (Amendment) Regulations provide a tax relief to those in receipt of a primary medical certificate when purchasing a new vehicle. This was incredibly important legislation when it was instigated. It provides financial aid to families and individuals who are required to make significant monetary outlays to provide transportation or else be significantly constrained. The regulations were intended to help reduce the financial cost of transporting oneself or another when compelled to attend medical appointments, hospital appointments, etc.

A family with a child with severe ASD and sensory issues cannot be expected to use public transport. A child with that condition simply would not cope in those circumstances. The daily emotional stress and anxiety that both child and his or her family are being expected to deal with are unacceptable. In some cases, it is unsafe for the driver of the car if the child is exposed to that amount of tension and stress.

Persons with ASD tend to have problems with social interaction and communication. Children and young people with ASD frequently experience a range of cognitive, learning, emotional and behavioural problems. If one forces those who are predisposed to sensory overload to use public transport, it is cruel to them and, I believe, cruel to their families.

I would ask the Minister to seriously consider what it must take for this mother to transport her children around, one of whom could have a serious emotional episode or so-called "meltdown" on public transport because the child is so overwhelmed by strange people, strange environments, strange smells, strange sights and strange sounds. This is a traumatic experience. I believe that the current scheme is too restrictive and needs to be adapted.

Being a full-time carer to a child with ASD is not an easy role. When parents need to be constantly responding to the needs of others with whom it can be difficult to interact, it can affect their own emotional and physical health and their physical energy. Sometimes their own physical well-being is put on the back-burner.

A simple act such as waiving the, value-added tax, VAT, or vehicle registration tax, VRT, on a car used to transport children could be a real bonus. It is a small and achievable ask. There is a clear oversight in the legislation. I ask the Minister of State to put forward proposals to extend the qualifying criteria for a primary medical certificate. There is no logical reason that the disabled drivers and disabled passengers scheme covering people with physical impediments could not be expanded to those with cognitive impairments. I ask the Minister of State to seriously consider this and to be sympathetic to my cause.

I thank the Senator for raising the matter. I wish to recognise my constituency colleague, Councillor James O'Connor, and welcome him to the House. I apologise on behalf of the Minister for Finance, who cannot be here this morning.

The disabled drivers and disabled passengers tax concession scheme provides relief from VAT and VRT up to certain limits, an exemption on motor tax and a grant in respect of fuel and the purchase of an adapted car for the transport of a person with specific, severe and permanent physical disabilities. To qualify for the scheme an applicant must be in possession of a primary medical certificate. To qualify for a primary medical certificate, an applicant must be permanently and severely disabled within the terms of the Disabled Drivers and Disabled Passengers (Tax Concessions) Regulations 1994 and must satisfy one of the following conditions. An applicant must be wholly or almost wholly without use of both legs; wholly without the use of one leg and almost wholly without the use of the other leg such that the applicant is severely restricted as to movement of the lower limbs; be without both hands or both arms; be without one or both legs; be wholly or almost wholly without the use of both hands or arms and wholly or almost wholly without the use of one leg; have the medical condition of dwarfism; or have serious difficulties with the movement of the lower limbs.

The senior medical officer of the relevant local HSE administrative area makes a provisional clinical determination of whether the individual applicant satisfies the medical criteria. A successful applicant is provided with a primary medical certificate, which is required to claim the reliefs provided by the regulations. An unsuccessful applicant can appeal the decision of the senior medical officer to the Disabled Drivers Medical Board of Appeal, which makes a new clinical determination in respect of the individual. The regulations mandate that the board of appeal is independent in the exercise of its functions to ensure the integrity of its clinical determinations. After six months, a citizen can reapply if there has been a deterioration of his or her condition.

The scheme represents a significant tax expenditure. Between the VRT and VAT foregone and the fuel grant, the scheme's cost rose from €50 million in 2013 to €65 million in 2016 and 2017, increasing further to €70 million in 2018. This figure does not include the revenue foregone in respect of the motor tax relief provided to members of the scheme. The disability criteria for the tax concessions available under the scheme have changed over time. When the scheme was first introduced in 1968, the legislation only allowed for one medical ground. In 1989, four new medical grounds were added and one new medical ground was added in 1994. I remind the House that the scheme was examined in 2015 in order to target available resources at those most in need. This resulted in the creation of a new category of adapted vehicle called the extensively adapted vehicle, allowing claims of up to €22,000 where the cost of modification exceeds the cost of the vehicle itself. Furthermore, access to the scheme for charitable organisations was significantly broadened in 2018 by the removal of the requirement for 50% of the people availing of the services to hold primary medical certificates.

I understand and sympathise with any person who suffers from a serious disability and cannot access the scheme under the current criteria. However, given the scope and scale of the scheme, any possible changes can only be made after very careful consideration, taking into account the existing and prospective costs of the scheme, the availability of other schemes which seek to help with the mobility of disabled persons and the interaction between each of the schemes. The Minister for Finance tells me he has no plans to change the current criteria or make any other changes to the scheme.

I thank the Minister of State for his reply but I cannot accept it. I think it is disgraceful. I am sure the Minister of State will agree that this scheme is antiquated. It is antiquated in the qualifying criteria requiring people to be wholly without the use of one or both limbs etc. I deal with this every day of the week in my surgery. Not only are the qualifying criteria antiquated, the appeals process is antiquated as well. If somebody is refused a primary care certificate, where can he or she go for an appeal? Disabled people are expected to go to the National Rehabilitation Hospital in Dún Laoghaire for an appeal. They must travel from all over the country, making a trip of four or five hours duration from north-west Mayo or Cork, to sit in front of somebody and be refused again. That is one antiquated element of the scheme.

If we are serious about being an inclusive society we need to include people with cognitive impairments, as highlighted by councillor O'Connor. Small changes would save this country a lot of money and make our society a lot more inclusive. We are not asking for a lot. We are asking for people with serious diagnosed cognitive impairment to be considered for this. I do not accept that the Minister of Finance has no plans to change the scheme. I will work with Councillor O'Connor to introduce legislation in this regard. The appeals scheme needs to change and we need to include people with cognitive impairment.

I thank the Senator. I appreciate his passion in respect of this matter. As stated, I understand and fully sympathise with any person who suffers from a serious disability and who cannot access the scheme. However the scheme and qualifying criteria were designed specifically for those with severe physical disabilities and are therefore necessarily precise. As the Senator, who is also a GP, will recognise, they have to be precise. The Senator appears to be suggesting a new and altogether different scheme for people with cognitive disabilities. Perhaps the way to go is to implement a totally new scheme-----

The appeals process-----

-----rather than the current scheme, which is for people with severe physical disabilities. The Minister has no plans to change the medical criteria for accessing the disabled drivers and disabled passengers tax concession scheme. However, the Department of Health is working on revised proposals for a transport support payments scheme, which will make individual payments as a contribution towards the transport costs of people with severe disabilities who are on low income and cannot access public transport. There is some ongoing work in this area which might be of help. This scheme would replace the motorised transport grant, which was closed to applicants in 2013.

Would the Minister not consider operating the appeals system locally, rather than having people travel to Dún Laoghaire from all over the country?

I respect the Senator's position but, under the rules, I am not allowed to let a Senator comment again-----

This is every important-----

-----after the first supplementary question. I am sorry about that. However, the Senator and the Minister of State can have a chat about it on the margins. I welcome the Minister of State, Deputy Andrew Doyle. He is making a grand entrance.

Aquaculture Licences

Cuirim fáilte roimh an Aire Stáit. I wish to raise a very important and emotive local issue concerning applications to the Department of Agriculture, Food and the Marine for foreshore oyster bed licences in Ballyness Bay, County Donegal, which is adjacent to where I live. The area covered by the applications is very extensive. The overall footprint of the combined applications covers an area in the region of 46 ha. For anyone not from a farming background, 46 ha equates to 45 to 46 GAA pitches. We are talking about a small and confined bay in County Donegal. Ballyness Bay is a special area of conservation, SAC. It is one of the most beautiful areas in the country, with lovely golden beaches running along the coast, and is promoted as a tourist hotspot. A lot of work has been done in recent years to augment the tourism sector in that area to provide opportunities for local businesses.

It has come to light that in March and April of this year the Department of Agriculture, Food and the Marine advertised that a number of applications for oyster farms had been submitted. Notice was placed in The Donegal Democrat for one week only. The Donegal Democrat is not in extensive circulation in the area in question. A local community organisation, Save Ballyness Bay, tells me that only 15 copies of The Donegal Democrat are sold in Falcarragh, the primary town near Ballyness Bay, each week. Other newspapers, such as the Tirconaill Tribune or the Donegal News are widely circulated in the area but the Department of Agriculture, Food and the Marine chose to advertise this in a newspaper that is not.

There were 72 hours of public consultation afforded through being able to view the documentation in the local Garda station. However, the Garda station only opens from 10 a.m. to 1 p.m. and if gardaí are called out, it may not be open. Therefore, the public consultation was completely inadequate. The vast majority of people, including me, as a local public representative, did not become aware of the applications until June, so after the public consultation period had elapsed. The only reason I became aware of them was that a local concerned resident raised them with me.

There was a lack of consultation. It is very important to have consultations about these applications because it affords the Department an opportunity to garner a better understanding of how people in a local community feel about large-scale applications. Consultation also allows experts to make an input into the system. Therefore, the decisions that would be arrived at, following meaningful consultation, would clearly be better in public policy terms. This is a public policy decision. If these proposals in their entirety were to be granted, according to members of the local community, thousands of whom have signed petitions, it could devastate tourism potential of the area, not to mention the ecological damage it could cause to the SAC.

The Minister of State has a background in farming. This area is part of a special protected area or special area of conservation. If local farmers want to dig a drain, they must first get the permission of the National Parks and Wildlife Service, NPWS, and they can only cut silage or hay at certain times of the year. However, in this case, there has been no consultation whatsoever, or at least there is no paper trail, between the Department and the NPWS in respect of these applications. There is something not right here and I call on the Department to set aside these applications and initiate further public consultation to afford everyone in the local community, including experts and applicants, an opportunity to have their say before a decision is arrived at. Otherwise, a decision will have been taken in the dark.

I am not satisfied with the appropriate assessment that was carried out for these applications. It was carried out by the Marine Institute, which is funded by the Department. There is a conflict of interest. The appropriate assessment should have been carried out by an independent organisation at arm's length from the Department to facilitate an objective analysis. I expected an environmental impact statement would have been required because every planning application for a one-off house in proximity to an SAC requires one. I have major questions about these applications.

I thank the Leas-Chathaoirleach for his latitude.

I thank the Senator.

I thank the Senator. I will deal with his specific questions in the second part of my contribution.

An aquaculture licence is required by law for the cultivation of finfish, shellfish and certain marine plants such as seaweed. My Department considers all applications for aquaculture licences in accordance with the provisions of the Fisheries (Amendment) Act 1997, the Foreshore Act 1933 and application EU legislation.

The licensing process involves consultation with a wide range of scientific and technical advisers, as well as various statutory consultees. The legislation also provides for a period of public consultation. In addition, the Department must adhere to a wide range of regulatory requirements and other legislation that impact on the licensing process.

On appropriate assessment, a key component of the aquaculture licensing process is a series of measures designed to address the impact of aquaculture on the environment. This series is known as appropriate assessment or AA. This process arose from a European Court of Justice case against Ireland in 2007. The European Court of Justice declared that, by failing to take all the necessary measures to comply with the EU habitats directive in respect of authorisation of aquaculture programmes, Ireland had failed to fulfil its obligations under that directive.

The EU habitats and birds directives have resulted in the designation of certain bays by the National Parks and Wildlife Service as special areas of conservation and-or special protection areas for birds. These are known as Natura 2000 sites and most aquaculture takes place within or adjacent to them.

In the negotiations to address the ECJ judgment, the Department agreed a process with the European Commission and the NPWS that would govern the State's processing of aquaculture licence applications. The appropriate assessment process is managed, in the main, by the Marine Institute via environmental and scientific contractors commissioned by the institute to carry out the necessary fieldwork and desk analysis. To date, the Marine Institute has submitted appropriate assessments on 32 bays to my Department, of which Ballyness Bay is one.

Ballyness Bay in County Donegal has been designated an SAC. There are also a number of other special areas of conservation and special protected areas close to Ballyness Bay. Full consideration was given to the likely interaction between these areas and the proposed aquaculture activities. No aquaculture operation currently operates within the Ballyness Bay special area of conservation.

The appropriate assessment considered 20 applications for aquaculture operations in the bay, which consisted of 14 for the cultivation of oysters only, five for the cultivation of oysters and clams and one for the cultivation of clams only. The number of sites being applied for has subsequently been reduced to 18 applications as applications for two sites for oysters were withdrawn.

As part of the statutory and public consultation process, the legislation requires periods of statutory and public consultation in respect of these applications. All observations received within that period are carefully considered by the Department.

In accordance with the applicable legislation, notice of the applications concerning the Ballyness Bay was published by the applicants, not the Department albeit under the instruction of the Department, in the Donegal Democrat on various dates between 14 March and 26 March. From the date of the relevant notice, the public had four weeks to make written submissions or observations to the Department on the applications specified in the notice. During that time, the application documentation was available for inspection in the Garda stations specified in the public notices and on the Department's website.

In addition, the legislation governing aquaculture licensing provides for an appeals mechanism. Any member of the public who wishes to appeal a ministerial decision may do so by submitting an appeal to the aquaculture licences appeals board, which is an independent body established by statute.

The Department has received a number of representations from members of the public and public representatives on the licensing process as it affects Ballyness Bay. In addition to general complaints concerning the appropriateness or otherwise of intertidal aquaculture in Ballyness Bay, there have been specific concerns expressed concerning the consultation process. Specifically, the placement of public notices in the Donegal Democrat is regarded as inadequate by a number of members of the public and public representatives. However, the procedures in respect of the public notices adhere fully to the legislative requirements. In addition to the public notices, the applications were available to view in specified local Garda stations and on the Department's website.

In conclusion, the licensing process in respect of Ballyness Bay conforms fully with all legislative requirements. The legislation is designed to protect the public interest, including the applicant. The statutory and public consultation phases in respect of the applications referred to in Ballyness Bay have concluded. It is, therefore, essential that I do not engage with parallel discussions outside of the statutory process. As the applications referred to by the Senator are the subject of ongoing detailed considerations as part of the process, it would not be appropriate to comment further pending a conclusion of that process.

I thank the Minister of State. Senator Ó Domhnaill can ask a brief supplementary question.

I thank the Minister of State for his reply. As expected, he gave the standard reply from the Department, which is very disappointing.

I think that the manner in which this has been dealt with by the Department is grossly disingenuous. I hold the Department of Agriculture, Food and the Marine in very high regard. It is an excellent Department with excellent officials but it has got this wrong. The fact that all of the local sentiment is not being taken into consideration prior to a decision and ministerial order being made regarding this application is dreadful. A public meeting was held in August that was attended by over 700 people. A petition has been signed by over 3,000 people. The reply referred to a number of members of the public. Over 3,000 people are concerned about the process and that number is growing. The process within the Department has now alienated applicants from those who have concerns, which is wrong.

I call again on the Minister to review this. The case of Ballyness is not an isolated one. This is happening all over the country. The manner in which these applications are being dealt with is wrong. Local communities in the areas concerned deserve to have an input. What is striking is that the National Parks and Wildlife Service is completely silent on this application. I do not know why. I know the Department may have stayed within the legislative framework but the process is wrong.

I will certainly bring the Senator's concerns back to the Department but I must call out one thing. In his first contribution, the Senator inferred that the Marine Institute was not independent. This is carried out on behalf of the Department. It is the applicants who have made the application, not the Department. I will defend the independence of the Marine Institute and I do not think any inference should be made that it is anything but independent. It is correct to say that it is funded by the Department, as are many State agencies, including An Bord Pleanála and the Aquaculture Licences Appeals Board, which was set up under statute as an independent body. Lest there be any confusion here, let me say that the Marine Institute is an independent entity funded in the same way as many other statutory bodies such as the NRA and Transport Infrastructure Ireland.

Institutes of Technology

I felt compelled to raise this very serious issue with the Minister of State, Deputy Mitchell O'Connor, given the circumstances I will address in my contribution. It is fair to say that Dundalk Institute of Technology is at a very serious crossroads. The road it takes over the next few weeks and months will determine its prospects and those of the north east for generations to come. In recent weeks, the Minister of State has been quoted as saying that the technological university status reforms, which were commenced by my own party in government, represented "the single most important development in the higher education landscape of recent years and a very significant element of the national research agenda". She went on to state that technological universities will be pivotal in delivering national strategic priorities, including widening access to higher education and increasing regional development and socioeconomic progress. I could not have put it any better but, bizarrely, the leadership and the governing authority of Dundalk Institute of Technology, the third-level institution in my own locality, has yet to make an application or even lay the groundwork through the establishment of a consortium to seek technological university status. More worryingly, it appears that it has no intention of doing so. It looks like it wants to go it alone. It now stands isolated as other institutes of technology have fully embraced the concept of technological university status drawing down millions of euro in dedicated funding to make technological university status happen.

I am extremely ambitious for my own county of Louth and my own region, as are the staff of Dundalk Institute of Technology. This is why Teachers Union of Ireland, TUI, members in the institute have voted to stand up and be counted by taking strike action next Tuesday. They are confounded by the dog-in-the-manger and autocratic attitude of the college leadership that has seen technological university status effectively binned against the express wishes of staff. My information is that any prospect of technological university status remaining live has, in essence, been buried as part of the institute's strategic plan review process. Indeed debate has been suppressed in the institute where the question of technological university status has been removed from the agenda of the academic council. That is my understanding. This is an extraordinary intervention at the highest level of the institute and a breach of the academic council's constitution.

It has been speculated that some other alternative is being considered - a poorer alternative to technological university status that has no legislative anchoring or support. Staff want what is best for Dundalk Institute of Technology and that is technological university status. The Minister of State will be told, and I am sure it may appear in her briefing notes, that consultation continues when no meaningful engagement has taken place between TUI members and college authorities regarding technological university status. Real consultation has not taken place either around the proposed development of what is known as a fifth school at the campus. Instead, and true to form, in the college authorities' consideration of the prospect of a fifth school at the college, the public service stability agreement and all industrial relations norms have been set aside because it appears that the ambition of the college authorities is to develop a new school on campus founded on the basis of casual contracts for academic staff, which will inevitably herald a race to the bottom in terms of employment standards and quality assurance.

A total of 99.1% of TUI members at the institute who were balloted for industrial action voted to strike. This illustrates the depth of anger and frustration among academic staff. My view is that staff across the entire institute feel the same. The atmosphere is toxic and poisonous. Staff who want to see the institute meet its potential must be backed. This is a fight for the future of not just Dundalk Institute of Technology but the prospects of my region. The reset button must be pressed. I would be interested in hearing the Minister of State's views on where the institute must go from here. I want to hear her back the TUI members' staff initiative and to back their ambition for the institute to make sure we can deliver technological university status for a very valued institution in our region.

I thank the Senator for raising this issue. I know he has a particular interest in this issue but I do see that we are joined by a school and students. As Minister of State with responsibility for higher education, the epicentre of everything I do is ensuring that students and young students coming through our education system get the very best. I have said on numerous occasions in the Dáil, Seanad and institutes of technology, wherever I am, that we should all make students the epicentre of what we do. Many of us must forget vested interests.

My Department was informed by the TUI this week that members of that union employed by Dundalk Institute of Technology will be engaging in strike action on Tuesday, 19 November 2019, following a ballot of members. I was very sad to hear Senator Nash say that there is such a toxic atmosphere in the institute. I urge all those involved to go back to basics and think about where the students are and what is best. I have said that technological universities have a pivotal role in third-level pathways to education for our students. I recently announced €90 million will be ring fenced. I had not seen much publicity given to it - probably until the Senator mentioned it in the Seanad. This funding will be for the development of technological universities over the next three years.

In its letter to the Department, the TUI outlined its reasons for taking action, including allegations that institute management has failed to adhere to national collective agreements and to respect industrial relations mechanisms and fora.

The union also cited a proposal to create a new fifth school in the institute as a reason for the action and expressed concern in relation to the future strategic direction of Dundalk Institute of Technology.

The dispute appears at this stage to relate to internal matters within the institute and as such, local discussion between the union and institute management will be needed. No dispute is resolved without the parties involved sitting around the table to discuss the issues between them. I urge the parties here to engage in that dialogue in an effort to avoid the proposed strike action that would inevitably result in disruption to the students, and to resolve the issues in dispute. Officials in my Department have been in contact with the human resources management in the institute and are monitoring the situation.

The strategic direction of Irish higher education institutes is a matter for each higher education institute, HEI, as an autonomous institution. Government policy, as set out in the programme for Government, is to support the creation of technological universities as HEIs of sufficient size, capacity and critical mass to have a significant impact for students at regional, national and international level. Technological universities will have greater links to industry and will have a major impact on the capacity to create and retain jobs in regions. They will assist significantly in achieving national strategic objectives as set out under Project Ireland 2040, the national development plan and Future Jobs Ireland. The Government will continue to prioritise those institutions that have clear ambitions and plans for the furthering of industry-relevant technological research and education.

In addition to the provision of the enabling legislation in the Technological Universities Act 2018, whereby two or more institutes of technology may choose to come together to seek technological university status, such consortia of institutes of technology will continue to be supported in terms of significant Exchequer funding. To date more than €30 million has been provided to technological university development consortia in the State and to Technological University Dublin, which was established on 1 January 2019. I also wish to inform Senator Nash that I am a Minister of State who has really pushed this agenda. Yes, the Technological University Dublin is up and running but I wanted to hear from other consortia also to ensure they embrace the technological university pathway. I am glad to hear the Senator speak of the importance of technological universities, but I stress that each institution is autonomous with its own governing body. I understand there is a process strategy currently and that the governing body representatives, led by Professor John Bristow, have been working on this for the past six months and their report is nearly ready. Perhaps we need to see that report before we have strike action.

With respect, that is what the Minister of State has been briefed on but the reality on the ground is something different. We are not talking about a bunch of revolutionary firebrands who are putting themselves first and trying to take industrial action to simply appeal for better terms and conditions and so on. This is a bigger issue than Dundalk Institute of Technology itself. This is about the socio-economic development of Louth, Meath, Cavan and Monaghan and the entire north east into the future. It goes beyond even the immediate interests of staff and current students in Dundalk Institute of Technology. The Minister of State set out in very clear detail the benefits that will accrue to institutes of technology that develop consortia to engage in the TU process. They are very clear, and it is a very persuasive argument. It seems, however, that the management at Dundalk Institute of Technology cannot be persuaded to go down this route. For the life of me I cannot understand why it is not the case. There has been no meaningful engagement or consultation whatsoever. Issues have been presented to the TUI and to other staff representative bodies in the college as a fait accompli. It is not good enough. Diktats have been issued at the highest level and staff, who should be treated as partners in a collaborative process, are being left in the dark and outside of the door. This has contributed to an escalation of tension in the college at a time when the college authorities and trade union members should be working together to further the interests of the institute's entire community and the interests of the wider region.

The Minister of State will be aware that the Border area has suffered from relatively poor levels of third level access and engagement. The best way to address this is to ensure we have the best possible institution going forward, based on best practice, and that this is done in a collaborative way with staff, who have seen little evidence of this to date. Therefore, staff have felt they had no alternative but to take industrial action to withdraw their services and their labour on Tuesday. I would like to hear from the Minister of State that there is time for the reset button to be pressed. I would like the Minister of State to prevail on the college authorities to ensure they pursue TU status for Dundalk Institute of Technology in collaboration with staff.

I wish to be very clear that any institute of technology can decide to seek to join an existing consortium if all parties agree. That reset button is there from the Department of Education and Skills. We would welcome any positive moves from any institutes of technology. Senator Nash is referring to Dundalk Institute of Technology in particular but I would say to the other consortia to please hurry up the process. It is going on far too long. I really want people to engage in the process for the sake of the students. Any of the consortia, including Dundalk Institute of Technology, can decide to join an existing consortium or form a new consortium of their own if sufficient partners can be found.

I will outline what Dundalk Institute of Technology has been doing. The institute had at one point considered joining the Connacht-Ulster alliance, the CUA consortium, which comprised GMIT, IT Sligo and Letterkenny IT. The Department supported two separate studies that examined Dundalk Institute of Technology, Limerick IT and Athlone IT potentially also joining the CUA. These studies were the Economic Impact of a Technological University in Ireland - An exploratory study by Viewforth Consulting Limited and The Development of the Technological University TU5: International perspectives and options, by Professor John L. Davies. In the final analysis none of these institutes of technology, including Dundalk Institute of Technology, joined the CUA consortium. Athlone and Letterkenny institutes signalled earlier this year that they would form a consortium of their own, a decision that has subsequently been formalised by the governing bodies of both higher institutes. The consortium received €2 million in 2018 in higher education landscape restructuring funding to advance these proposals. Our door in the Department is open. One will not find another Minister more anxious to get the technological universities up and running. As I said earlier, we will help in that process. Again, I ask that they please get around the table to work it out. We are waiting to help them down the line.

I thank the Minister of State and the Senator.

Fire Stations Upgrade

I welcome the Minister of State back. We should have taken his two Commencement debates together.

I welcome the Minister of State and thank him for taking this Commencement matter. I know the salient and important case for a new fire station for Crossmolina will be made to the Minister for Housing, Planning and Local Government, Deputy Eoghan Murphy. We are waiting for the green light to allow the new fire station project for Crossmolina to go to tender. It is in the Government's capital programme for 2020 and it is much needed. Mayo County Council is doing its best and secured a site some years ago. It has also secured Part 8 planning permission to build on the site. I understand the county council is engaging with the Department to update the project details, taking into account the requirements of the new building regulations. It is, therefore, doing everything it can.

Delivery and construction of this fire station is the number one priority for Mayo County Council. I have visited the current fire station and it is not fit for purpose. Conditions are deplorable and have to be seen to be believed. The building is wet and cold, its fabric is in poor condition and the facilities are old. The washing facilities were described to me as antediluvian but the fire service is trying to maintain the building as best it can. It needs to know the project will get the green light. I hope we will get some good news about progress today and that we can look forward to tender and construction next year. Efforts were made to rent another premises in the locality but that did not work out.

The nine retained firefighters in Crossmolina fire station do an excellent job dealing with everything from house fires and road traffic accidents to bush and whin fires on bogs. They are busy with those in the summers. Unfortunately, Crossmolina is prone to flooding, which is a regular threat. The town is on the capital programme list for the delivery of flood defences but we are awaiting progress in the planning side of that. There is never a dull moment and the firefighters do a fantastic job. It is high time the firefighters, the staff associated with the fire service and the community of Crossmolina got a proper fire station they can rely on in future. It must be at least ten years since a new fire station was built in Mayo. This project is much needed.

Again, I apologise on behalf of the Minister for Housing, Planning and Local Government, Deputy Eoghan Murphy, and the Minister of State at the Department, Deputy English, who are unavailable this morning. They and I know the Senator has had a long-standing interest in the matter of a new fire station for Crossmolina and I thank her for raising the issue at this time.

The provision of a fire service in its functional area, including the establishment and maintenance of a fire brigade, the assessment of fire cover needs and the provision of fire station premises, is a statutory function of individual fire authorities under the Fire Services Act 1981. The Department of Housing, Planning and Local Government supports fire authorities through setting general policy, providing a central training programme, issuing guidance on operational and other related matters and providing capital funding support for equipment and priority infrastructural projects.

I acknowledge the hard work, service and commitment of all those who work in our fire authorities around the country, particularly those on the front line. The Government remains committed to supporting the fire service and the essential and invaluable service it provides. We will continue to support local authorities and firefighters through a range of important initiatives, including the provision of funding under the fire services capital programme for equipment and buildings. In February 2016, the Government announced its five-year fire services capital programme with an allocation of €40 million, based on an annual €8 million allocation to be used for new fire appliances, specialist equipment, fire stations, communications systems and training centres. The five-year programme included proposals for 26 fire stations, 16 new builds and ten upgrades. Mayo County Council has prioritised a new fire station project in Crossmolina and this is included as part of this programme under the list of priority projects to be progressed in 2020. This important project will replace the existing station in the town and I understand the county council is currently updating the design and cost plan. It anticipates these will be ready by the end of this year. The Department awaits these documents and, once received, it will work closely with the county council to progress the project as quickly as possible.

As the Senator will know, the fire service in Mayo serves one of the largest fire authority areas in the country, employing 120 firefighters across 12 fire stations and responding to 765 call-outs in 2017. Castlebar is the location of the central fire station. Crossmolina provides initial cover for an area of approximately 750 sq. km with a population in excess of 4,000 inhabitants. The station responded to 70 call-outs in 2017. Ballina, Ballyhaunis and Kiltimagh fire stations are also included in a further list of stations to be considered in annual reviews during the five-year capital programme. The Department is also awaiting updated cost plans from the county council for the upgrading work to be undertaken at these fire stations. In order to maximise the available capital programme funding, the Department reassesses the status of projects in the capital programme annually. This means there is some flexibility normally available to advance projects that are ready to go and that offer the best value for money, taking account of the state of readiness of projects more generally. In summary, this important project will be progressed without delay once the necessary plans are received from the county council.

Senator Mulherin may make a brief supplementary contribution. We are up against the clock.

I thank the Minister of State. I sincerely hope that once the county council has reverted to the Department with an update on the design and cost plan, to which the Minister of State referred, the project will be given priority. The Minister of State indicated that the Department reassesses the status of projects annually. I can say sincerely and without fear of contradiction that it is one of the worst fire stations in the country. Interestingly, one of the firefighters told me that a contractor who visits fire stations around the country to provide services confirmed that this was the case to staff in Crossmolina fire station. The conditions are appalling but I note that there is some positive news in the offing.

As the Senator said, this is a project that needs to be done as urgently as possible. As I said, the Department is awaiting the design and cost plan from the county council, which should be ready and is expected to be with the Department by the end of this year. The Department tells us it will then work closely with the county council to progress the project as quickly as is possible. I know the Senator will keep a close eye on this important matter and I thank her for her deep interest in it.

Sitting suspended at 11.27 a.m. and resumed at 11.30 a.m.