Nithe i dtosach suíonna - Commencement Matters

Agriculture Schemes

I thank the Leas-Chathaoirleach for selecting this Commencement matter and I welcome the Minister to the House. I will be brief and concise. This is to ask the Minister of Agriculture, Food and the Marine to consider changing the terms and conditions that would allow registered agricultural contractors to apply for TAMS or LESS. The background to this is that these contractors provide employment in rural communities and should be eligible for such grants, subject of course to conditions. The Minister will appreciate the cost of machinery and the fact there is co-operation between neighbouring farmers and contract farmers. People do not always have heavy plant and machinery.

This is an issue registered contractors have raised with me. They believe there should be some support for them. They are not necessarily farm owners, although some are small farm owners, and they are supplementing their income by doing this work.

I will tell the Minister about one Galway contractor who wrote to me. He said he was a registered agricultural contractor, had been in this business for over 40 years and had never received any grants as he did not own a farm. He said that he thought all registered agricultural contractors who provide this service and employment in the local community should be eligible for the same grant. He said also that he had applied for the low emissions slurry spreading equipment scheme, LESS, grant, and it was denied to him because he did not own land but that most of his customers were dependent on him to provide this service.

He talked about having a son who was keen to take on this agricultural contracting business, which is essential and used widely by farmers in their community. He then talked about the whole issue of emissions, the reduction of the carbon footprint, etc. The Minister will be very familiar with the whole story and I am interested in his considered response.

I welcome the opportunity to provide an update on the targeted agricultural modernisation scheme, known as TAMS II, and I thank the Senator for raising this matter. TAMS II is made up of a suite of seven measures providing valuable grant aid to Irish farmers. These measures were launched under the Rural Development Programme 2014-2020, RDP, and are co-funded under the European Agricultural Fund for Rural Development, EAFRD. Because of this, they are subject to all the provisions of the relevant EU regulations. These regulations specify that TAMS II support be granted to farmers or groups of farmers. It is not therefore possible under the EU regulation for Ireland to amend the terms and conditions to extend the grant aid available under TAMS II to contractors who are not farmers.

There are seven measures available under TAMS II providing grants for capital investment in physical assets. Under the young farmers capital investment scheme, additional support is available for young trained farmers, as they are offered a higher rate of grant aid of 60% compared to the standard rate of 40%. The specific measure being raised by Senator Boyhan is the low emission slurry spreading scheme. Uptake under this measure has been particularly high, with more than 2,500 approvals issued and more than 1,100 applications paid to date. I welcome the high level of uptake under this measure, as it delivers real environmental dividends and is evidence of the willingness of Irish farmers to embrace new technologies that benefit the environment and contribute to climate change mitigation.

The eligibility requirements for the low emission slurry spreading scheme are set out in the terms and conditions and indicate that the scheme is open to farmers who hold a Department identifier and have declared a minimum of 5 ha under the basic payment scheme in the year of application or preceding year, or have a minimum of 60 production units in the case of pig farmers.

To date, total expenditure on LESS equipment is €19 million, of which €6.5 million has been paid to qualifying young farmers. It is open to approved applicants to submit an online payment claim as soon as they are in a position to do so. I urged all approved applicants who have completed their works to submit a payment claim as soon as they are in a position to do so.

I thank the Minister for his detailed response and I fully understand he cannot amend the whole scheme.

However, this goes back to the small farmers and small contractors and to the inter-reliance in communities where people do not have the necessary funding mechanisms to hire plant and machinery. The eligible person has to be a landowner or a farmer, so who is looking out for these guys? The Minister and I are very familiar with a number of small contractors. Where do they fit into all of this? In this whole big conglomerate of the European Union, where is the relevance for local communities? We hear right across the country that farm communities are struggling. Somebody who takes a lease on a piece of machinery and tries to offer services in his or her community, who is bedded down and respected in his or her community, is offering a service. Who is going to financially support and assist that person? Is there any other mechanism through which such a person can apply for funding? What can the Minister do? What reassurance can he give me that he will look at this, particularly in regard to the small contractor?

The person should not have to be a farm owner or be involved in agriculture. We have more graduates and students studying agriculture at the moment who live in cities than ever owned land and, in many cases, they have never been involved in agriculture. We have to acknowledge and recognise there is a new shift and a new interest among people coming into agriculture. Clearly, I will send this to the Irish Farmers' Journal, and other media to say this is the response. This is the Minister's response, which is accurate, and I appreciate the Minister taking the time to do that. However, I would also like to know what support and comfort the Minister can give small contractors.

I recognise and value the work done by agricultural contractors in rural Ireland, many of whom are of the land, some of whom have land and qualify for TAMS payments, although a significant cohort do not. I do not undervalue or under-appreciate the contribution of either but I accept that, in some respects, some contractors, by virtue of being both contractors and landowners, have an advantage in terms of their eligibility for grant aid. The dilemma I face is that, under EU regulations, it is not open to me to provide funding to non-farmers under this scheme.

The scheme is critical, as are all of the schemes under TAMS II, but this is particularly so in the context of climate, and we are out in public consultation in the context of the roadmap we envisage for meeting our ambitious targets in the agricultural area. We are also at present engaged in deliberations about what the next Common Agricultural Policy could be, so it may be an opportune time to look at those regulations in that context. I accept personally that, in terms of the scarce resources available to farmers, it is not necessary for every farmer to have low-emissions slurry spreading equipment but it is obligatory, in the context of our ambition, that all farmyard manures would be spread in the most environmentally friendly way possible. Given the capital cost, much of that can be done, and most effectively in financial terms, through contractors.

How we might marry the two issues - the reform of CAP and our climate ambition - is somewhere I see opportunity in terms of using the toolbox that the new CAP can give us to drive that agenda in the most environmentally and financially efficient way. That could include opening the door, if it were possible in the context of the new CAP, although I am not committing to that as it is a deliberative process which we are in consultation about.

I accept this is expensive equipment. It is beyond the reach of many farmers and, in many cases, given the individual farmer's scale, and notwithstanding the period when it is optimum to use the low emissions slurry spreading equipment, it is questionable whether every farmer should be obliged to own it, or whether, through a co-operative purchasing system or through extended the availability of assistance to contractors, there is an optimum solution. It is something we can set our minds to considering in the context of climate and the reform of CAP. However, under the current regulations, as drafted, it is not open to me to consider them under TAMS as currently constructed.

Schools Building Projects Status

The Minister, Deputy Creed, has great knowledge of Kinsale and his father covered that area for many years. His knowledge of Kinsale is very appropriate to this matter. I am looking for movement on the Gaelscoil in Kinsale, which was established in 2007. It first got approval for a permanent structure in 2015 and, since then, it has been sitting in limbo. We have a site and we are trying to get the conveyancing sorted for the site. My office in Kinsale has been in contact with both the Chief State Solicitor's office and the Department of Education and Skills every month for the last year, trying to get movement on the conveyancing of the site. Since October 2018, it has sat in the Chief State Solicitor's office and we have been trying to get contracts out of that office since that time.

There is deep frustration in Kinsale on this issue. The Gaelscoil is a thriving school in a thriving town that just needs a little help to move forward. We have the site and we need to move forward with regard to the ownership of that site so we can move from stage 1 of the project list all the way to stage 5 in the next few years. There was an original commitment that construction would begin on this site in 2018 and we are now lagging behind because we do not have ownership of the site. In many ways, this is about making sure we can transfer the land over to the Department and then move forward with the next phases of the project.

It is a very important project for Kinsale. I want to bring to the Minister's attention that over €1 million has been spent on prefabs since 2007 and, in many ways, it is money wasted. Every day that we delay, more money is being spent on temporary prefabs, which do not suit the needs of the students. One of these prefabs had to be stood down last year because of its condition, with rain literally pouring through it. This is a significant issue for Kinsale, a thriving town that has seen its population increase by 22% in the last decade. We need to move forward with the educational campus, in particular the Gaelscoil. I hope the Department can put pressure on the Chief State Solicitor's office to sort out the conveyancing issues and get the site transferred over, so we can go through the phases to deliver this site and, in turn, deliver the school for Kinsale.

I thank the Senator for raising this matter. I apologise on behalf of the Minister, Deputy McHugh, who is unavoidably absent. As the Senator is aware, a project to provide a new school building for Gaelscoil Chionn tSáile is included in the Department of Education and Skills' capital programme. The Gaelscoil is currently operating in temporary accommodation, as the Senator said.

The project to provide the new building for the Gaelscoil required the acquisition of a site for the school. In order to secure a suitable site, the Department of Education and Skills worked closely with Cork County Council under the memorandum of understanding for the acquisition of school sites and a number of site options were identified by the council. These were all thoroughly appraised for suitability by both officials from the Department of Education and Skills and from Cork County Council. The Senator will appreciate the importance of a thorough appraisal of site options at this point in order to ensure the achievement of value for money and to minimise the potential of any issues arising during the planning and development stages.

The outcome of this technical appraisal exercise was that council officials, acting on behalf of the Department of Education and Skills, entered into negotiations with the landowners of the site on which the Gaelscoil is currently located in temporary accommodation as it was deemed to be the most suitable option. Agreement in principle was reached for the proposed acquisition of the site by the Department of Education and Skills and the acquisition process has since advanced into the legal conveyancing stage. The conveyancing process remains under way as legal due diligence must be undertaken in respect of any such proposed transaction. The Senator will appreciate that, in such a process, the Department of Education and Skills is dependent on the engagement of third parties and, furthermore, the process can be subject to certain legal complexities. Therefore, timeframes for completion are outside the direct control of the Department of Education and Skills. Nevertheless, the conveyancing stage is progressing and officials from the Department of Education and Skills are working to bring this matter to a conclusion at the earliest possible date.

I can assure the Senator the school authorities are being kept appraised of progress with respect to the advancement of the site acquisition and building project for the school.

I thank the Minister for his response. I realise it is not his brief. This issue went to the Chief State Solicitor's office in October 2018.

Every week my office has contacted the Department and State solicitors for an update. While I appreciate it is not in the Minister's brief, it is very frustrating that we have no movement on it. He might ask the Minister for Education and Skills, Deputy McHugh, to look into the issue. We have been waiting for 13 or 14 months and have not been given a timeframe. The board of management, principal and students are in limbo, waiting for this process to finish.

I appreciate this is not a satisfactory situation from the point of view of the patron, principal, staff, parents and not least pupils. Temporary accommodation tends to drag on beyond the wishes of all parties involved. I will, of course, speak to the Minister, Deputy McHugh, on the matter and with the best of endeavour on all sides we should be able to complete the conveyancing and move to the next stage at the earliest possible date. I will commit to speak to the Minister, Deputy McHugh, on that matter on the Senator's behalf.

Ambulance Service Provision

I welcome the Minister of State to the House. He is probably aware of the desperate situation regarding ambulance services in rural areas. Councillor Erin McGreehan from Louth recently raised with me the specific issue of ambulances in the Omeath area of north County Louth. At present no ambulances are operating in this district of the county.

It has been revealed that ambulance services in Louth have taken over an hour to respond to emergency call-outs on at least six different occasions in the last year. A freedom of information request has revealed that on one emergency occasion in Louth last year it took an hour and 27 minutes for an ambulance to arrive at the scene. Out of the six occasions where ambulances took more than an hour to respond in the county, waiting times were between an hour 18 minutes and an hour 27 minutes.

This is not to do with trolleys backing up and the dysfunctional situation in our emergency departments. Insufficient resources are being directed towards rural areas. What does the Minister of State plan to do, in a holistic fashion, to deal with this issue and ensure that we can get the ambulances to bring the patients to the hospitals in a timely fashion?

Ambulance turnaround times measure the time interval from ambulance arrival at a hospital to when the crew is ready to accept another call. In a number of hospitals, the emergency departments are completely overcrowded and this will get worse with the winter flu season approaching. This overcrowding contributes significantly to delays in ambulance turnaround. The lack of resources in rural areas is a different problem. We are not dedicating enough resources to rural locations. If we are serious about reducing the turnaround times, it means that we need to reduce the length of time people are spending in our emergency departments. With that in mind the escalating overcrowding in hospitals being reported by the INMO's figures is of particular concern. We have a long way to go in this regard and the failure to recruit more nurses has exacerbated the issue.

I accept that there are challenges in rural areas and that we cannot expect to achieve the same turnaround times as urban areas, but they could be vastly improved. We need to increase the number of ambulances and paramedics, but we also need to support community first responders to help with emergencies in rural areas.

Details released under the Freedom of Information Act show that nationally on 123 occasions this year it has taken an ambulance at least an hour to arrive at a life-threatening emergency. Some 26 of these were in Wexford while the longest response time was in Mayo. I thank the Minister of State for coming to Belmullet to visit the district hospital. While I am talking about Louth today, the Erris Peninsula is as big as the entire county of Louth. He will be very familiar with this from his part of the country. We are fortunate to have an ambulance base in Belmullet, albeit an hour and ten minutes away from Castlebar.

Rural areas need an increased service. We have a great air ambulance that I have used, thankfully infrequently, as a GP in rural Mayo. Increasing the number of community paramedics and first responders would be sensible and pragmatic, and may alleviate some of the problems we have today.

I welcome the opportunity to address the House, on behalf of the Minister, Deputy Harris, regarding the ambulance service in north County Louth. The National Ambulance Service has three bases in Louth, namely Dundalk, Drogheda and Ardee, from which emergency ambulances and intermediate care services are provided.

The National Ambulance Service has been moving to a policy of dynamic deployment, where vehicles are strategically located where they are most likely to be required, rather than located at a particular station. In this regard, Louth can also be served by resources based at neighbouring counties. The adoption of a dynamic deployment approach was recommended in the National Ambulance Service Baseline and Capacity Review, published in 2016. The ambulance dispatch points were identified following an analysis of demand based on historical data from the regional control rooms. There are ongoing reviews of rosters and strategic deployments of ambulances in the region to ensure that deployed resources remain relevant to demand.

The baseline and capacity review also identified particular difficulties serving rural areas. The review indicated that the only practical way to improve first response times in rural areas is through voluntary community first responder, CFR, schemes. The National Ambulance Service continues to work with local CFR groups across the region to enhance services with eight CFR groups currently operating in County Louth.

The National Ambulance Service also works closely with the Northern Ireland Ambulance Service to provide a better and more responsive service for patients in Border counties, including County Louth. Co-operation is formalised in two memoranda of understanding signed in September 2019.

I note that the Senator seeks the provision of an adequate ambulance service, but I assure him that the Government aspires to the provision of a quality, responsive service. The National Ambulance Service has undergone a very significant process of modernisation in recent years, and a number of important service innovations and developments have taken place. The National Emergency Operations Centre has been established, where emergency calls are received and emergency resources are dispatched. The National Ambulance Service now has full visibility of all available paramedic resources and vehicles in real time, ensuring that the closest available resource is dispatched to an emergency.

Recent developments also include the development of alternative pathways to care. The Hear and Treat clinical hub went live in the National Emergency Operations Centre last year. This is an important service in that it diverts some lower acuity patients away from busy emergency departments and frees up emergency capacity. These initiatives are helping to improve the availability of ambulance resources throughout the country, including in north County Louth.

In each of the recent years, additional investment has been directed towards the National Ambulance Service. This year the National Ambulance Service budget has increased to an unprecedented €168.6 million which supports the National Ambulance Service to continue to deliver a high-quality service. I can confirm that in line with the Programme for a Partnership Government commitment, additional funds will be made available to the National Ambulance Service in 2020.

I thank the Minister of State for his comprehensive response. While the ambulance is based in Belmullet, if the ambulance is not available locally we have to get an ambulance down from Castlebar or Ballina.

Returning to north County Louth, I would like the Minister of State to consider expanding the co-operation with the Northern Ireland Ambulance Service. Places such as Omeath are only ten minutes away from Daisy Hill Hospital in Newry and yet ambulances are being dispatched from Drogheda, leading to a response time of an hour and 20 minutes, when it could be a ten- or 20-minute response time from across the Border.

I again thank the Senator and take his comments on board. As I pointed out, two memoranda of understanding were signed in September 2019. The benefits are only starting to emerge and that is ongoing.

Having been a Minister of State in the Department for a number of years, I have had occasion to visit many health service facilities and see the progress and in some instances the lack thereof.

The Senator will trust my bona fides when it comes to making a judgment like this.

I recommend to any Member to visit the National Ambulance Service and meet its director, Mr. Martin Dunne. I do not have any skin in the game but my impression is that the it is one of the most progressive aspects of our health service. It is impressive to see how the reform agenda has taken hold and how the service has been modernised and extraordinarily progressive in the development of response-led services to meet the needs of the patient and improve response times. It is unfortunate that there will always be outliers and we will all hear stories about an ambulance that took an hour and 20 minutes to arrive. We do not hear the thousands of stories where ambulances or community response cars are typically available within a 20-minute response time in most areas they are deployed. The community response cars are fantastic and they have advanced paramedics. The Senator, as a doctor, will understand and appreciate that.

I genuinely suggest to Members with concerns about the National Ambulance Service that it is well worth going visiting its headquarters. I commend the service highly on the progressive, proactive, can-do approach that the director and the team have adopted under the reform agenda. I am proud of their achievements and Members who have the opportunity to visit them will also be. I thank the Senator for raising the issue.

Hospice Services Provision

I am pleased to be given the opportunity to raise this important issue. I seek an update on the planned 12-bed hospice inpatient project for Sligo. For more than three decades, the North West Hospice has been providing wonderful care to people in counties Sligo and Leitrim, south Donegal and west Cavan. The hospice currently provides an inpatient unit, a community palliative care team and a hospice palliative care team. As many people in the north west will be aware, the hospice is planning a significant project, namely, a 12-bed unit along with day care and outpatient facilities. This is a major undertaking on the current hospice site with an estimated cost of €8.5 million. I understand that this project will be funded through a combination of Government funding, financing, corporate support, support from the diaspora and the local community, along with significant donors.

As representatives of the North West Hospice have stated, this project is crucial to cater for the current and future needs of local communities. The current inpatient unit comprises eight beds, three single rooms and a five-bed ward. The 12-bed project will allow for 12 single rooms and I concur with representatives of the hospice that this is essential and vital for the dignity and privacy of patients and their families. I visited a good friend of mine there nearly two years ago and the service, commitment and dignity shown by the staff, doctors and nurses were admirable.

All these services enable patients with life-limiting illnesses to access expert help locally. The North West Hospice serves a population of 110,000. That is why the project is so vital to the region.

I thank the Senator for raising this important matter.

Since opening in 1998, the North West Hospice has provided a valuable palliative care inpatient service to the people of counties Sligo and Leitrim, south Donegal and west Cavan, as the Senator outlined. While the quality of care provided continues to be excellent, the specialist inpatient unit no longer meets best practice in maintaining the dignity and privacy of patients and their families due to the physical limitations of the facility, especially in relation to space.

As the Senator will be aware, the HSE's palliative care services three-year development framework 2017-2019 informs the development of adult palliative care services in Ireland. The framework recommended that six existing inpatient units should be redeveloped as all single room patient accommodation to ensure the privacy and dignity of each person and to be in compliance with HIQA standards. North West Hospice was listed as one of the hospices to be redeveloped. Against this background, the HSE is continuing to progress plans to develop a new hospice facility on the existing site of the inpatient unit, located on the grounds of Sligo University Hospital. This will see the inpatient unit increase from the current capacity of eight inpatient beds to 12-bed, single room accommodation.

The new hospice facility will include accommodation for the community palliative care team, outpatient and consultation facilities, administration and management offices and will have meeting room facilities for HSE and community and volunteer activities that support the delivery of specialist inpatient, community and acute palliative care services. This will provide for a more efficient delivery of palliative care services throughout the hospice's target region.

I am advised that HSE estates are managing the capital project on behalf of the hospice to ensure compliance with all relevant HSE protocols and statutory requirements. I understand that HSE estates has received the stage 2a design report and is currently working to finalise the costs of the new build. HSE estates is continuing to work closely with the North West Hospice board on the design of the build and has acknowledged the funding commitment given by the board to bring the design and planning application submission to stage 2b.

When the final design is agreed and costings fully worked out, the planning application will then be submitted to the local authority. It is estimated that planning permission will be in place by the end of quarter 2, 2020. The North West Hospice development is included in the HSE's capital plan.

I want to conclude by acknowledging the commitment of the management and staff of North West Hospice for their continued positive engagement with the HSE during the design and planning process. More important, I thank them for their valuable work in providing high-quality palliative care to people with life-limiting conditions in the north west.

I pay tribute to everyone who has helped to raise funds for the hospice and I thank the Minister of State for his reply. Sunflower days are the hospice's main fundraising initiatives and the generosity of local people is incredible. Sunflower days raised a staggering €33,000 over two days in June this year. I understand that special plans are being put in place for the 30th year of the sunflower days campaign in 2020. Great work is being done in developing the hospice facilities in this region and only last month, I was delighted to attend the official opening of a new 14-bed hospice in Castlebar under the Mayo Roscommon Hospice Foundation. I am privileged to have worked on the €6 million hospice plan for Roscommon, which is at an advanced stage of planning and is set to open in 2021. I acknowledge the great work that is being done by the North West Hospice, the Mayo Roscommon Hospice Foundation and many hospices around the country. These people are willing to work together and I know the Government will work with all these groups to ensure we get the best possible palliative care for our citizens.

The purpose of the redevelopment is to provide single rooms that maintain and enhance the dignity and privacy of patients. Ireland has a well-earned reputation for providing high-quality, specialist palliative care thanks to a long-standing positive working relationship between the voluntary and statutory sectors. Collaboration between organisations such as the North West Hospice and the HSE ensure that an integrated approach to palliative care is created, meeting the needs of people across the north west.

I again thank the management and staff of the hospice for the quality care they provide for the people of the north west. The addition of four more inpatient palliative care beds in Sligo is part of a wider move to increase the availability of specialist inpatient palliative care services. There are currently 214 inpatient palliative care beds in hospices at a national level and, by the end of 2020, a further 55 inpatient beds will be opened in hospices in counties Waterford, Wicklow, Kildare and Mayo, bringing the total number of hospice beds to 269.

National palliative care policy seeks to ensure that there is a hospice serving every region. This Government will continue to work with hospice organisations to ensure people with life-limiting conditions throughout the country receive the palliative care they require.

Sitting suspended at 11.08 a.m. and resumed at 11.30 a.m.