I thank the Minister of State for coming to the House and for bearing with us on that procedural issue.
Nithe i dtosach suíonna - Commencement Matters
I thank you, a Chathaoirligh, for selecting this matter. I welcome the Minister of State, Deputy Fleming, to the House.
This relates to reform of the local property tax. I am calling for an end to the local property tax section 8 exemptions. Some elderly people in their 70s, 80s and 90s living in locations like the one in which I live, Dún Laoghaire, have no income other than the State pension and are paying the tax. They can apply for a deferral which is not always granted. As the Minister of State will know, many people do not like to leave unfinished business behind them. They do not want to leave debts or bills behind them for anyone. It is part of our psyche, which I understand.
The existing exemptions are as follows. Properties purchased in 2013 are exempt until the end of 2021 if used as a sole or main residence. Properties that were self-built from 1 January and 1 May 2013 are exempt until the end of 2021 if used as a sole main residence. Properties that were self-built after 1 May 2013 and before 1 November 2021 are not liable for LPT until 2021 even if sold again in that period. New and previously unused properties purchased from a builder or developer between 1 January 2013 and before 1 November 2021 are exempt until the end of 2021 even if sold again in that period. Residential properties constructed and owned by a builder or developer that remain unsold and have not yet been used as dwellings, known in the business as trading stock, are exempt.
I think it needs to end. There was a logic for it, but no longer. We are in a different time. Last week I cited an example of two professionals living in a house valued at nearly €2 million and they are not paying this tax. This tax has no relationship to people's income. It is associated with the value of the house. It is an unjust and unfair tax. I have always strongly advocated for a local council contribution. It can be called a local council tax or whatever the Government likes, but it needs to be upfront and straight with people.
I recognise that local government needs funding and that people should pay for that. I am not here to advocate that councils not be given an income. Local authorities are strapped. In essence what I am saying is that the local property tax needs to be reformed and that the current exemptions are grossly unfair to both other payers of the local property tax, LPT, and to those involved in the local authority.
While I am on my feet, I will stress that I support local authorities and recognise their needs and the difficulties they have in funding their core services. We have to do everything we can to increase their income but the reality is that we need, on another day, a long debate to tease out how we are going to sustain and fund our local authorities so that they can be viable. If we want to empower local communities and address the issues of subsidiarity and of making decisions at a local level, we have to give local authorities adequate funding to do their work and, more importantly, we have to hold them to account. The job of city and county councillors is to hold council executives to account to ensure that they get value for any citizens' money used and that it is used appropriately. Will the Minister of State touch on the issue of section 8? What is the Government's plan to address this anomaly under the programme for Government?
I thank Senator Boyhan for raising this matter. He has given a very detailed list of properties that are exempt from the tax introduced in 2013 to provide a stable sustainable funding base for local authorities, broadening general taxation measures. It has raised approximately €3.5 billion to date. Approximately €473 million is raised by the tax per annum. This goes to fund the local authorities. The Senator has clearly outlined the need for such a tax to fund local authorities. The taxation of property through a recurring annual tax is less economically distortionary than tax on either income or capital. Income and capital can increase or decrease whereas property tends to remain fairly steady. It is the norm in international and European jurisdictions to have some level of property tax.
Moving on to what the Senator has said, the 2020 Programme for Government: Our Shared Future includes commitments in respect of local property tax. It provides that legislation will be brought forward for the tax on the basis of fairness and that most homeowners will face no increase. That is a very clear statement. It is also intended to bring new homes, which are currently exempt from the local property tax, into the taxation system and to retain all money collected within the county, which the Senator will be very pleased to hear given that he comes from Dún Laoghaire. This is to be done on the basis of those counties with a lower LPT base having their income adjusted via an annual national equalisation fund, paid from the Exchequer rather than from local property tax paid in other local authority areas.
The Minister for Finance recently announced his intention to advance legislative proposals early in 2021 to implement these commitments. Ideally, legislation to give effect to the LPT measures I have outlined would have been enacted in 2020. However, the protracted nature of the government formation process following the general election in February and the necessary prioritisation and focus on dealing with the impact of the Covid-19 pandemic delayed decision making on the future of the LPT. The Minister was also very conscious of the practicalities and the need to allow Revenue sufficient time. Essentially, because of Covid and a government not being in place, there was not time to do it this year, even though that was what was intended.
The Minister deferred the revaluation due for 1 November 2020 through SI 458 under section 13(3) of the Finance (Local Property Tax) Act 2012. This decision means that taxpayers will not be faced with increases in their LPT bills for 2021 other than what a local authority may choose to apply in its particular area using the local adjustment factor.
As I have said, we are dealing with this issue under the programme for Government. To put a figure on it, the exempt cohort amounts to around 23,000 properties which were in the process of being built or sold during 2013. These were known to exist and are specifically exempt. The Senator has asked that they now be brought into the system. In addition, there is a much bigger category, that of houses that have been built since 2013. They are not exempt because they were never in the net in the first place. We now have exempt properties that were new in 2013 and those that have been built since and were not even included on the register. They are therefore not exempt and also need to be brought in. This change would bring an extra 80,000 houses nationwide into the system.
That would result in approximately 100,000 houses being brought into the system overall, and at an average figure of approximately €320 per house, this would bring approximately €32 million into the local property tax fund nationwide, or an additional 7%. That will happen during the coming year.
There are 6,000 properties in the Dún Laoghaire-Rathdown County Council area that are outside the net. At an average local property tax of €675 in the area - it is lower than the real average but we can use it as the figure - this equates to €4 million gone that the local authority could do with.
I will read an extract from a letter in The Irish Times the other day from a pensioner. It states:
I believe in paying my fair share but this is unjust. I urge the Government to modify this local property tax in a fair and just manner, and to have regard to the very limited and low income of many older people in our State.
I will leave the Minister of State with that.
There is a need for some exemptions but not these exemptions. We must look again, particularly at older people who are in houses. They are described many times as "empty nesters", which I find very offensive language. These people live in their homes and it is where they have communities. They want to stay there and they should not be penalised for that. I ask the Minister of State to bear that in mind when the local property tax is reconsidered or reviewed.
I understand the gist of the argument and accept what the Senator said. He highlighted regarding Dún Laoghaire the large amounts of money that may be due to a local authority when the changes are made next year. They will flow into 2022. As I said, the figure nationwide will be approximately €32 million.
The programme for Government includes the provision for fairness and most homeowners will face no increase. Although there will be a change in the tax, it is proposed there should not be an increase. The Senator has pointed out the difficulty that the tax is based on property rather than income. There is a strong case that there should be some appreciation of a person's income if he or she is in a high value property but it is not part of the legislation enacted in 2013. There is no doubt that when we see the legislation early next year, there will be quite a debate on that element.
We will have specific legislation rather than including it in the Finance Bill that will come before this House shortly. It has previously been ruled that local property tax measures do not come within the definition of a money Bill provision as contained in Article 22 of the Constitution. Stand-alone legislation will come before the Houses of the Oireachtas on this early next year. I thank the Senator for raising the topic.
I thank the Cathaoirleach for selecting this important matter for rural Ireland. I welcome the Minister of State, Deputy Malcolm Noonan, to the House. We attended a similar virtual event recently and although the circumstances were difficult on the evening in question, we got through it.
The Covid-19 virus and the various regulations contained in the plan for living with Covid-19 have created truly exceptional and unprecedented circumstances for all us, prompting Government interventions in many aspects of Irish society in order to mitigate the negative impact of the virus.
I wish to speak about one such instance today. The recent decision to move to level 5 of the plan for living with Covid-19 has had the effect of prohibiting the shooting of game birds even if the participant is hunting alone and within 5 km of home. Sunday, 1 November marked the beginning of the game shooting season, the biggest day in the calendar for many rural people. However, the shooting sports community stayed at home and played its part in supporting the national effort to combat the deadly threat to our communities from Covid-19. Country Sports Ireland, a leading representative body for shooting sports, is now calling for an extension of the season for pheasant shooting until February 2021 to compensate for time lost during November 2020 and I support that call.
Every year approximately 2,000 gun clubs and organised game shoots comprising around 50,000 members spend millions of euro rearing, releasing and caring for game birds, the great majority of which are pheasants. They also control pest and predator species for farmers and other land managers, provide supplementary feeding for wildlife, plant woodlands and cover crops as well as sympathetically manage habitats such as upland areas or wetlands. All of this extremely important conservation work is done at no cost to the State. The health benefits of outdoor recreation such as shooting sports are well documented and it is imperative that we do everything we can to enable citizens to participate in such activities during what are challenging times for everyone in rural communities.
The recent move to level 5 resulted in the prohibition of the shooting of pheasants until at least 2 December 2020. It is possible that there could be further restrictions on shooting before the end of the season on 31 January 2021. Therefore, a significant proportion of the shooting season for pheasants will be lost and this unexpected and unprecedented occurrence may lead to an overabundance of adult pheasants post-season. This may have an adverse effect on the welfare of pheasants and other species in terms of the availability of food sources in spring 2021. The number of pheasants released would in any other year be perfectly sustainable but the unforeseen circumstances caused by Covid-19 and in particular, the provisions under level 5 of the living with Covid-19 plan, have created an exceptional situation which must be addressed.
Under the Wildlife Act 1976, the Minister for Housing, Local Government and Heritage is empowered to grant licences which permit the hunting of pen-reared pheasants during the month of February. This is principally because pheasants are not an indigenous species and are not a conservation concern. Their numbers are boosted each year by release programmes and in any case, I am advised that they breed much later in the year, in April and May. All of the clubs and organised game shoots that release pheasants during 2020 should be granted a licence to shoot until the end of February 2021 for environmental balancing purposes. I ask the Minister of State to indicate that the Minister will favourably consider licensing the hunting of pen-reared pheasants until the end of February 2021 under the provisions of the Wildlife Act 1976, provided we are not under level 5 restrictions at that time. This extension already has a standing in law and would be a cost-effective and direct approach to resolving a potentially significant conservation issue. I look forward to the Minister of State's response.
I thank Senator O'Reilly for raising this matter. I recall the virtual platform we shared with representatives from our sister city of Formigine in Italy. It was a very enjoyable experience.
The matter raised by the Senator must be considered in the context of Ireland's approach to dealing with the coronavirus pandemic and in particular, the level 5 restrictions currently in place. The Government has spelled out specific areas where certain activities may continue during the level 5 phase but the general approach is that people should stay at home as much as possible except in exceptional circumstances.
We can say at this stage that the strategy under level 5 restrictions is beginning to have the desired effect with a reduction in the number of Covid-19 cases in the past week. This is a really good downward trajectory in addition to the stabilisation of ICU admissions. We are, of course, deeply indebted to our front-line workers and mindful of the families who have lost loved ones due to Covid-19. The current restrictions have impacted on all of us in one way or another. The restrictions have necessarily impacted on a range of sporting activities and this includes a number of outdoor activities such as hunting, whether it be shooting pheasant, duck, deer or other species. While my Department has a role in the conservation of protected species, the Department does not have a function in granting exemptions from compliance with public health regulations made in the context of Covid-19. Such exemptions are made on public health grounds.
The hunting season for pheasants is regulated by legislation known as the open seasons order, a statutory instrument made under the Wildlife Acts. Under this order, the hunting of pheasants extends from 1 November 2020 to 31 January 2021. There is no requirement for a licence from my Department to hunt pheasant except in the case of pen reared pheasants. Of course, all hunters do need a current firearms certificate issued by An Garda Síochána for any hunting activity. I am aware that An Garda Síochána recently issued a statement indicating that pheasant shooting is not permissible under level 5 restrictions. The National Parks and Wildlife Service of my Department has also issued a statement indicating that licences issued by the NPWS do not in any way confer exemptions in respect of compliance with public health guidelines.
I am conscious that most individuals who hunt pheasant do so for recreational purposes. That point was well outlined by Senator O'Reilly. It would be my hope as, indeed, it would be the hope of most of us, that the success of the current level 5 restrictions in reducing the level of Covid-19 cases will continue and allow the Government to ease restrictions next month. This may well see a return to pheasant shooting but, clearly, this will depend on the success achieved and the advice available to Government later during this current phase.
While I have no current plans to extend the hunting season for pheasant to the end of February 2021, I have listened carefully to the Senator. Like others, I await the outcome of the current level 5 restrictions in that context and I will keep the matter of the pheasant hunting season under review.
I thank the Minister of State for his response. I join with him in acknowledging the success and sacrifice made by people to achieve success over the coronavirus, which is admirable. Among that cohort of people engaged in achieving that success are the people who do the shooting in question and the country sports that I have set out.
Originally I made the point that if level 5 were to pertain at the time, then it is a very different context. I welcome the fact that the Minister of State will keep the situation under review. I appeal to him to look at the fact that we will have an overabundance of pheasants so subsequently there will be balance issues, bird welfare issues and habitat issues. If we do not have an intervention in February then I ask him to consider the facts that the breeding season is much later and around 50,000 citizens have had their activities curtailed but acquiesced very patriotically. I appeal to the Minister of State to keep the matter under review and I hope that he will be able to grant an extension at the time.
I take on board the points made by the Senator. I agree with him that many people have, throughout this year, had a really terrible experience and had life experiences robbed from them. Family events and family occasions have all been denied to people. Our memories of this year will be very painful ones collectively for the nation and globally and it is important to acknowledge that. We are still unsure of the trajectory of this pandemic. We could certainly ease restrictions in December and end up in a very challenging situation again. The announcement of a possible vaccine may not really have an impact until towards the end of next year. So it is really important to keep a very open mind as to where we are going with this.
While the Government is moving from the current level 5 restrictions, hopefully in December, we must keep an open view and be mindful that these are public health guidelines primarily that have served us well. It is important that we continue to follow those guidelines and within that I shall monitor the situation.
I welcome the Minister of State to the Chamber. On the Order of Business of 29 July, I spoke about the 1,700 independent not-for-profit section 39 organisations that operate in Ireland, and in particular, St. Christopher's Services, which operates in my own area of Longford, and St. Hilda's Services of Athlone. St. Christopher's Services provides day services for 141 adults, full-time residential care for 39 adults, respite care for 50 adults, and day-to-day respite for 15 children.
The biggest challenge facing an organisation such as St. Christopher's Services, which has a staff of 239 full- and part-time members, is retaining staff. In 2019 and 2020, St. Christopher's Services lost 10% of its permanent workforce. Staff are due to receive €1.3 million in cumulative back pay dating back to 2010. The difference in the pay scales of where staff should be, and where they currently are, is a figure of €1.275 million. Many of the staff are being paid under 2013 Department of Health consolidation pay scale rates, rather than the 2019 rates, which means that there is a high level of competition for very skilled workers. St. Christopher's Services is losing many of its staff to other HSE services, section 38 organisations and private providers. This is largely due to the massive discrepancies in pay for section 39 staff. They recruit and train staff, who are then tempted to go and work for section 38 organisations or the HSE, where conditions of service and pay are much better. They want to continue to work within the sector, and, in many cases, within the organisation they already are in, but obviously for financial reasons, they have to move, and we cannot blame them for this. If these organisations cannot retain existing staff or attract new staff, the organisations will not last into the future.
When I spoke in the Seanad I received a high volume of correspondence from staff on the issue. I will now quote some of the comments that were made to me: "changes in staff affecting the users"; "workloads on staff increasing, especially during Covid; "staff are at breaking point"; "we are deemed to be front-line staff, yet we are treated as second class citizens"; "I am on half the pay of my HSE counterpart; it is simply not good enough." It is not good enough.
The independent not-for-profit group, while partly funded by the Government, is accountable to the State, and while standards of accountability, compliance and regular restructures have increased substantially over the past decade, the necessary additional funding to assist this work has not been put in place. These services do not focus on making profits like the private sector, but rather on improving and sustaining our communities and society in general, by building a relationship with users, their families and friends. These workers took pay cuts when we bailed out the banks earlier in this decade, and have been waiting ever since to have their wages restored to parity with their work colleagues in section 38 organisations or the HSE. There is a belief among these organisations that the State does not value their contribution as much as it did in years gone by.
We need to appreciate and cherish our voluntary sector. This means treating those involved with fairness and respect to ensure services are secure for the families and communities that use them. Section 39 organisations provide a range of social care services and other supports nationwide and receive an element of State funding to do so. These are non-profit organisations that provide residential respite and day services to vulnerable people, many of whom are wholly reliant on these services. Among the voluntary organisations are hospices, mental health providers, nursing homes, home care providers, small community-based groups and social care services. The voluntary sector provides some two thirds of all disability services and 80% of residential services. I would like to take this opportunity to commend the many volunteers and board members of these not-for-profit organisations, who provide such a fantastic service, along with the staff, in keeping the services going, particularly in these difficult times.
We must take steps, not only to improve the conditions of those who work so hard on our behalf, but on behalf of those who are dear to each one of us. These organisations make valuable contribution across Irish society and have an integral role in the health and social care sector, where the State relies on these organisations to deliver core health and social care services through various contractual agreements. It must put in place the necessary steps to ensure full pay restoration to section 39 workers because that is what they deserve. We are all agreed that we want higher standards in the sector, and there are more people living longer with more complex needs.
I am deeply concerned about the provision of funding, not just for the workers, but for the infrastructure of the services, especially in the area of disabilities and mental health. While the process of pay restoration has commenced, many organisations are in perilous financial situations and are operating at a financial deficit.
The Special Committee on Covid-19 Response heard that there were no developments sent to approximately 250 of the other State organisations with regard to funding. The initial 50 organisations were funded. Section 38 guarantees the future of the service indefinitely and provides much-needed reassurance around the correct funding for the service in the years to come.
This issue has been debated in both Houses previously. Various Ministers have been raising this issue since as far back as 2013 or 2014. As Members are aware, the HSE has assured the Department of Health that it is committing to working intensively with such organisations and will support them as appropriate. However, I wish to stress that the time for talking, publishing reports and giving recommendations is done. Action is needed.
I welcome the Minister of State, Deputy Rabbitte, to the House and congratulate her on her recent appointment.
I thank the Leas-Chathaoirleach for his kind words and Senator Carrigy for raising this matter. At the outset, I wish to acknowledge the important services provided by St. Christopher's Services in Longford and the commitment of its staff to people with disabilities and their families. St. Christopher's is a service with which I am very familiar. Several Oireachtas Members have highlighted the important work of the service and what it means to the people of Longford and the surrounding area. It has a long and well-established track record of working with people with intellectual disabilities in the county. Residential services are provided by St. Christopher's to more than 35 service users by way of supported living, independent living and health and social care. As the Senator rightly outlined, day services are provided to more than 140 service users. It also delivers respite services through various models to approximately 50 adults and 14 children.
St. Christopher's Services is a non-statutory organisation funded by the HSE under section 39 of the Health Act 2004. In 2019, it received more than €9.8 million in funding from the HSE. The HSE expects the final funded position in 2020 to exceed that figure. As the Senator will be aware, the HSE is not the sole source of funding for the organisation. I understand that it also receives funding from the Department of Education in respect of St. Christopher's Special School, well as through other channels including fundraising and support from the parents and friends of the organisation. Funding is provided by the HSE for the provision of services in accordance with the terms of the service arrangement agreed yearly with the organisation and is underpinned by section 39 of the Health Act 2004. Organisations funded under that section of the Act receive grant assistance from the HSE to provide services similar or ancillary to services the HSE may provide. This is different from section 38 organisations, which enter into an agreement with the HSE to provide health or personal social services on behalf of the HSE. As of now, there is no established procedure or means by which an organisation can cease to be a service provider funded under section 39 of the Health Act 2004 and become a service provider under section 38 of the Act. Furthermore, section 39 services extend beyond those that provide services for health and social care. As such, changes in the status of such organisations may have broader implications for the State.
Service level agreements are a governance matter for the HSE and the relevant section 39 agency. The Department makes no decision on these matters. In the event of a dispute between the HSE and a section 39 agency, the parties are expected to resolve those differences through mechanisms set out in the service level agreements. I am told that St. Christopher's Services was one of the 50 pilot organisations party to the Workplace Relations Commission, WRC, agreement reached in October 2018 with regard to pay restoration for section 39 organisations. I understand that the WRC pay restoration process for the organisation is completed. Issues surrounding staff pay with regard to section 39 organisations such as St. Christopher's are a matter for those organisations to resolve internally.
I thank the Minister of State and wish her well in her role. I apologise for not congratulating her earlier. In her concluding remarks, the Minister of State stated that these issues have been resolved but the reality on the ground is that the issues of staff and increments have not been resolved.
A significant amount of money is outstanding. I gave the figure earlier. It is over €1 million to which these staff members are entitled. They took these cuts during the downturn in the economy and they are entitled to the return of their increments. An organisation like St. Christopher’s Services that is reliant on a lot of local fundraising to run many of its services is not in a position to pay these increments to staff. It is incumbent on the State to pay them their increments and bring up their pay scales so that the organisation is able to maintain its staff levels. The reality is that if St. Christopher's Services is unable to do that and folds, the HSE will have to provide those services and the staff will be paid at a higher level. I am not happy with the answer. It is incumbent on the Department and the HSE to make sure that these pay scales are brought up.
The Senator made his point very clearly and eloquently on behalf of St. Christopher's Services and many more organisations across the country. There was a pilot involving 50 of those organisations in 2018 and 2019. It is working its way through the WRC, as I clearly explained. This has not concluded in its entirety. In his speech, the Senator mentioned approximately 250 organisations that find themselves within that remit, of which 110 are from the disability service delivery sector in section 38 and section 39 organisations. It is a very emotive subject for staff who have taken pay cuts and have not received their increments and for providers who can find it very hard to recruit and retain staff while other operators such as the HSE can easily operate. It is in the programme for Government and will be addressed over our term.
When anyone is faced with a difficult health diagnosis, particularly if it is terminal, it is simply life shattering for that person and his or her family and close friends. Apart from the emotional impact and the stress about diagnosis, treatment and the financial impact, there is the significant concern about whether a person can afford to pay for treatment or get a medical card and if he or she was eligible, how long it would take get that medical card. All of us in politics know how complex and difficult it is to get a medical card. There are many difficulties and complexities involved. Dealing with paperwork and bureaucracy while terminally ill is the last thing a person needs. These people need to be able to get on with their lives along with their loved ones for however long they have left.
Currently, only those with a 12-month prognosis qualify for an end-of-life medical card. However, it is understandably very difficult to get consultants to provide a definitive timeframe such as this and those who fall outside the 12-month parameter find it very difficult to obtain a card. Even those who do qualify are means tested - I would call it a mean test as opposed to a means test - and must renew it every six months. People facing a life-ending illness should not have to worry about a financial burden imposed by their medical expenses. Added to that is the length of time it takes to get a card. All applications need to be screened initially for serious or terminal illnesses and fast-tracked. We have a problem when we have 1.5 million people on medical cards - more people than ever before - but those who really need them do not have them. We have all heard of John Wall, the Clare man who is terminally ill with stage 4 prostate cancer, who has been an incredible advocate for people in this situation. His medical card was revoked twice after reviews by the HSE.
It was reinstated, with an apology. Fair play to him. He continues to campaign to get better access to medical cards for those with a terminal illness. In a letter dated 15 August, 2019, the Ombudsman stated that he had "considerable concerns" about "inconsistencies" and "misleading information" given to Mr. Wall. This is incredibly worrying. I speak as someone who has gone through this situation with a family member. The final report of the clinical advisory group is due soon and I certainly hope it will contain good and positive news for people like John, who should be spending their days with their families and not campaigning for fair treatment. I welcome the news of a meeting last Friday between John and the Minister for Health, Deputy Donnelly. I hope that positive progress has been made and that we will be informed of that in the coming days.
I thank Senator O'Loughlin for raising this matter. She has quite rightly referred to John Wall in her speech. It is some 12 months since we were in the audio visual room in Leinster House when Mr. Wall made a presentation to Members. Brian Lynch from Gort, in my constituency, was also there on the day. At that point the situation with self-employed people was part of one of the issues. When we talk of means testing we also must look at those people who are self employed, which was part of the campaign. It is an important issue that has been the centre of much commentary and debate recently, namely, the ability of terminally ill patients to have access to a medical card.
At the outset, it is important to provide clarity for our patients and to reassure them that the process provides for a person who has a terminal illness to be eligible for a medical card, and that it is possible through a number of ways.
Where the HSE is informed that a patient is receiving end-of-life treatment, which is when the patient unfortunately has a prognosis of less than 12 months, a medical card is awarded to these patients. These patients are not required to undergo a financial needs assessment, nor are they ever reassessed. There are currently almost 1,800 medical cards granted under end-of-life criteria.
Terminally ill patients who do not meet the end-of-life criteria may also qualify for a medical card under the general assessment process, or they may initially be granted a medical card on an emergency basis for up to six months. I understand that not all persons with a terminal diagnosis will necessarily meet the end-of-life criteria when initially applying for a medical card, due to the staging or severity of their illness. I also appreciate and understand that this is a source of upset and concern to those patients. This is why the programme for Government provided a commitment to extend access to medical cards to persons who are terminally ill. A key part of the process to deliver on this commitment was the establishment of the HSE clinical advisory group in December 2019 to review the issue. The work of that group has concluded and on behalf of the Minister, Deputy Donnelly, I would like to publicly thank the clinical advisory group for the work it undertook to examine and review the many complexities that arise from this issue.
The report of the clinical advisory group was submitted to the Department in September and it was carefully considered. The report highlighted the practical and legal challenges with extending eligibility for medical cards to terminally ill patients within the framework of the current process. Nonetheless, this Government is committed delivering on this issue and therefore I am pleased to confirm that a detailed memo on the findings of the report and next steps was considered by Government this morning. The Minster is eager to move ahead on this matter and has requested that an ambitious work programme be immediately undertaken by officials that will ensure delivery on the programme for Government commitment. The Minister, Deputy Donnelly, has confirmed that the report of the clinical advisory group will be published imminently.
Finally, I wish to reassure patients that the Government is committed to ensuring that terminally ill patients have access to services they require, especially when their health needs are greatest.
I thank the Minister of State, Deputy Rabbitte, for being here to take this matter. I also thank her for clarifying exactly where we are with regard to this. Of course, I acknowledge that this was in the programme for Government. I have fought for this and have been very struck by those going through this, no more than during the presentation in the AV room, which the Minister of State mentioned, and it is something that we absolutely need to do.
It is welcome and the Minister of State confirmed that a detailed memo on the findings of the reports and next steps were considered by the Government this morning. Those next steps are hugely important. I accept and appreciate the fact that the Minister has requested that an ambitious work programme be undertaken and that the report will be published imminently. However, I would like if the Minister of State could put some type of timescale around that. When would we expect to see the report of the group? What are the next steps and when would we take them? I appreciate the Minister of State's reassurance that the Government is committed to ensuring that terminally ill patients will have access to these services but I have to draw the Minister of State back to what the Ombudsman said last year in terms of misinformation that can be given out that is misleading and that contains inconsistencies. It is so important that we get all of that right.
The Senator is right that it is all about the communication and the messaging. As an elected representative, no different to Members of this House, I pick up the telephone and deal with constituents who get mixed messaging all of the time. It is all about the messaging and that is what I would say clearly to those in the Department or the HSE who are listening in. We need to be clear in our communication. We are dealing with very vulnerable people who will have received shocking news. That is to be dealt with empathetically but it must be the correct information and not misinformation. Whether one is a PAYE worker, self-employed or not working at all, one needs to know exactly what category one falls into. Most importantly, if one is hit with that unbelievable diagnosis, be it an end-of-life diagnosis or a terminal illness, we need to know to what that constituent and patient is entitled and give it clearly to them. We must not put them around in rings trying to figure it out, adding to their frustrations and adding to the complete tension and anxiety they are experiencing.
I am clear that the Senator's request is for me to give her a timeline. The Minister, Deputy Stephen Donnelly, was at Cabinet earlier today and I have not spoken to him since but I am sure that as soon as he gets a moment, he will let everybody know. Most importantly, he will be talking clearly to John Wall as well, to bring him an update. John Wall has campaigned through his own illness to fight for others.
Dog Breeding Industry
Cuirim fáilte roimh an Aire Stáit, Senator Hackett. Today, Dogs Trust launched its Sold a Pup campaign, calling for the stringent enforcement of the law on the sale, supply and advertising of pets. It seems that every year as we approach Christmas, it has to fall to charities and welfare organisations to once again remind people to reconsider giving a dog as a Christmas present. While Christmas is the time that there is a stronger focus on the online sale of pets, that is not to say that the problem does not exist for the rest of the year. The illegal sale of dogs online continues all year around.
On 1 February 2020, the much-anticipated legislation came into force with the sale or supply of pets regulations. This legislation promised to improve transparency and traceability of sellers and breeders. It was hoped that these regulations would give puppy farmers nowhere to hide and that there would be greater transparency about licensed dog breeding establishments to assist those looking to purchase a dog. However, it seems that while the legislation is in place, there is little to no enforcement of it. Instead, the burden is placed on the buyer to try to buy responsibly. The sale of dogs is a highly profitable business and puppy farms and unscrupulous sellers go to enormous lengths to mislead the public. Moreover, the Covid-19 lockdown has made it much easier for them to conceal the origin of the dogs.
Research by Dogs Trust found that 68% of people were unable to spot an illegal advertisement and 72% were unaware of the legal requirements brought into force on 1 February.
These regulations set out very clearly the requirements for the online sale of dogs.
The advert must include the registration number of the seller-supplier, the age of the animal and that it is no less than eight weeks old. It must also include the unique microchip of the dog and if the dog has come from a dog breeding establishment. The registration number as issued by the local authority must also be included.
These requirements are being flouted daily. On one sample day, there were 62 adverts on one online platform and only one of those adverts was in compliance. Dog welfare charities and activists are doing the job of the Department by monitoring the online sites for breaches. They have found sellers with multiple phone numbers and profiles across multiple platforms and jurisdictions. One piece of research found that from 4,776 seller profiles online, only 55 were listed as traders. One phone number alone was linked to 15 separate adverts during a three month period. The misuse of microchip numbers and false breeding licence numbers is also taking place regularly.
Does the Minister of State recognise the importance of this legislation in the fight against deplorable practices in the over-breeding of dogs in puppy farms? We know traceability is key and the lack of enforcement of the regulations ensures that non-compliance puppy farmers have a ready made accessible channel to sell to unsuspecting customers.
What efforts have been made by the Department to raise awareness of the new rules that came into effect? How many sellers have registered with the Department since their introduction? Has the Department engaged with the online platforms to ensure compliance? What resources has the Department dedicated to the enforcement of the rules? Could the Minister of State outline if any infringement procedures have taken place since their introduction?
The Minister, Deputy McConalogue, apologises for not being here in person to take this question. The safety and welfare of pet animals was one of the concerns behind the introduction by the Department of Agriculture, Food and the Marine of regulations on the sale and supply of pet animals last year, and which came into effect in February. These regulations were welcomed by the ISPCA and other welfare organisations, and put into law certain requirements for sellers and suppliers of pet animals, including minimum ages for sale of certain mammals, record-keeping, registration with the Department, and provision of certain information about the pet in advertisements.
Under the regulations, anyone who sells or supplies six or more pet animals in a calendar year must register with the Department, unless subject to the requirement to register with their local authority under the Dog Breeding Establishments Act 2010. Anyone advertising a pet animal for sale or supply must not, without reasonable excuse, publish or display, or cause to be published, the advertisement if it does not include certain information. This includes the microchip number in the case of an advertisement for a dog.
While there is further work to be done on effective enforcement of the regulations, the requirement to include certain information about a pet animal in an advertisement is a significant measure that will assist potential pet owners in deciding the appropriate seller with which to engage. Potential pet owners should carefully do comprehensive research before acquiring a pet. The promotion of pet ownership is a programme for Government commitment, and this should extend to how a pet is acquired in the first place.
The Irish Pet Advertising Advisory Group, IPAAG, which includes a number of welfare organisations and a representative of the Department, has published practical, comprehensive advice on its website for anyone thinking of acquiring a pet, including what to check for in advertisements for pet animals. I wish to acknowledge the IPAAG’s contribution to promoting the responsible advertising of pet animals. The sale and purchase of a pet is a commercial transaction between a seller and a buyer.
The owner or person in charge of any animal is responsible for its health and welfare. Any evidence of animal cruelty or neglect of an animal’s welfare should be brought to the attention of the Department. All such reports are followed up on and the information is treated in confidence. The Government is committed to advancing animal welfare. In December 2019 the Department provided record funding awards of €2,906,000 to 106 animal welfare organisations in recognition of their good work. The Minister expects to announce a further series of ex gratia payments to these organisations in the coming weeks.
I thank the Minister of State. We all agree the regulations in place are welcome, but the problem is the lack of enforcement. Perhaps the Department could follow up in writing regarding whether there have been any infringements since the regulations were put in place and what resources have been provided by the Department to ensure compliance. It is important that anybody who is considering purchasing a pet, as opposed to adopting or rescuing one, does his or her homework. Research carried out by Dogs Trust is very worrying. It found that 83% of people are unaware that there can be hundreds of breeding bitches in dog breeding establishments, that each bitch can have six litters and that there is only a requirement for one staff member for every 25 breeding females.
It is critical to have a database and that the advertisements are verified. The information must be verifiable. We know false information is being put up daily with regard to the microchips and the dog breeding establishment licences. I ask the Minister to answer the questions I have asked in writing. Would she give a commitment that the Minister will consider the establishment of a national, centrally-controlled database where all that information can be collated? It would make it far easier to verify whether one's dog is coming from a dog breeding establishment, whether it is a third-party seller and that the microchip is verifiable and not from an animal that has already died or been sold elsewhere.
Ultimately, responsibility lies not only with the people selling the pets to provide the information required, as was indicated by the Senator, but also on the publishers of the advertisements. They are required to ensure that people display the information. Unfortunately, they do not have access to the source of the information, so it is difficult for them to verify that. The enforcement of the regulations is particularly difficult with regard to the issues highlighted by the Senator in terms of false microchip numbers, fake details and so forth, but it is something I will request the Department to undertake with due vigour. Again, there is a dedicated helpline to report any incidents and if anyone suspects somebody is selling pets illegitimately, he or she should call the number or email animal welfare at agriculture.gov.ie.
From a personal perspective, I urge anybody thinking of getting a pet cat, dog, rabbit or whatever this year to consider rehoming first from the many reputable animal welfare organisations across the country. I and my family have found this to be very fulfilling and it is something I am confident my children will continue to do throughout their lives.