Nithe i dtosach suíonna - Commencement Matters

Horticulture Sector

The matter I raise today relates to the importance of the horticultural peat industry to the Irish economy and the threat arising from unprecedented legal and planning problems facing the industry. As we know, peat is used in horticulture, particularly as a growing medium by both amateur and professional gardeners, professional growers and the mushroom, forestry and soft fruit industry. At one point my family was in the mushroom farming business so I certainly have experience of the importance of peat and the impact that is currently being felt with respect to other countries both within and soon to be outside Europe.

The Minister of State knows the Irish horticultural industry makes a very significant contribution to the Irish economy, with a farm gate value of €437 million in 2018, an employment value of €497 million and exports of €239 million. An estimated 6,600 people work within the industry and there are another 11,000 jobs in ancillary employment. It is very important.

We are not talking about a huge amount of peatland, as it is under 5% of the Irish peatlands under production, equating to 0.4% of the total Irish peatlands. The current legal position is that horticultural peat harvesting requires planning permission and a licence from the Environmental Protection Agency. This process can take between four and six years and it is unnecessarily burdensome and disproportionate. We could have a situation where many businesses could close when the horticultural industry runs out of peat, which will happen in July next year.

This would be a very regrettable and would have major detrimental employment and economic effects on the industry that I mentioned. Without an indigenous supply of horticultural peat, many of our growers would have to look abroad, particularly to Lithuania or to Holland. The costs would be four times what the costs are here. Apart from that, we need only reflect on the higher environmental cost as peat production would be shifted from one part of the EU to another, resulting in Irish growers adding thousands of kilometres of a carbon footprint to what is happening at the moment. It is unacceptable and hypocritical to ban the use of peat in Ireland for horticultural products and then import it from another EU member state or a third country. What could happen, and as happened in the mushroom industry many years ago, is that those growing mushrooms, plants, strawberries and other produce here would be at a competitive disadvantage. They could lose much of the domestic market because of cheaper imports. On behalf of all of those currently employed in the sector, I ask the Minister of State to revisit this issue with his colleagues in the Department of Agriculture, Food and the Marine and ensure some compromise can be made.

This is a sector with which I am very familiar. I worked as a landscape gardener for many years prior to and while still in politics. I am very much familiar with the issue and very much in support of the amenity horticulture side of it and in terms of nursery stocks.

In January 2019, the European Union (Environmental Impact Assessment) (Peat Extraction) Regulations 2019 and the Planning and Development Act 2000 (Exempted Development) Regulations 2019 came into effect. These regulations came into force after a decision by An Bord Pleanála upheld by the High Court that large-scale peat extraction is not exempt development and requires planning permission, as the Senator said. On 20 September 2019, the High Court ruled that proceedings brought challenging the regulations should be allowed on certain grounds. This decision means that peat cannot be extracted from areas larger than 30 ha from Irish bogs unless the developer has planning permission to do so.

Peat is traditionally a very important component of the national horticultural and amenity plant sector. However, while this is still the case, the industry continues to develop and progress. While currently there are no suitable or viable alternatives to using peat for mushroom casing, the horticulture sector is researching alternatives for peat such as biochar, spent mushroom stabilisation and other forms. The Department of Agriculture, Food and the Marine is supporting the research process by funding two research projects commissioned by Ireland's mushroom producer organisation, CMP.

My Department of Housing, Local Government and Heritage published a consultation document, entitled A review of the use of peat in the horticultural industry, to fulfil action 5 under the national peatland strategy. The consultation invited written submissions from stakeholders to be submitted by the 20 January 2020.

On 7 September 2020, I published a report on the review of the use of peat moss in the horticultural industry. The review report was prepared by an inter-agency working group following on from submissions from stakeholders. After the publication of this report, I set up a working group to consider impacts on the sector. It is proposed that this working group will represent Departments, including Agriculture, Food and the Marine, State agencies, environmental non-governmental organisations and industry stakeholders. The working group will address the key issues raised in the report, including future use of peat by the horticulture sector. The position of chair for the independent working group that will be formed has been advertised and the closing date for receipt of the applications was 23 November. Once the chair is in place, we will set that working group to task in its important work.

I thank the Minister of State for his response. It is good to know the horticulture sector is researching alternatives for peat. While we are waiting for the alternatives to be developed, I ask that people would be able to continue to harvest the peat necessary. It is a concern that the working group has not yet met and a chair of it has not been appointed, but I assume it will start work in 2021, given that the current peat reserves will run out in July.

We need to act more quickly and a solution needs to be found as soon as possible and urgently because there is the possibility of major job losses in my county, Kildare, north Dublin and other areas that have traditionally had many nursery growers. We have to put in place anything we can to safeguard the continued operation of the sector. I understand that two statutory instruments have been suggested. They could be a possibility. I ask the Minister of State to consider them again because we all have to protect jobs in the sector. We also have to ensure that proper after-use plans are put in place for the peatlands for the benefit of our future generations. We would all support that. This is about trying to find a compromise to support these 6,000 jobs.

Planning Guidelines

It is good to see Senator Moynihan in the Chair. I welcome the Minister of State to the House. The reason I have asked him to come before the House is the urgent need to change the building regulations to make it mandatory to include what are called Changing Places toilet facilities rather than the current standard accessible toilets in public buildings. In Ireland there are estimated to be only 15 Changing Places toilet facilities. There are over 1,500 in England, I am told, and recently the UK introduced legislation which will make Changing Places toilet facilities mandatory in new public buildings from 2021. Across the Border, there are 40 in Northern Ireland, and the Northern Ireland Assembly has given a commitment to amend its regulations. An online campaign by Changing Places is ongoing, with more than 7,000 signatories asking the Irish Government to change the building regulations to ensure that Changing Places toilet facilities are mandatory in all new public buildings.

This is simply a quality of life issue for families whose loved ones need changing or assistance with very basic human needs. I am aware of a number of families who simply cannot use the current facilities on offer in this country. Their children, their loved ones, have grown into young adults and adults, and the small baby tables currently in these facilities are simply not good enough. These families are left having to change their children in the back of their cars or on the cold floors of what changing rooms they can find. These families cannot plan day-to-day family events that most of us take for granted, such as going out on family trips to the shops, the cinema or other attractions that families visit together and enjoy so much. It is not possible for them to plan such family events because they know their loved ones will need changing and the care that comes with their medical condition and there are no facilities on the way or near the attractions and locations that they as a family can use. It is simply not good enough that we lack these facilities in our country. We are so far behind other countries that we have an awful lot of catching up to do.

I am aware that the Minister of State and the Department are actively looking at setting up a working group to progress this matter. I hope the Minister of State can update us today on the Department's commitment on this important matter and the progress that has been made with the working group.

I am also aware that a number of local authorities are building or have very recently built such Changing Places toilet facilities. My colleague, Councillor George Lawlor, was involved in this with the access officer of Wexford County Council. That local authority built a fully accessible Changing Places facility, with consultation from Changing Places, in a new park in Wexford for less than €50,000. This, I am sure the Minister will agree, is a great step forward and I hope it will be replicated in other areas and when parks and playgrounds are being planned in future.

This issue directly affects the quality of life of so many families. It prevents them from planning the days out that many of us still hold dear. We treasure the family memories made on such occasions. Changing in the back seat of a car should belong to a bygone era and changing on the cold floor of a small changing room should be a distant memory. It is time we gave these young children and adults back their dignity and met their needs, desires and wishes in all public buildings. I look forward to the Minister of State's reply and assure him of my support and the support of the families who most need these changes and who have contacted me. We all look forward to a positive reply on what is a very important matter.

I thank Senator Wall for raising this important issue. It has been raised in the Dáil by my colleague, Deputy Steven Matthews, as well. I also thank the campaign group, Changing Places, for the work it has been doing on this.

The purpose of the building regulations is primarily to protect the health, safety and welfare of people in and around buildings. While both codes deal with the built environment, they have interrelated but separate roles.

As matters currently stand, new buildings and extensions or material alterations to existing buildings must comply with the legal minimum performance standards set out in the building regulations of 1997 to 2019. In this context, the Building Regulations (Part M Amendment) Regulations 2010, and the accompanying Technical Guidance Document - Access and Use (2010), which came into effect on 1 January 2012, set out the minimum statutory requirements a building must achieve in respect of access.

On the Senator's specific query, my Department proposes to establish a working group to examine the inclusion of a provision relating to a changing places facility, commonly known as a changing places toilet, in Part M, technical guidance document M, of the second schedule of the building regulations.

In this regard, my Department has recently written to a number of relevant stakeholders to invite their organisations to participate in the working group. The terms of reference for the working group include assisting in the preparation of draft documentation for public consultation, which will include an examination of costs and preparation of a regulatory impact analysis. The working group will then review submissions received after a public consultation and will support the finalisation of a revised draft Part M, technical guidance document M. It is proposed hold an initial introductory meeting of the working group next week.

Part M aims to ensure that regardless of a person's age, size or disability, new buildings other than dwellings are accessible and usable; extensions to existing buildings other than dwellings are, where practicable, accessible and useable; material alterations to existing buildings other than dwellings increase the accessibility and usability of existing buildings, where practicable; certain changes of use to existing buildings other than dwellings increase the accessibility and usability of existing buildings where practicable; and new dwellings are visitable.

Part M of the building regulations aims to foster an inclusive approach to the design and construction of the built environment. While the Part M requirements may be regarded as a statutory minimum level of provision, the accompanying technical guidance encourages building owners and designers to have regard to the design philosophy of universal design and to consider making additional provisions where practicable and appropriate.

Guidance on how to design, build and manage buildings and spaces so that they can be readily accessed and used by everyone, regardless of age, size, ability or disability is available in "Building for Everyone, A Universal Design Approach", a National Disability Authority publication.

I welcome the Minister of State's reply, which represents a very important step forward. Having an introductory meeting next week is very positive. As I said in my introduction, we are behind the curve on the number of changing facilities we have, and we have a considerable amount of catching up to do. I welcome the Minister of State's commitment to this. For quality of life it is vital that we have as many changing places and toilet facilities as possible throughout the country. I also ask the Minister of State to consider putting changing places and toilet facilities in local authority parks and close to playgrounds. We have seen an important step forward in Wexford. It would be very welcome if that could be replicated throughout the country.

Pyrite Remediation Programme

My issue relates to schools. Is that okay?

Yes, would the Senator like me to read it out?

The need for the Minister for Education to make a statement on pyrite remediation works at St. Patrick’s National School in Diswellstown, Dublin 15. The Minister of State, Deputy Noonan, is taking all the Commencement matters today.

I welcome the Minister of State. More than 40 families living in the Carpenterstown area of Dublin 15, including some with older siblings already at St Patrick's National School in Diswellstown, found out last week that their children will not be starting in the school in September 2021. Many of the disappointed families live very close by and obviously have not been offered a place because it is oversubscribed. I have two children aged six and eight. If I were told that my younger child could not go to school with their older sibling, I would be devastated.

This is as a result of the new admissions policy the archdiocese imposed on the school where the date of birth must be taken into consideration for children with siblings already in the school and children living in the parish.

This has resulted in the school only being in a position to offer places to children born on or before 18 November 2016, which is really early. This leaves a number of children who have siblings already in the school and who will be nearly five in September 2021 without a place in the school. In fact, they do not have a place in any primary school because their parents believed they would be prioritised as the family is already part of the school community. In addition, these children are not eligible for a third year of the early childhood care and education, ECCE, scheme, so they are in a very difficult position. Does the Department have a plan as to where these children will go in September 2021? The school's sister school, St. Mochta's National School in Clonsilla, is also oversubscribed.

Two new estates were built in the area in recent years. Out of a total of 120 available spaces, 50 were taken by children from these new estates. Was this development monitored by the Department, perhaps through child benefit or ECCE grants paid? There will be more development in this area. The school was built as a three-stream school but, in the last three years, it has taken four despite a chronic lack of space. This time last year, the Department and the school came to an agreement that the school would allow for four streams on the condition that the Department would purchase the neighbouring field and expand the school. There has been no progress on this to date. In fact, the people who own the field have said that, since there has not been any progress, the licence the school has to use it for play space might be revoked. The purchase of the field is now extremely urgent. It would be great to get an update in that regard.

Capacity is not the only issue facing the school. It has also experienced serious pyrite issues since opening. Fixing this issue is an ongoing process which is resulting in hefty costs for both the Department and the school itself in terms of the time and effort involved and the constant health and safety checks. The school also tells me that an average of two children in every class have complex needs. The pupil-teacher ratio is 28:1 but the school is taking in more pupils as a result of the capacity issues in the area, for which it does not have the resources.

Despite the pyrite issue, the health and safety works, the expansion issues, the admissions challenges and space restrictions, it is a wonderful school to which people want their kids to go. It is a fantastic school in the community. Can we please get an update on the field? It is urgent. The Department had committed to the expansion of the school. Is that even enough now to deal with the number of kids who need school places? I also highlight the school's need for support within the new special education model.

I thank the Senator for raising this important matter. I will outline to the Seanad the current position in respect of pyrite remediation at St. Patrick's National School in Diswellstown, Dublin 15, and the purchase of the adjacent field to accommodate remediation works and expansion of the school.

St. Patrick's National School in Diswellstown was constructed under a design-and-build contract with the Department of Education as the direct employer. As the Senator will know, the school was completed in 2006. In March 2010 the Department engaged a firm of structural engineers with specialist expertise to report on the presence of pyrite in the building. The engineers' report confirmed the presence of pyrite and recommended total removal of the hardcore infill from all areas of the building and surrounding external areas to achieve a permanent remediation.

The Department sought legal advice as to how to proceed with the remedial works and how to take a legal case, if required. Following advice from the Chief State Solicitor's office, a number of steps have been undertaken. In January 2012 the Department requested that the Chief State Solicitor's office initiate legal proceedings against the main contractor and the infill sub-contractor supplier immediately. Plenary summonses issued against both in March 2013. In early 2014 the Department engaged a design team to scope the extent of the works necessary to remove the pyrite at St. Patrick's. Planning permission was also obtained for the temporary accommodation that would be required for the school to decant on a phased basis while remedial works were being undertaken. In early 2014 the Department commenced the process of tendering for contractors to carry out the remediation works on the school. However, one of the companies that expressed an interest in carrying out the work was the original contractor on the project.

Following consultation with the Chief State Solicitor's office, it became clear that it would not be feasible to invite tenders from a contractor, against which the Department was also pursuing a legal action. As a result, the project did not proceed to tender at that time. Also in 2014, progression of the Department's legal case became dependent upon another legal case involving the infill subcontractor. In early 2015, the Supreme Court referred matters relating to this other case to the European Court of Justice. This effectively suspended the legal action against the two contractors involved on St. Patrick's National School. The matter was resolved in 2019 with a referral back to the Supreme Court and the Chief State Solicitor's office advised that the Department's legal case could proceed. A meeting between officials from the office and the Department took place in July 2019. The Chief State Solicitor's office recommended going to mediation with the contractor in an attempt to reach an agreed settlement. This resulted in an exchange of legal correspondence between the parties. A meeting was held between the Department officials and the Chief State Solicitor's office on 17 November 2020, where it was agreed that the mediation process should proceed. The Chief State Solicitor's office advises that mediation can be speedy and flexible but requires co-operation from all parties. If this is proving difficult to achieve, the Department will instruct the Chief State Solicitor's office to set the case down for trial and will again consider progressing the remediation works in parallel with the legal proceedings.

In regard to the proposed purchase of the field adjacent to the site, officials in the Department are working closely with officials from Fingal County Council under the memorandum of understanding on the acquisition of the adjacent field to accommodate remediation works and the expansion of St. Patrick's National School in Diswellstown. I can confirm that discussions are ongoing with the landowner with a view to acquiring this site. Due to commercial sensitivities relating to site acquisitions generally, I am not in a position to provide further details at this time.

I confirm to the Senator that the Department is working closely with the Chief State Solicitor's office with a view to getting the legal situation sorted out in order to get the pyrite problem at the school rectified as quickly as possible.

I thank the Minister of State for the update but it was not the one I was hoping for. The school faces very real challenges, as do the families, and a commitment was given by the Department a year ago that a field would be bought. Now the people who own the field are saying they are going to revoke the licence. We need the field to extend the school. The area needs additional primary school places and we are seeing the acute impact it is having on families with children who cannot go to school with their siblings. I bring this back to the school. I underline the urgency of the situation to the Minister of State.

Fuel Poverty

I welcome the Minister of State. The recent cold snap has reminded us all how important it is to have a home that is warm. Light and heat are basic human needs. For too many people, the sight of a bill from their electricity or gas provider strikes them with fear and others simply go without light and heat as they are burdened with energy poverty.

I am currently conducting a survey about people's experience of energy poverty and the preliminary results are heartbreaking. People are in terrible positions where they are being forced to choose between heating their homes and feeding their children. The health implications are dire, and the mental strain is significant. A recently produced ESRI report showed the harmful effects of energy poverty, especially on children's respiratory health.

We know that Covid-19 has exacerbated energy poverty because more people have been forced to stay at home and to use electricity and heat, but for some groups the situation is even worse. Travellers living in mobile homes or trailers are nine times more likely to go without heat than the general population and they spend five or six times more of their income on energy than the rest of the population. Renters tend to live in poorly insulated homes, as do people with disabilities. Those homes are more likely to be rated E, F or G on the BER system.

The warmer homes scheme is welcome for many, but it is not up to the task of addressing energy poverty for many of the groups. It only benefits a subgroup of people who experience energy poverty.

A total of 75% of the scheme's beneficiaries are elderly homeowners, but there are many others experiencing energy poverty who are left out. What about the working family that is struggling to make ends meet and earns just too much to qualify for the warmer homes scheme but too little to avail of the grants? I ask the Minister of State to review the eligibility requirements for the warmer homes scheme.

According to the ESRI, there are three drivers to energy poverty. One is low household incomes, making it harder for people to pay their bills. I welcome the fact that the State weighs in with the fuel allowance and social welfare payments. The second driver is inefficient homes, and while the State is doing something to tackle that, I would like it to extend the eligibility criteria. However, nothing seems to happening with the third major driver of energy poverty, namely, high energy prices. Why is the Minister not calling for the State to intervene and regulate the high cost of energy? Just this year there was a 130% hike in the public service obligation, PSO, levy charged on electricity bills, and this hike comes on the back of reductions in the cost of wholesale electricity. Like we have been promised, it is becoming cheaper to generate electricity from indigenous, renewable resources such as wind instead of fossil fuels like coal and gas, but despite the lower costs of purchasing the electricity, the consumer bills are still going up. Why are the savings from the transition not being passed on to the consumer? As a member of the Green Party, I know that it is something that the Minister of State would want to address.

We hear constantly that the PSO levy is set by the Commission for Regulation of Utilities, CRU, but I believe that that is passing the buck. The Minister of State should be exploring how the CRU calculates the PSO, how it ensures that the transition benefits everybody, and that the PSO does not burden those who are in energy poverty. In previous parliamentary questions, the Minister of State had recommended to households to reduce their consumption of energy or switch suppliers, but this is easier said than done, especially for someone with a poor credit rating. There are tools at the Minister of State's disposal and the State could strengthen its regulatory role. I implore the Minister of State to explore the options in reducing the cost of energy.

I thank Senator Boylan for raising this important issue, and it is something that I feel strongly about myself, particularly when it comes to low-income families, and the Senator mentioned the Traveller community. She is correct that these groups are much more exposed to high energy costs than wider society, and I accept her point. I am taking this Commencement matter on behalf of my colleague, the Minister for the Environment, Climate and Communications, Deputy Eamon Ryan, who is busy this afternoon participating in a meeting of the EU transport Council.

The Government is fully committed to combating energy poverty and protecting the most vulnerable in society. The Government provides extensive supports for household energy costs. There are specific schemes aimed at those at risk of energy poverty, including the household benefits package and the fuel allowance. Government policy has supported the introduction of competition to energy markets to drive down prices. Consumers can now make significant savings by switching energy suppliers, somewhat mitigating the impact of price rises, but I do take on board Senator Boylan's point in respect of the capacity of consumers to do that.

However, upgrading the efficiency of someone's home is the best long-term solution to helping a low-income household to manage their energy bills. It tackles the root cause of the problem as opposed to treating the symptoms. Free energy efficiency upgrades have been a pillar of Government action on alleviating energy poverty for the past 20 years. To date, more than 142,000 homes have received free upgrades under the better energy warmer homes scheme. This scheme is funded by my Department and administered by the Sustainable Energy Authority of Ireland, SEAI. It delivers a range of energy efficiency measures free of charge to low income households vulnerable to energy poverty. This leaves the occupants better able to afford to heat their homes to an adequate level.

There has been substantial progress in reducing energy poverty since 2016. The Government's strategy to combat energy poverty was published that year, setting out a number of actions to alleviate the burden of energy poverty on the most vulnerable in society. The focus of this strategy was on high-impact actions which aimed to make a real difference to the lives of those in energy poverty.

Over the lifetime of the strategy, the Government has taken a number of steps to alleviate energy poverty. Free upgrades were carried out in over 23,000 lower income homes under the main SEAI energy poverty schemes. The warmer homes scheme has started providing deeper measures, increasing the investment in each home and increasing the benefits to the homeowners. A consultation on energy efficiency in the rented sector has also been completed with recommendations to follow in 2021. The allocations for retrofit of social housing have also increased significantly, with an allocation of €65 million for 2021. Funding for the SEAI energy poverty retrofit schemes has increased dramatically over the period, from €15 million in 2015 to more than €109 million in budget 2021.

This progress is evident from the work undertaken by the ESRI on the level and extent of energy poverty in Ireland over time. This work found that the proportion of households in or at risk of energy poverty has reduced from 28% to 17.4% over the lifetime of the strategy. I consider that to be good progress, but there is still a long way to go.

The programme for Government and the climate action plan set highly ambitious targets for the number and depth of retrofits to be completed by 2030. We need to retrofit 500,000 homes and install 400,000 heat pumps in existing homes over the next ten years. It is crucial that we support low-income households to participate in this transition. For this reason, the programme for Government commits €5 billion to part fund a socially progressive national retrofit programme targeting all homes but with a particular focus on the midlands region and on social and low-income tenancies. In practice this funding will mean that more households can receive free energy efficiency upgrades, making their homes warmer, healthier and cheaper to run.

In addition, the climate action plan made a commitment to review energy poverty schemes to ensure they target those most in need. The Minister's Department has been working on this action and the recommendations will be finalised shortly.

I thank the Minister of State and I welcome his comments. The Minister of State referred to the combat energy poverty strategy, which was from 2016 to 2019. A parliamentary response from the Minister, however, said that a review of the implementation of that strategy will be completed in 2021. This is a whole two years after it has run out. We are aware that the St. Vincent de Paul is currently spending €5 million to support people with the costs of energy. Will the Minister of State take it back to the Minister, Deputy Ryan, to see if the review could be expedited, because two years is a long gap between an energy strategy, and that any new strategy would have binding targets for the Minister in regard to energy poverty? Even with climate change we are aware that unless the targets are binding we are very unlikely in this country to meet them.

Driver Test

I thank the Minister of State for coming to the House to address the issue of delays on driver tests. There are delays in getting the theory test. I logged on this morning to see if I could get a theory test in Gorey before Christmas. It was quite difficult to get anything in the immediate vicinity but a lot of my concern is around the driver test itself. I am aware that the Road Safety Authority, RSA, has set a target that if a person applies for a driver test he or she will get that within ten weeks, but at the moment those waiting to have the driver test are waiting for up to 30 weeks. If one logs on at the moment for a driver test, one could be waiting until July. A person would be quicker, and more likely, to get the Covid vaccine than a driver test. This impacts on all age groups but it especially impacts on younger people. The Minister of State will appreciate that it particularly impacts those who live in rural areas or where public transport is not an alternative.

There is a knock-on impact for this problem. Provisional drivers must rely on a parent or guardian to be able to drive with them. I spoke to a mother who lives just outside Gorey who every morning has to drive her daughter 45 minutes to work and then drive her back 45 minutes in the evening, while the mother is also trying to work. There are lots of other examples, as I am sure the Minister of State is aware. While those young and other drivers are on a provisional licence, their insurance premium is a lot higher also.

There is also the difficulty that impacts on younger people where the person gets a job offer, for example, and the job offer depends on having a full driving licence. The person, however, cannot get a full licence because she or he cannot get a test. With the challenge of youth unemployment we must prioritise this issue coming out of this crisis. We have got to ensure that those who require a driving licence can get it.

I am aware that the Government has been talking about this and the RSA has talked about additional staff to be able to meet this demand but we need to know when they are going to be in place. When will the RSA start to employ these staff? When will we get back down to the ten week target set by the RSA?

Given this issue's particular impact on a large number of young people I ask the Minister of State to make this a priority.

I thank Senator Byrne for making a very pertinent point about young people. In the previous Commencement debate we discussed energy poverty. The phenomenon of transport poverty has a real impact on young people's ability to access training and the labour market. I absolutely appreciate that. I am taking this Commencement matter on behalf of the Minister of State, Deputy Naughton, who is unavailable as she is launching the 2020 Road Safety Authority Christmas and new year road safety campaign.

The driving test service is a statutory responsibility of the Road Safety Authority, RSA. Since the beginning of the pandemic, the Department of Transport has been in constant contact with the RSA regarding all of its services, the impact of Covid-19 thereon and how they can be best maintained under the current circumstances. As the Senator is aware, driving tests were first temporarily suspended due to Covid-19 in March 2020. The service resumed on a gradual basis in mid-July. This was only possible because of detailed work done by the RSA in conjunction with expert medical advice to examine each aspect of the testing process and ensure that resumed tests would be safe for the public. Since resuming operations, there has inevitably been an increased level of demand due to the consequent backlog. Unfortunately service capacity has been considerably reduced due to social distancing and other public health and hygiene requirements. This means that customers experience longer waiting times than was the case before the service was suspended. Around 51% of those awaiting a test have been waiting for less than three months. Waiting times can vary from centre to centre, with others waiting for as long as 30 weeks, as the Senator pointed out.

In addition, level 5 restrictions, which took effect for the six weeks from 22 October to 1 December 2020, meant that driving tests were only available to those involved in essential services, including essential retail work. While the Minister of State regrets any inconvenience caused, public safety must remain paramount. The Road Safety Authority is currently examining ways to increase the number of tests while staying within health constraints, and is working in close consultation with the Department of Transport on this matter. Measures to this end include increasing the number of testing staff to help reduce and eventually eliminate the backlog. The Department of Transport has recently approved the retention by the RSA of 18 temporary driving testers whose contracts were due to expire in October and November. The RSA has also rehired a further 18 temporary testers whose contracts expired in May. This will help increase testing capacity.

However, it must be stressed that many of the factors impacting on the delivery of the service stem from the effect of restrictions on the throughput of centres themselves rather than the availability of staff. The RSA is also considering a number of other measures, including examining whether the number of tests a driving tester can perform each day can be increased within the current health constraints. Each testing slot now takes a much longer time to complete due to the additional hygiene and sanitary procedures that are now absolutely necessary. As a result, the number of tests a tester can safely conduct per day was reduced from eight to five when the service reopened. Following experience of managing the tests under Covid-19 restrictions, this number was increased to six in mid-September. It may rise to seven depending on health assurances, but not until January 2021 at the earliest.

The Department of Transport has been in discussions with the RSA on how to return to the normal target of a maximum waiting time of about ten weeks. It is clear that it will not be possible to reach this point quickly because of the restrictions necessitated by the pandemic. The RSA has presented a plan to the Department of Transport which would see a return to a ten-week waiting time by early 2022. While this is not as soon as anyone would like, it is important to recognise that there are no quick fixes. The continuing build-up of applications as the pandemic goes on means it will take time to achieve a normal waiting time. It is also important to remember that this target could be impacted if a further lockdown proves to be necessary in the future.

I thank the Minister of State for his reply. I appreciate the difficulties but I understand that there are now more than 90,000 people on the waiting lists. As the Minister of State noted, this will seriously impact our efforts to get young people back into employment, education and training. The Government's strategy for recovery aims to target high rates of youth unemployment. It will be very difficult for a lot of young people to take up work if they do not have access to their own transport. I appreciate the challenges involved here but if the RSA sets a target of early 2022 this issue will have a knock-on impact throughout 2021.

I ask that this aspect be communicated back, because it will impact on the Government's economic recovery strategy as much as anything else. As the Minister of State referred to, this concerns transport poverty especially, particularly in the case of young people.

I will certainly bring back and communicate those points. Senator Byrne can be assured that the Department of Transport is aware of the challenges facing the RSA as it works hard to manage further the backlog in the driver testing service. While the service was limited during level 5 restrictions, the RSA is examining ways of increasing the number of tests, within the health constraints, with the aim of resuming wider testing after level 5. It is working in close consultation with the Department on this matter. This includes increasing the number of testing staff to help to reduce and, over time, eliminate the backlog.

I reiterate that the Department of Transport has already given approval for the RSA to retain 18 driver testers on temporary contracts which were due to expire in October. The RSA has already rehired a further 18 temporary testers whose contracts expired in May. This will help to increase testing capacity. The RSA is now prioritising driver testing for essential workers and has set up a dedicated form on its website, This form will allow customers to assess whether they qualify for an urgent test appointment, and, if so, to submit an application. If an application is accepted, the applicant will be placed on a short notice list.

It has been clear from the start that the priority must be public safety. We want to provide services, and we know people are seeking those services, including the driver test, but only limited possibilities will be available while preserving public health. The priority of the Minister of State, Deputy Naughton, is to see that the RSA is able to deliver its services to the public as much as possible, while doing so safely. We are all in the grip of this pandemic. People are frustrated, but I ask that we try to work our way through this situation. As I said, however, I will take these comments back to the Minister of State.

Road Projects

The Bandon southern relief road, commonly known as the bypass road, is important infrastructure that for decades has been half complete. Bandon has been through major upheaval in the last ten years. It has been flooded several times and we are halfway through a major flood relief programme, which is very welcome and will revitalise the town. We also hope a public realm scheme will start shortly and help the town and its development.

One of the key issues in the town, however, is the traffic passing through it. Bandon is the gateway to west Cork, and the volume of traffic going through the town could be from 9,000 to 14,000 movements on a given day. It is not only cars, however; we also have heavy goods vehicles, mainly articulated trucks, going through the town. That has an impact on the economic and social fabric of the town. We need to see a programme put in place to ensure we can get the second leg of this bypass sorted out. The benefits, not only to Bandon but to all of west Cork, will be great. It concerns economic benefits, sustainable development and ensuring that Bandon is a better place to live.

It is hard for people in Bandon to have much quality of life with such movement of traffic through the town. It is important, therefore, that we get movement on this important infrastructure, which is basically a 2.5 km extension to the motorway and which might cost from €7 million to €8 million. It is, however, infrastructure which is important for the development of the entirety of west Cork. Bandon is the biggest town there and the gateway to that area, and it needs this boost in connectivity. When this bypass is completed, therefore, it will be of benefit not only to Bandon but to all of west Cork. We need movement on this project, and the Minister of State might give me an update on where we are with it now.

We spoke before about west Cork, and I stated that it is one of my family's favourite places to visit. We were lucky to get there again this summer. The Minister for Transport, Deputy Eamon Ryan, has responsibility for overall policy and funding regarding the national roads programme. Once funding arrangements have been put in place with Transport Infrastructure Ireland, TII, under the Roads Acts 1993 to 2015, planning, design and construction of individual national roads is a matter for TII, in conjunction with the local authorities concerned.

Overall, TII is responsible for the delivery of the national roads programme in accordance with Project Ireland 2040 and the national development plan, NDP.

The programme for Government commits to a planned review of the NDP and a public consultation by the Department of Public Expenditure and Reform is under way. The review will be used to set out an updated NDP for the period out to 2030. Work is under way within the Department of Transport to contribute to this review. Within the overall context of Project Ireland 2040, the NDP was developed to underpin the successful implementation of the national planning framework, NPF. This provides the strategic and financial framework for the national roads programme for the period from 2018 to 2027. The review of the NDP will be aligned with the NPF and Project Ireland 2040. The focus of TII's activities is, accordingly, being directed towards the development of the major national road improvement schemes that are included in the NDP, along with the maintenance of the existing national road network.

All projects, including those listed in the NDP or any revision of the NDP, require statutory approval and compliance with the public spending code. In that context, TII provides the Department of Transport with regular updates on its delivery of the national roads programme. Within the timeframe given in the lead-up to this debate, the following information is the most up-to-date information available to me on TII's delivery of this project.

Currently, the N71 relief road around Bandon ties back into the existing road network via a very steep downhill gradient. Traffic also needs to negotiate a number of roundabouts and priority junctions within the built-up area of Bandon. There is quite heavy traffic in the area on the N71, with an annual average daily traffic of between 9,000 and 14,000 vehicles, as has been noted by the Senator, and a heavy goods vehicle, HGV, percentage of up to 5%. The proposed relief road extension would involve bridging over the R603 to remove the existing steep gradient and construction of approximately 2.5 km of new single carriageway tying back into the existing N71, just to the west of the town.

A feasibility study was completed by Cork County Council and TIl is currently reviewing this. The project appraisal plan was approved by my Department early this year and TII allocated €100,000 to Cork County Council to progress this pre-appraisal work during 2020. This work on early planning and design will continue in 2021 with a preferred route for the bypass extension to be identified. The timeframe for the delivery of any major or minor works projects that require statutory approval, whether for an environmental impact assessment report or a compulsory purchase order, or both, is between eight and 13 years.

In the context of the national roads programme capital budget provided by the Department of Transport to TIl, significant funding has been provided towards the improvement of the N71 in Cork since 1994, with funding of approximately €2 million provided in 2020 for various improvements on the N71 route. Previous investment includes major improvement schemes such as the Skibbereen and Bandon bypasses; pavement and minor scheme works; safety schemes; and planning and design for further upcoming schemes. This is a good opportunity to highlight that all projects, including those listed in the NDP or any revision of the NDP, require statutory approval and compliance with the public spending code.

I thank the Minister of State for his comprehensive response to this very important issue for the people of west Cork. I am aware that the feasibility study by Cork County Council, about which the Minister of State spoke, is still under review by TII. That is a very important part of the jigsaw. We need the design of the route to be brought forward as best we can because the need for that route is great. We need to know where it will go through a school site, where it will come out and whether it is going to be longer than 2.5 km. There are so many variables pertaining to that site and where the route will be is very important.

I am concerned about the timelines the Minister of State mentioned. Eight to ten years would be very severe for this project. This project has been on the books for the last 25 years and it would be very disheartening for the people of west Cork to wait another ten years or more for a project of this nature. We need to get the design and the route sorted and then we need to put the budget in place in order that we can deliver this project.

I take on board the points made by the Senator and will take them back to the Minister, Deputy Eamon Ryan. The €100,000 allocation to Cork County Council for the pre-appraisal work for 2020 shows the level of commitment from the Government. It is important, as the Senator said, to try to progress matters in as timely a manner as possible.

Sitting suspended at 2.25 p.m. and resumed at 2.45 p.m.