Nithe i dtosach suíonna - Commencement Matters

Schools Building Projects

I welcome the Minister of State at the Department of Education, Deputy Josepha Madigan, to the House and thank her for attending.

I welcome the attendance by the Minister of State, Deputy Madigan, on behalf of the Minister for Education, Deputy Foley, to discuss this urgent and serious issue related to the building section of the Department.

In 1996, the Department of Education amalgamated two national schools in Ballinasloe, St. Grellan's boys' school, which dates to 1937 and the opening of which my father remembers as he was one of the first students, and the Sisters of Mercy junior infants' and girls' national school, which was my primary school. Scoil an Chroí Naofa was created in 1996 with an understanding from the Department of Education that a new school building would be provided to accommodate the children. The school, the sole DEIS band 1 school in County Galway, which has more than 280 pupils, is still awaiting a new school building 25 years later. A design team was appointed. Planning permission was issued in 2011, extended in 2016 and is due to expire in November 2021. There is still no school and no sign of any building works.

The stakeholders involved are the Department of Education, which is responsible for the delivery of this project, the Department's building section, the design team, the school's board of management and the local authority. There has been a shocking lack of project management and oversight here. What has been going on for the past 25 years? What has been going on for the past five years? Why are children and teaching staff freezing in buildings dating from the 1930s and 1960s? How is this school fit for purpose? It is 2021 and with each delay or failure to make a decision, the building section and Department have somehow pushed this project off the priority list. That should no longer be the case.

There have been five boards of management - each sits for four years - and five principals over this timeframe. They have struggled to deliver this project and get it across the line. How many principal officers have come and gone in the Department of Education, yet no school has been built? In 2016, the Department indicated in writing that the project was going to construction with planning approval. Why did the school not proceed at that time?

Scoil an Chroí Naofa is a fantastic school with dedicated and committed teaching staff and special needs assistants, SNAs. Like many other schools, it is opening its doors today. The school takes children from all over Galway, Roscommon and Westmeath. It has an autism spectrum disorder, ASD, class now in a prefabricated building and two language classes. Children with special needs are crying out for a place and there is no space. There has not been space for 25 years.

There are five stages in construction and there is a guide to timelines for school buildings.

As a newly elected councillor in 2019, I worked with parents, families and teachers to drive this project. I was of the view that it was moving to stage 3 but that is not the case now. The five stages comprise: stage 1, preliminary design, which takes roughly six months; stage 2a, development of sketch design; stage 2b, detailed design, which takes a year; stage 3, tender action, evaluation and award, which also takes a year; stage 4, construction, which takes two years; and stage 5, handover of works and final account. By this reckoning, the process takes five and half years in all. After 20 years, however, we are still at stage 2b, which involves obtaining all statutory approvals and preparing a set of fully detailed tender documents and an accurate pre-tender cost plan. Why has this not been completed when planning was granted in 2011? Who is accountable for these delays? Who is reviewing the monthly progress updates from the design team and who has been paying this design team for over 20 years? Right now, we need action for the almost 300 children who are in this school and who will not see a new building completed. The children in the area who have been waiting for an ASD unit will be obliged to wait for at least another four years, even if we move the project to stage 3 without any delays.

Some €740 million was allocated in respect of school building projects under Project Ireland 2040. We to see need to see urgent action in this case. I ask the Minister of State to address the following issues on behalf of the Minister? What is the current status of the design and school building project? Who is on the appointed design team? What is the position as to 2016 planning permission, which is null and void and which cannot be extended because there are no building works going on? What is the timeline for the e-tender process for construction of a new two-storey primary school building? Who on earth is going to be the senior principal officer to be assigned with sole responsibility for delivering this project?

There are serious issues at play here. I appreciate the Minister of State’s commitment to special needs and inclusion. This is the only DEIS band 1 school in County Galway. DEIS means delivering of equality of opportunity in schools. How are we treating these children equally?

I thank Senator Dolan for raising this matter because it provides me with an opportunity to outline the current position as to the major building project for Scoil an Chroí Naofa, Ballinasloe, County Galway. I understand that this project is included in the Department’s construction programme, which is being delivered under the national development plan. The brief is to provide for the demolition of the existing school building and the construction of a new school building to include 13 general classrooms with 13 special resource rooms, two speech and language resource rooms and a two-room specialist ASD unit, which the Senator mentioned.

Planning permission was secured for this project in 2011 and an extension to planning was secured in October 2016. The latter expires in November 2021. Unfortunately, as the Senator has correctly pointed out, there have been a number of delays with the project, including a request from the Department to make savings due to a cost overrun, the requirement to appoint a new team of engineers, a number of requests to change the brief relating to the project, the updating of submissions due to the public works contracts and concerns regarding access and planning.

The design team and the board of management presented their most recent brief change request to the Department in March 2020. This was approved in principle, subject to some clarifications, in April 2020. The design team at that time was advised to complete a revised stage 2b report incorporating this brief change in the tender documentation. The design team then forwarded the revised stage 2b report to the board of management for review sign-off and onward transmission to the Department in November 2020. We understand that this has not been received by the Department to date due to concerns raised by the school.

The major building project for this school is at an advanced stage of architectural planning, stage 2b, which includes the application for statutory approvals and the preparation of tender documents. While all statutory approvals have been secured, however, the Department is still awaiting the final stage 2b report from the school authorities, referred to by the Senator, and the project cannot be progressed without this. In addition, given the impending expiration of the planning permission, it is likely that a new planning application will now be required. My Department met with representatives from the school last month, at their request, to discuss the options available to the school to progress this project and my Department advised them of these. The school authorities are to consider these options and to revert to the Department. The Department also requested the school authorities to send the revised 2b to the Department with the school’s comments for its consideration. At this meeting, I understand that the Department committed to assisting the school to progress the project.

I agree with Senator Dolan that the period relating to this project - she mentioned 20 or 25 years - seems extraordinarily long. It is also extraordinary that the project has not come to fruition.

It has not happened yet but there is collaboration. We have to continue the dialogue between the board of management, the local authorities, the Department of Education and the school. This is really important for the almost 300 children involved. There will be 13 classrooms, 13 special resource rooms and two speech and language resource rooms. More importantly from my perspective, there will be two autistic spectrum disorder, ASD, units, and it is really important we have those. I hear and I share the Senator's frustration and I assure her I will bring the legitimate concern and outrage she raised today to the attention of the building unit and the Minister, Deputy Foley. Whatever the reasons for the delay, this project needs to be progressed because these school children should not be disadvantaged.

I thank the Minister of State for her response. It is important we get clear timelines from the Department. I request that the design team completes the current specification request of Galway County Council and meets the safety requirements, such as safe drop-off and pick-up zones, that the Department of Education commit to co-fund the land outside the school buildings section, that new planning permission be submitted by the design team by the end of April 2021 and that there is a commitment from the design team to get that planning permission in by the end of April 2021 for a decision by May-June 2021 by Galway County Council. The Department of Education should be considering stage three by June-July 2021. This school should be funded this year. It is an urgent priority. I want a dedicated monthly meeting with all stakeholders to be led by the Department of Education with updates on timelines. This should happen every month to ensure we get this project across the line. There should be no more delay with this project. I thank the Minister of State for her support on this.

As I said, I share the Senator's frustration in relation to this and I will bring the sentiments she has expressed in the Chamber to the attention of the Minister, Deputy Foley, and the building unit. Obviously, the design team has to liaise in a close way with the school and the board of management to ensure we try to get this school built as soon as possible. As the Senator pointed out, my understanding is that the planning permission is due to expire in November this year. If there is any way to get a start on the building work prior to the expiration of the planning permission, it is definitely worth pursuing that. If that is not possible, then a new planning application needs to be submitted in early course so that we get this school up and running. I know the Senator's passion for this school. It is a DEIS-band school in County Galway. It is important to be aware that there is emergency funding available for any minor works needed to keep the children safe and warm in the school.

Environment Fund

It is important to acknowledge the huge impact the closure of the power stations in Lanesboro and Shannonbridge, and the end of peat production, has had on communities and families which have worked in them for more than 50 years. The jobs at Mountdillon and Lough Ree power plant provided the communities of Keenagh, Killashee, Newtowncashel, Lanesboro and beyond will be difficult to replace. However, I welcome the substantial funding which was announced last year for a number of projects under the just transition fund. Some examples of these are the Lough Ree distillery, Lough Ree access-for-all boat trips and the food hub. I sincerely hope the issues which surfaced recently regarding EU state aid rules are dealt with positively to allow these much-needed projects to continue and provide much-needed employment in south Longford.

We must not allow the midlands to become a Rust Belt like the American mid west. Infrastructure and investment must be put in place to make sure it returns to a thriving economic area. Many areas are watching the midlands to see how the transition to a more sustainable future for the peat industry will be handled.

It is important people in rural areas do not carry an unfair share of the financial burdens stemming from proposed climate action.

The restoration and rehabilitation of Ireland's peatlands is a critically important aspect of our response to the climate and biodiversity emergency. When healthy, these unique and precious habitats are home to some of the most threatened species and are among our best lines of defence against climate change, sequestering and storing carbon, reducing the impact of floods and filtering water. Ireland's bogs, occurring as raised bogs, blanket bogs or fens are special and unique places and play an important role in contributing to our biodiversity, economy, well-being and natural and cultural heritage. Ireland holds approximately 50% of all raised bogs remaining in the Atlantic region of north-west Europe.

I welcome the Government's announcement of funding of €108 million for Bord na Móna's large scale peatlands restoration project. The scheme will protect the storage of 100 million tonnes of CO2 emissions, enhance biodiversity, create 310 jobs and contribute to Ireland's target of being carbon neutral by 2050. Many of those employed in this project will be former peat harvesters who have an intimate knowledge and long history of working on our bogs.

I welcome the EU LIFE grant support. The significant funding from the European Commission for this project will contribute towards the implementation of Ireland's climate action plan. The three strands of the projects are the establishment of a peatlands centre of excellence that will explore and carry out best practices in peatland restoration and rehabilitation; an immersive people's discovery attraction in the midlands that will reinforce the importance of climate action and peatlands rehabilitation and the introduction of a range of supports for sustainable businesses.

The boglands of south Longford are a perfect location to situate such a centre. The Corlea trackway Office of Public Works centre would be an ideal base at which to develop these plans in conjunction with the mid-channel wilderness plan park plan which forms part of the County Longford development plan. Longford must not be forgotten.

I also wish to raise the issue of peat harvesting for the horticultural industry. In the absence of peat from Irish sources, the industry will have to import it. Until an alternative growth medium has been identified, I ask that we allow the industry to produce sufficient peat for domestic use, at least.

I received a letter from a 12 year old called Michael Gacquin who spent the initial lockdown period walking and cycling along the boglands in south Longford. He made a couple of points to me. His letter read:

Why don't we put our industrial heritage museum in the power station? You could put the old tractors and machines that were specially made for the bog into it.

He said we could have "small train rides on the peat trains" and that "it would be a great much needed tourist attraction for Longford". He said also: "I think because the culture surrounding peat harvesting in the midlands is so much part of our history, that it is vitally important that we preserve it." Those are the words of 12 year old Michael Gacquin. I want to see his words brought to reality.

Well done to Michael for sending that to the Senator. I completely agree with Senator Carrigy, in particular in regard to horticultural peat. The Minister of State has four minutes to respond.

I thank Senator Carrigy for raising this issue. I apologise that my colleague, the Minister, Deputy Ryan, cannot be here to take the Commencement matter. Senator Carrigy highlighted many of the points in his address. Ireland's peatlands are part of Europe's oldest surviving near natural ecosystems. Due to their conservation value, more than 26,000 ha of raised bogs are protected under the EU habitats directive and national legislation. Some 50 blanket bogs are designated as special areas of conservation.

In their natural state, peatlands provide multiple ecosystems services such as water and air quality improvements, flood attenuation, reduction in biodiversity losses and socioeconomic benefits to local communities. A significant percentage of Ireland's protected bogs, however, have been lost and degraded over the last 30 years due to various pressures and threats, including burning and drainage. Government-supported measures are now under way to halt and reverse this loss of peatlands through sustainable management, rehabilitation and restoration.

The national peatlands strategy, the National Raised Bogs Special Areas of Conservation Management Plan 2017-2022, and Ireland's climate action plan set out measures to support the revitalisation of Ireland's peatlands. Several peatland restoration and rehabilitation initiatives are under way. Funding of €5 million from the carbon tax fund in 2020 enabled the commencement of peatland restoration measures by the National Parks and Wildlife Service on almost 1,900 ha of protected raised bogs in the midland region.

An allocation of funding of €14 million in budget 2021 will assist with the management, conservation and restoration of Ireland's raised bogs and protected peatlands, including restoration measures on a further 2,500 ha of protected raised bog.

In addition, the Government through its various Departments and agencies is supporting peatlands rehabilitation and restoration projects in Ireland and across borders. The €5.4 million project, the Living Bog, is co-funded under the EU LIFE programme with €1.35 million provided by the Department of Housing, Local Government and Heritage. This will enable restoration works over an area of 2,649 ha.

In 2020, Ireland was awarded more than €10 million in grant funding for a new EU LIFE programme funded under the peatlands and people project which aims to engage people with the benefits of peatlands restoration and to realise the power of peatlands to effect positive climate action. Improving the conservation status in the special areas of conservation network of blanket bog and associated habitats is the focus of the EU LIFE programme, funded under the integrated wild Atlantic nature project, currently in the start-up phase. That project area encompasses 35 of the 50 blanket bog special areas of conservation. In November 2020 the Government announced support of up to €108 million for the Bord na Móna scheme on 33,000 ha of decommissioned Bord na Móna peatlands.

The Department of Agriculture, Food and the Marine announced funding in February for two projects which will focus on finding better ways to manage on-farm drained peat soils in the midlands. The two projects, which secured €2.2 million between them, were selected following an open call under the European innovation partnership initiative. They will be funded under Ireland's rural development programme 2014 to 2021. Coillte Nature also has a project to restore more than 2,000 ha of Atlantic bog.

On the Senator's query on horticultural peat, the Minister of State at the Department of Housing, Local Government and Heritage, Deputy Malcolm Noonan, has set up a working group in his Department to examine what alternatives can be used. The Department of Agriculture, Food and the Marine has also funded research into this area. It is a huge issue and something we have to get right to secure the future of the horticulture sector.

I thank 12-year-old Michael for his letter. This sort of innovation and thinking outside the box on tourism and heritage is very important for the future for the midlands.

I thank the Minister of State for the comprehensive list of funding that is available. My priority is my local area of Longford. We have a unique centre in Corlea which is right on the 3,000-year-old bog trackway. It is the ideal location to centre this proposed project. I spoke with 12-year-old Michael yesterday. He is a very enthusiastic young lad with a great vision for our area and for what the boglands can be turned into. I was a member of Longford County Council which has been promoting the Mid Shannon Wilderness Park. My vision is to bring schools from all over Ireland to our boglands, using the rail network that is there, to show them an integral part of our history. We have the infrastructure and the funding has been put in place by the EU. I want to see this project put in place in south Longford.

I thank the Senator. He is right to raise this issue, whether it relates to Longford, Offaly, Kildare or any area with such a wealth of potential in their peatlands. We have to look at them all. I completely agree with the idea of encouraging schools and communities to visit such sites, not only for their cultural and historical significance but for their future biodiversity and ecosystem value for schools and children. We should do everything we can to encourage that. The knock-on effects in terms of tourism and in securing local jobs in managing those sites and venues will be very important. I fully agree with the Senator that it is something we need to look into. The €10 million in peatlands and people funding is around that subject area. If we can expand that, we should do it as best we can.

Social Welfare Benefits

I welcome the Minister of State, Deputy Joe O'Brien, to the House and thank him for his time this morning. I want to raise, and I certainly welcome, the introduction of the benefit payment to 65-year-olds who have worked all their lives. They simply should not have to sign on the live register or seek new work, especially as many have no option but to retire at the age of 65 due to their contracts. Private sector companies frequently have a mandatory retirement age of 65.

As the House and the Minister of State well know, over the last year, and particularly during the general election campaign, I have been contacted by 65-year-olds who had to go through this process in recent years and were deeply affected by it. They consider this - rightly, in my view - to be an insult to their dignity. These are hard-working, honest people who have been working longer than some of us in this House have been alive. For them to have had to engage in a process that they considered to be beneath their dignity was insulting, to say the least. It should never have happened. I am glad the Minister of State and the Government have taken steps to address this.

I believe we need clarity around the payment, however. Over the last number of weeks, I have been contacted by people in Galway city and county who have retired at the age of 61 or 62 after working for 42 or 43 years. They seem to have huge concerns because there is certainly a miscommunication out there.

According to the Department, claimants must have paid at least 39 PRSI contributions at class A, class H or class P, or have credited contributions in the governing contribution year. As the Minister of State will be aware, at least 13 of these contributions must be paid from employment in the governing contribution year in the two years before this and in the last year or current tax year. Therefore, somebody could retire at the age of 62 with 42 or 43 years of service and then might not work at 63, 64 or 65. The Department outlined a number of weeks ago that everybody was eligible for this payment. As the Minister of State will be aware, it is more than €200 per week. Therefore, it would be in excess of €10,000 per year. I do not believe this is acceptable at all. I want clarity on it. How many people will it impact? What will be the breakdown between male and female?

I also want to raise the matter of pensions with regard to the Covid-19 pandemic, which has caused many people to be out of work for the last year. Could the Minister of State clarify how this condition will be impacted in their pensions? If people have been on the pandemic unemployment payment, PUP, since March 2020, does this payment count as a contribution for the purposes of fulfilling the condition I have mentioned? Could the Minister of State also clarify what the situation will be for those who have retired in the last 12 months before the age of 65? Will they be eligible for this payment when they reach their 65th birthday? What will be the status of those who retire now and in the future before the age of 65?

Finally, I note that when this change was announced at the start of February, the Minister of State's Department said it had identified people currently in receipt of jobseeker's benefit who were eligible for the new payment, and was in the process of advising them of the relaxation of conditions to their claim and of their automatic transfer to the scheme. Could the Minister of State advise if this process is now complete? If it is not, could he give an update on the work done thus far and set out when it is likely to be completed?

I thank the Senator for raising this important matter. It is important to also point out that the pension age has been 66 for a long time and, in accordance with legislation introduced last year, it will not increase this year but remain at that age. The new benefit payment for 65-year-olds was introduced to deliver on a programme for Government commitment to address the position of people who retire at the age of 65. "Retire at 65" is an important phrase. In many cases, it is not because they want to but because that is the retirement age specified in their contract of employment.

As we all know, up until now, people in that position had to claim a jobseeker payment, sign in at the Intreo centre and declare that they were genuinely seeking and available for work.

That is no longer the case. With this new benefit payment people who retire at age 65 do not have to sign on or attend an Intreo centre. However, if they wish they can still receive assistance in finding a job, including through participation in a course of education, while retaining their full payment entitlement.

This new benefit provides for a standard rate of payment payable at €203 per week with an increase for dependants, as appropriate. The social insurance contribution requirements are not as high as those for receipt of the State pension and people retiring at age 65 should, in most cases, easily meet the required PRSI conditionality. Although only recently introduced, more than 2,330 people aged 65 currently are availing of the new benefit.

New applicants for the scheme must satisfy all of the qualifying conditions of the scheme which include having the required contributions in the governing contribution year, GCY, which is the second last complete tax year. For example, in this situation where the person will be making a claim for the new benefit in 2022, the second last complete tax year is 2020.

To qualify for the payment a person must have paid 104 PRSI insurable employment contributions at class A, H or P or paid 156 class S contributions if they are self-employed. They also require 36 contributions paid from employment in the GCY. At least 13 of those contributions must be paid from any combination of employment in the GCY, the two years before this, the last year or the current tax year. Alternatively, they could qualify if they have 26 PRSI contributions paid in the GCY and 26 paid in the year immediately before that. The requirement to have paid contributions during this period is to demonstrate their attachment to the workforce.

These are complex criteria but each case is determined on an individual basis taking into account the contributions paid on the date at which the person retired from employment. The best way to check entitlement in the case of an individual is to make an application for the benefit.

With regard to the specific example referred to by the Senator in his question, a person aged 63 years and retiring in 2020 with an entitlement to jobseeker's benefit would be entitled to social insurance credits and would qualify for the new benefit at age 65. I want to underline the point that it is very important in these circumstances that the person would claim their credits.

I will address the Senator's query regarding the attribution of contributions. The Social Welfare (Covid-19) (Amendment) Act 2020 provides, among other measures, for the attribution of social insurance contributions to insured persons who were beneficiaries of certain Covid-19 income support payments, including the pandemic unemployment payment, PUP.

The attribution of contributions will ensure that recipients of the PUP will have social insurance contributions attributed to them at the same value as they were paying while employed immediately before going on the payment. The measure means that people who lost their jobs arising from the pandemic will not be disadvantaged in accessing social insurance benefits such as the new benefit payment for those aged 65 years.

To be clear, my understanding is that the Department issued a statement in early February that everybody between 65 and 66 years of age would be eligible for the payment. Can the Minister of State confirm now that this is not the case and that they must have 13 weeks of paid PRSI contributions in the year they reach 63 or 64 to qualify for the benefit because if they are signing for the credits, they do not count?

Can the Minister of State tell the House the number of people this will impact and is he able to give the breakdown in terms of male and female? This is a huge issue in Galway West that has been raised with me because there are concerns with regard to people's entitlements. I thank the Minister of State for his time.

I thank the Senator again for his contribution. Up to now, a person who retired at 65 because that was the retirement age in his or her contract of employment could only avail of an income support if he or she signed on at the local Intreo centre for jobseeker's benefit and declared that they were available for and genuinely seeking work. We all agreed that this was not a satisfactory position and that we should find a way to support a person who had to retire at aged 65 without obliging him or her to sign on. That was the commitment in the programme for Government and that is what this benefit payment for those aged 65 delivers.

It provides a benefit payment for employed or self-employed people who are required to or who, in some cases, choose to retire when reaching age 65. The new benefit does not require a person to sign on or to engage in activation measures, or declare they are available for and genuinely seeking work. Recipients can choose to participate in a course of education while retaining their full payment entitlement.

It is important to note that anyone who retires at 65 should have the required contributions to qualify for this payment and, in fact, the contribution requirements to qualify for this payment are not as demanding as those to qualify for the State pension.

I do not have answers on the Senator’s breakdown of statistics and on the automated transfer process that he referenced but we will get back to him on those. I want to underline that this is linked to contributions paid rather than reaching an age, as such.

Flood Prevention Measures

I welcome my namesake, the Minister of State, Deputy Patrick O'Donovan. I thank him for kindly visiting my home town of Bantry some time ago to see first-hand the damage done by flooding. I also acknowledge the visit at around the same time of the Minister, Deputy Michael McGrath, whose home town it is, given his father was born and reared there, before he emigrated to Cork, if I can use the phrase. His visit also gave some hope.

The problem in Bantry, as the Minister of State is probably aware, is that we have a double issue. When there is severe flooding after a yellow status or orange status weather alarm, and this combines with high tides, which we call spring tides, it creates a perfect storm and is a very serious issue. Bantry is a relatively low-lying coastal town and, in the long term, will be exposed to future tidal increases and extreme storm weather.

I opened a little business there in 1981 and I have noticed, decade by decade, that the rainfall seems to have increased. In the first decade of my business, I think we had severe flooding once but in this past winter, from October to today, there has been flooding on five separate occasions, two of them quite serious. It is very stressful. It causes anxiety to people with businesses, which are closed because of Covid, to come in and find clothes and shoes floating around in 18 inches of water. It has done a lot of damage.

On the question of damage, if people can get insurance, given the repetitiveness of the flooding, insurance companies are increasing their premiums. The day is not far away when they will say, “Hold on, you have a perennial situation in Bantry and we will not cover you again.”

Because the town built new developments over the years, water is now running off hard surfaces and into the streams and culverts too quickly. The capacity of the culverts is no longer sufficient. Although I normally do not do so, I want to pay tribute to the British empire in its heyday and the monarchy that, in about 1860, built these systems in Bantry and other towns. In fairness, they have lasted up to this time and the structural culverts still stand and are in good use. However, when they were designed and the engineers dealt with this in about 1860, they never envisaged the culverts would have to take that volume of water.

The big issue is to find solutions, in particular to build and increase capacity and identify measures and techniques to slow down the quick release of excessive rainwater into the culvert infrastructure. I suggest that we set up a collaboration and communication between all the stakeholders, not necessarily just businesses, although we have a very active Bantry Business Association, which issues flood warnings frequently when there is a problem, which is very helpful, but also the owners of private houses and others. It is essential that the stakeholders are communicated with. We need a structural update on the culvert system and a feasibility study of different solutions should be embarked on quickly. We must identify critical problem areas and provide funding for immediate remedial work to improve the situation, although the culvert issue can be dealt with without further reports. We need to design a long-term plan.

I was on the council for many years, I was elected to the Dáil in 2002 and I was on the old Bantry Harbour Board, which was eventually subsumed into and taken over by the Cork Port Authority.

That was a retrograde step. In 2010 or thereabouts, a pivotal part of a new plan for Bantry involved developing a barrage or sluice gate for high tides. When spring tide coincided with flooding, this would keep out the tidal water out and the floodwater would gather in an area of six or seven acres created in the inner harbour. I look forward to the Minister of State's response and thank him for visiting the town some time ago.

I thank the Senator for raising this matter. I am pleased to provide an update on what is happening in Bantry. As the Senator says, I was down in Bantry and other parts of west Cork, which got a horrific doing of flooding during the summer. I thank the outdoor staff of Cork County Council, all the voluntary emergency staff, my outdoor officials at the Office of Public Works, OPW, and the engineering staff of the OPW and Cork County Council for all their efforts, not just during the summer but since then.

Following the flood events which occurred in Bantry in August and November 2020, measures have been implemented by Cork County Council in conjunction with the OPW in advance of the predicted rainfall and tidal events, including recently due to status orange weather and rainfall weather warnings. These include Cork County Council staff placing large sandbags at Sands Quay where some of the tidal waters enter the square and also mobile and fire service pumps are placed on standby. These measures have mitigated flooding in the town by reducing the number of properties that flooded. I visited some of these and understand the difficulties caused. The Senator is right that the frequency and violence of the flooding are getting worse. I understand it is acknowledged locally to Cork County Council staff that the measures have prevented some of the further properties from flooding.

For the most recent forecasted rainfall events, Cork County Council hired an additional two mobile pumps in advance. Measures were again put in place and the town was monitored by local Cork County Council staff throughout the period from 23 to 25 February. Thankfully, no flooding occurred and the forecasted rainfall did not materialise.

The flood risk management plans launched by the Taoiseach in May 2018 include a recommendation to progress the project level development and planning of ten new flood relief schemes for County Cork, which includes Bantry. Each individual flood relief scheme has a steering group comprising representatives from the OPW and Cork County Council. A steering group is in place to progress Bantry. The Bantry flood relief scheme is due to be implemented as part of the first tranche of 60 new schemes which have been prioritised. There have been a number of potentially viable flood relief works outlined for Bantry, to be implemented as appropriate after project level assessments and planning, These would include fluvial flood defences comprising walls and embankments and tidal flood defences, as the Senator said. These measures have preliminary total project cost estimates of around €6.5 million and would protect about 200 properties. Cork County Council in partnership with the OPW is finalising tender documents for the procurement of engineering consultants to progress the development of the scheme and a prior information notice has been published by the council on the Government's procurement website, eTenders. I am delighted the tender is due to be advertised shortly.

Once consultants are appointed to progress the flood relief scheme for Bantry, consultation with statutory and non-statutory bodies and the public will take place at the appropriate stages to ensure all parties have the opportunity to input into the development of the scheme. The Senator made reference to everybody being included and that will be vital at the consultation stage. The public in Bantry, including the Bantry Business Association to which the Senator referred, will all be included. In the meantime, Cork County Council regional and local roads design office has commenced the preparation of the consultant's brief documents to carry out the repair and reconstruction of the Main Street culvert, also referenced by the Senator, which has been a significant element contributing to the flooding on the main street. I saw that when I visited the area around New Street and north and south of Wolfe Tone Square. My office is liaising with Cork County Council on the integration of these works into the flood relief scheme.

I know from speaking to residents last year that flooding in Bantry is causing concern for residents and businesses alike. Cork County Council is investigating whether further interim measures can be put in place in advance of the main flood relief scheme which will mitigate against the flood risk currently present.

I thank the Minister of State for his response. I am glad to know he is au fait with the situation in Bantry.

The difference is that Bantry, because it is a tidal town, has the double problem of extreme rainfall combined with the tide issue.

The Minister of State might indicate some sort of timeline, if possible. Will we be waiting for five years or another period? It is an ongoing issue. When I was a Deputy from 2000 to 2007, we believed that we were approaching circumstances in which this matter would be dealt with but - I am not being political - it seems to have been forgotten over the past decade. Recent flooding has focused minds on the issue again. The Minister of State might give some indication of the timeline. I appreciate the efforts he is making. I thank Cork County Council and its staff. There is a lot of goodwill to resolve this issue, and that goodwill and the impetus should be maintained. If we lie back on the oars again, we could face terrible damage.

I thank the Senator. I have a meeting with Cork County Council arranged for tomorrow. I will be meeting the engineering staff regarding what happened not only last August but also, coincidentally, last week. We will be discussing Bantry, Bandon, Skibbereen, Clonakilty, Fermoy, Mallow and other towns with schemes in the pipeline, such as Midleton. The Senator's colleague Senator Dooley will know from places such as Clonlara that the OPW often receives objections to schemes from people who live many miles away. When the scheme comes to fruition in Bantry, we could receive objections from people in Wicklow, for instance. I hope that does not happen because a solution is needed for the people in Bantry who are looking out at Victorian culverts which in many cases have collapsed under the street and which cannot take the volume of water involved. The solution will have to be an engineered one. Trees will not hold back the water coming down from the hills around Bantry, and neither will they hold back the tide. A hard-engineered solution is needed. The OPW will build the infrastructure. We will require the support of the people of Bantry, which I know will be forthcoming. We hope the scheme will not be objected to but, I hesitate to say, it probably will be. As a result, I cannot give a timeframe for the works. We have the money and commitment, however, and we will have the support of Cork County Council. We will have the goodwill of the people of Bantry. I hope that the people who routinely object to schemes such as those proposed for places like Bantry do not do so in this case because the people of Bantry deserve to have their town protected.

Covid-19 Pandemic Supports

The Minister of State will be well aware of the level of devastation Covid has wreaked on the hospitality and tourism sector. Every little business in this sector has effectively been put on its knees. While there is recognition that the Government has supported the sector in so far as could so far, it is now recognised that more needs to be done.

In recent weeks, I have had conversations with Mr. Adrian Cummins of Restaurants Association of Ireland and Mr. Dermot Kelly of the Irish Hotels Federation. They made it very clear that their organisations had been holding on with their fingernails until business was to start again. The expectation was that we would be getting back to normal after Christmas but, with the restrictions continuing, the sector is now in a perilous state. The representative organisations have asked that the Government consider a number of proposals. First, the Covid restrictions support scheme, CRSS, percentage needs to be doubled from 10% of 2019 turnover to 20%. We have to remove the limit of €5,000 per week because it is eliminating all the bigger businesses, namely those with 58 bedrooms and more. The reality is that these businesses have very significant fixed costs, including rent. They still have to pay their rent because the landlords are not getting payment moratoriums from the banks. Insurance still has to be paid. Payments associated with service agreements for lifts and other infrastructural elements must still be made and utility bills must be paid.

The sector recognises that the employment wage subsidy scheme has been very helpful but many businesses have had to supplement the payments under the scheme considerably to retain staff even though there is no money coming in. The representative bodies would like to see it extended until the end of 2021, regardless of the restrictions.

There is genuine annoyance over the way the banks are treating customers.

The reality is that while the banks are indicating there is the potential for moratoriums, they are not giving them. Approximately 87% of those who have been surveyed indicated a willingness or a need for moratoriums yet only in the region of 45% are getting them. That is not good enough. In Denmark, France, Belgium and Germany, when restrictions are at level 5, as is the case here, the authorities have forced the banks to provide for moratoriums.

There is a recognition that VAT at 9% is good for the sector. This reduction needs to be extended until 2025 because it is the only way that these businesses will be able to continue to trade in light of the extended restrictions.

There is also a recognition that there is a considerable amount of money that the State collects through the utility companies. So what the organisations are looking for is a 70% rebate of the pass-through charges that the Government levies on the utility companies. It would not hurt the Government to do this but it would make a significant differences to these businesses. Of course, there needs to be an extension of the rates waiver.

Most of all, what we also need to do is look to schemes that will help some of the smaller businesses that have received no supports to date. I think of a pony trekking business in Domoland that is run by Sean Kilkenny and his family in this regard. Mr. Kilkenny has had no support whatsoever from the State but he has managed to feed his 40 horses and pay farrier costs and tried to pay insurance costs and the cover required to keep his vehicles going. He is now under enormous pressure and financial constraint. The State is going to have to be more imaginative in finding appropriate solutions for smaller businesses that fall outside the myriad schemes already in place. I appeal to the Minister of State, with his considerable experience in services to his local community, to look consider this matter.

I understand that Fáilte Ireland has €7 million left over from last year from the adaption grant and intends to spend it in eight major locations around the country. I understand that there is nothing coming to Ennis in my county. This is a town that has suffered hugely. It will continue to suffer in terms of its hospitality and tourism sector because if we have a summer holiday period this year, much of the activity will happen on the coast. We need to look after our county towns.

This is a very important subject because tourism is a vital indigenous economic sector. In 2019, before the pandemic had wrought its effects on society, tourism was worth more than €9 billion to our economy through visits from overseas tourists and the fares they generated and domestic tourism. It supported 260,000 jobs throughout the country. Tourism is a unique sector in that it supports jobs in remote rural areas and bustling city centres. Nevertheless, it is a fact that it is particularly important for many areas across the regions that do not have many, or any, alternative options for employment and income. Since the advent of Covid-19 and the consequential and necessary public health measures, many of these jobs have been lost or are surviving with State support and income from the sector is a fraction of what it was in 2019.

Helping our tourism sector to survive and be in a position to recover when the circumstances allow is a key issue for the Government. An industry-led tourism recovery task force presented the Tourism Recovery Plan 2020-2023 to the Minister for Tourism, Culture, Arts, Gaeltacht, Sport and Media, Deputy Catherine Martin, on 30 September 2020. The plan contains a number of recommendations to help tourism businesses to survive, stabilise and recover from the pandemic. It has been a hugely helpful input for the Minister and her colleagues in Government in identifying appropriate measures to assist the sector both to survive the pandemic and subsequently recover.

Good progress has been made in introducing the following tourism-specific measures. There was a record level of funding allocated to tourism overall this year, which is an increase of €59 million on the 2020 allocation. Based on this allocation, a €55 million business continuity scheme was launched on 1 February by Fáilte Ireland to help strategic tourism business survive the pandemic and drive recovery. The scheme will contribute to the fixed costs of identified tourism businesses that are not eligible for the CRSS to support their survival. It will provide an equitable level of payment to CRSS for qualifying businesses and the first phase that was launched on 1 February will cover businesses such as tourism attractions, activity providers and caravan and camping sites.

Two separate funds of €10 million each were introduced for coach tourism operators and the Ireland-based inbound agents business continuity scheme in the last quarter of 2020 with €8 million made available under the restart grant for bed and breakfasts. Funding of €5 million has been provided for upskilling training and to improve digital presence, along with a €26 million adaptation fund for the tourism sector to adapt premises to meet Covid-19 safety requirements. As well as these direct supports, the VAT rate for the sector was reduced to 9% to help improve competitiveness and business viability. This week the Covid-19 business aid scheme, CBAS, will be launched. That is for businesses locked out of the CRSS payment.

Survival is the first part of the Government's response for tourism. Recovery must come next and we will continue to keep all options open to support the recovery. A recovery oversight group has been appointed to oversee the implementation of the recovery plan. It presented its first report to the Minister for Tourism, Culture, Arts, Gaeltacht, Sport and Media, Deputy Catherine Martin, two weeks ago. Its findings were taken on board as part of finalising the path ahead for our new Covid-19 plan. The group will continue to report as the situation evolves and the Minister will continue to engage with the stakeholders to ensure she is fully apprised of the challenges they face. This engagement will continue next week when the hospitality and tourism forum will meet again. It will be co-chaired by the Minister, Deputy Catherine Martin, and the Tánaiste and Minister for Enterprise, Trade and Employment.

The Government is fully aware of the significant challenges facing both the tourism and hospitality sectors. We will continue to work to ensure the sector emerges from the pandemic and shows the resilience it has in the past to recover in a meaningful and sustainable way.

I welcome the Minister of State's comprehensive response.

What really gets me, however, is the carry-on of the banks. The announcement today by Bank of Ireland that it is closing over 100 branches across the State - three in Clare in the towns of Tulla, Kilkee and Milltown Malbay - is an appalling kick in the teeth to the people in those communities who stood behind the bank when the State bailed it out to protect our banking system. That is the reward these communities are now getting from the upper echelons of Bank of Ireland. These communities stood behind that bank when it needed support. Now it is turning its back, using the reduction in footfall as an excuse. People cannot go to the banks because they are not able to travel and have been told to stay at home except for essential purposes. It is hardly a surprise that the numbers going through the doors of the banks have reduced.

We are trying to tell everybody that we will get beyond the pandemic and the other side of Covid, allowing people to be free to move around again. Before we get the restrictions lifted and before we get to the other side of Covid, the bigwigs in the boardroom of the Bank of Ireland have decided to pull the shutters down in Tulla, Kilkee and Milltown Malbay. It is wrong and it needs to be challenged by the Government.

I take the Senator's point on the banking announcement this morning. I was also disappointed to read the news about branch closures in my constituency. I will certainly raise these points with the Minister for Finance, Deputy Donohoe.

The Government is working with the tourism sector. The Senator referred to key representative bodies which have been working hard and keeping in regular contact with the Government giving suggestions on what is needed to support the sector. Last Friday, I met with the Tánaiste and Minister for Enterprise, Trade and Employment, the Minister of State, Deputy Fleming, and Insurance Ireland on the issue of business interruption insurance. Insurance companies are now paying out on legitimate business interruption claims. From my experience locally, that has not always been the case, however. If Senator Dooley is aware of a legitimate claim that is not being paid, he should let us know because we want to feed that into our discussions with the insurance industry. Work is ongoing and a stakeholders forum has been established.

The key stakeholders are working with the relevant Ministers, namely, the Minister, Deputy Catherine Martin, who has apologised that she could not be here today and the Tánaiste. The Government is acutely aware of the importance of these sectors and is determined to support them as best it can, until we get to a situation where they can operate more fully again.

Local Enterprise Offices

One of the drawbacks of speaking last is that one runs out of time and nobody remains to listen. As they say, that is politics. They will say that they are in their offices.

First and foremost, I welcome the fact that it is local enterprise week. It is a very positive time for businesses. I also wish to acknowledge the 31 local enterprise offices, LEOs, across the 31 local authorities that do enormous work on enterprise. The LEOs are very positive in respect of promoting entrepreneurship, fostering business, encouraging start-ups, assisting microbusinesses, medium businesses and small enterprises. It is most important work. I believe that the local enterprise offices have been in place for approximately 14 years, certainly a good number of years, during which time they have gone from strength to strength, which is positive. LEOs provide advice and information and support local business start-ups. They help to increase job potential in all communities, as well as developing and supporting existing businesses. That is also positive. LEOs support businesses and innovation in order to develop, expand and further develop their markets. That is another important aspect.

Speaking of LEOs, I had thought that I would be speaking to Leo, that is, the Tánaiste today, who is ultimately the Minister with responsibility for this area but I do understand that he is attending an online link-up as part of the promotion of local enterprise week. I wish the Tánaiste and his Department well with those link-ups today. They are an important aspect of his work and Ministry. I am particularly pleased that he is engaging online with new and young entrepreneurs this morning, as local enterprise week is launched.

This Commencement matter concerns microenterprise, and the important aspects of developing small to medium enterprises that have a green agenda. It is possible to have sustainable industry, business and development, while also having profitable business, development and enterprises. The task for all of us is to deliver that synergy, fusion and merging, not of conflict, but the merging of those important competing and compatible interests. First, I would like to hear more about the pilot schemes. It will be important that those pilot schemes are put in place right across the country and not just in the south east. I am aware that there are some operating in the midlands, as well as other parts of the country.

I will finish by stating that green entrepreneurship has the potential to be a catalyst for positive change. That synergy of sustainability and profitability is extremely important. There is a new generation of environmentally-conscious people who want to see business done in a different and sustainable way. As someone from a rural constituency himself, the Minister of State will be aware of the importance of agri-enterprise and artisan food enterprise, and the synergy that can be achieved between sustainability and profitability. I will leave it at that. At some point in the future, the Tánaiste should come to the House to discuss this issue. He made many pronouncements last week about the startling unemployment figures. We must start again, in many places, in respect of building new jobs. I would appreciate it if the Tánaiste could organise and schedule himself to come to the Seanad to debate the issue of enterprise.

First, the Tánaiste sends his apologies to the House. He is attending a virtual event this morning as part of local enterprise week. I attended a virtual event this morning with the LEO in Donegal, "Spring Back, Step Forward", which focused on building resilience in the companies it supports.

It is an opportune time for the Senator to raise this issue this morning. The local enterprise week is a huge opportunity for small and microenterprises to learn about the variety of programmes and initiatives that are there for them, many of which are targeted at helping companies to respond and adjust their business models as a result of the twin challenges of Covid-19 and the post-Brexit environment, as well as the global challenge of climate change.

Over the next week or so local enterprise offices will host more than 200 online learning and networking events for SMEs. The "making it happen" theme focusses on key areas for small business survival, recovery, growth and opportunity. Common themes include diversification, sustainability, resilience, the green economy, competitiveness, internationalisation and digitalisation.

I am pleased to report the LEO’s "green for micro” initiative is being extended nationwide and was officially launched today to mark the start of local enterprise week. It is now a mainstream programme which is being rolled out by the LEO network nationwide and will provide small businesses with tailored expert advice on how to drive sustainability in their operations.

Sustainability is often quite a theoretical concept and many small businesses simply do not know where to start. Therefore, under this initiative, qualifying enterprises will access two days of intensive mentoring, including a sustainability audit and action plan, designed to help green the business and practical guidance on how to make businesses more sustainable. It does not just make sense from an environmental perspective, it also makes business sense. The primary objective of the green for micro programme is to help prepare small businesses for the low carbon, more resource efficient economy of the future. The programme is free to participants and is available to companies with up to ten employees, as is generally the case with LEO programmes.

Greening the economy and climate change actions give rise to economic opportunities while posing cost and other challenges for business. Many businesses will require support to make investments to decarbonise as the level of regulation increases. This programme is making a contribution towards those aims. Our enterprise agencies have integrated these objectives into their strategies and programmes. IDA Ireland has used its new strategy for 2020 to 2024 to integrate decarbonisation objectives fully across its clients and other relevant stakeholders. Enterprise Ireland will expand its green start, green plus and environmental aid programmes to a larger cohort of its clients and will have an increased emphasis on decarbonisation. Enterprise Ireland is also working towards the launch of a €10 million green enterprise fund in the coming weeks. My Department is also developing a one-stop shop online tool which will help inform and guide SMEs which wish to begin their decarbonisation journey, calculate their carbon footprint and access information on the Government programmes to assist them. This is due to be launched next July.

I thank the Minister of State and welcome today's announcement that the green for micro scheme will be extended around the country. Green ventures at community level should be promoted in line with sustainable development. The old proverb comes to mind that great oak trees from little acorns grow. That is true. Great enterprise starts with simple thoughts and loads of enthusiasm and energy. We must continuously and imaginatively support small enterprises in our communities for there lies the future in terms of sustainable rural Ireland and in terms of jobs and the economy in towns and villages.

Responding to climate change can seem like an enormous, insurmountable challenge. However, like any business response, it begins with breaking it down into small actionable steps. The programme for Government commits to a 7% average yearly reduction in the overall greenhouse gas emissions over the next decade combined with the Climate Action and Low Carbon Development (Amendment) Bill which commits us in law to move to a climate resilient and climate neutral economy by 2050.

We are determined and we are working towards this. This is a step to help our small and microbusinesses on their journey as they move towards a more green operation.

The Government is very supportive of small and microbusiness. We established the SME task force, made up of key stakeholders from a Government or State perspective, people who have made and created jobs, captains of industry and entrepreneurs. There are now objectives the Government is prioritising and working through with the implementation group to ensure small businesses have the support they require. I agree wholeheartedly with Senator Boyhan that we need these small indigenous businesses in urban and rural areas throughout the country to support much-needed jobs. As a Minister of State in the Department, I am determined to ensure the right policies are there to support our small and microenterprises.

I thank the Minister of State. We are ending on a positive note.

Sitting suspended at 11.45 a.m. and resumed at 12 noon.