Nithe i dtosach suíonna - Commencement Matters

Water Quality

Cuirim fáilte roimh an Aire Stáit.

I thank the Minister of State for his attendance and his continued work across his portfolio. The issue I raise this morning relates to the estimated 11% of Irish people who get their water from private water supplies. As the Minister of State will be aware, varying levels of grants are available under the rural water programme for the carrying out of works to private water supplies, be that for sinking a new well, rehabilitation of an existing well or treatment to improve water quality. Under the scheme, a householder can apply for an 85% grant, up to a maximum of €3,000, for rehabilitation works to an existing supply or an 85% grant up to a maximum of €5,000 for a new well, where the housing authority agrees that is the most appropriate solution. In addition to this, a householder can also apply for a 100% grant up to a maximum of €1,000 for treatment to improve water quality, which typically consists of filtration or UV treatment. All grants are paid on the basis of costs of works incurred by the householder.

Unfortunately, the level of grant available for the treatment element of the scheme is often not sufficient to cover the costs involved, particularly in areas where ground water is poor. In my native county of Waterford, many rural householders face costs in excess of €1,500, and in extreme cases up to €3,000, for treatment works to improve the water quality and the level of grant is only set at €1,000. It is true that that sum of €1,000 is sufficient in some cases but often it is not. I am not suggesting an across-the-board increase in the grant. I am simply suggesting that instead of a householder being able to apply for the €3,000 or €5,000 grant plus the €1,000 treatment grant, the words "and-or" be inserted into the scheme to allow a combined figure of €7,000 to be used. That would enable the householder, who incurs significant treatment costs, to have them covered in full.

This would simply be a reprofiling of the scheme and would not result in significant additional cost. It would basically allow householders to use the unused part of the grant for newer rehabilitated wells and allow them to use it for the water treatment which, as I have said, often costs well in excess of the €1,000 that is provided for. Alternatively, if that is not possible, the €1,000 grant for treatment only should be increased to €3,000 to reflect the actual cost involved for householders. This will make a significant difference for the 11% of households that rely on private water supplies.

In addition, I understand that all local authorities were issued with a letter on 19 January instructing them to close out before 30 March all grants approved under the scheme up to June 2020, which is only 17 working days from now. Given the level 5 restrictions and that construction has been essentially stopped since the start of the year, it is not reasonable to require people, who were given grant approval last year, to reapply if they could not get the works done.

Equally, it is not reasonable to ask local authority staff to undertake the heavy workload involved in testing and approving the works which have been completed in the tight timeframe. This can often take many visits to check the water supply, for works to be done, and for them to go back and test again. The deadline should be extended until the end of the year to allow householders and local authorities the time and space to be able to close out the scheme. I certainly hope the Department can take on board these two suggestions. I again thank the Minister of State for his continued work.

I thank Senator Cummins for raising this matter and giving me with the opportunity to address it. I assure Members that the Government is committed to ensuring that people in rural areas are supported in accessing good quality water and waste water services, as committed to in the programme for Government.

Following on from the recommendations contained in the Oireachtas Joint Committee on the Future Funding of Domestic Water Services report in April 2017, a working group was established to conduct a review of the wider resources and investment needs relating to the rural water sector. As part of its work, the working group recommended a number of revisions to the then grant scheme that provided support for carrying out improvement works to a private water supply, more commonly known as a private well or household well for domestic use only. These revisions were provided by the Housing (Private Water Supply Financial Assistance) Regulations 2020. This revised scheme formed part of the broader funding investment under measure 8 of the Multi-Annual Rural Water Programme 2019-2021.

The revised scheme, which opened for applications on 4 June 2020, brought into effect the following changes. The maximum grant for rehabilitation works was increased by 47% from €2,031 to €3,000, as the Senator mentioned. A maximum grant of €5,000 was introduced, in cases where the local authority agrees that the most appropriate solution is to provide a new well. The maximum percentage of approved costs was increased from 75% to 85%, subject to the total maximum costs of either €3,000 for well rehabilitation or €5,000 for a new well.

In addition, in recognition of the role of the grant in improving quality, the water quality treatment element, typically filtration and ultraviolet, UV, treatment, will qualify for 100% funding, up to a maximum of €1,000. This grant may be claimed on its own or in addition to either the grant for rehabilitation works or the grant for a new well. These changes, including the revised grant levels, were implemented following an examination of the previous arrangements, consultation with stakeholders including local authorities, the Environmental Protection Agency and the Health Service Executive, as well as consideration of the matter by the multi-stakeholder rural water working group.

In implementing the revised arrangements, my Department has undertaken to conduct a review of the grant schemes after one year of operation to ensure their alignment with policy objectives. I understand this will happen in June and I would welcome the Senator's input into that review.

As part of its work, the working group also recommended revisions to the grant scheme that provided support towards the remediation, repair or upgrading works to, or the replacement of, domestic waste water treatment systems.

This scheme provided financial support for homeowners where septic tanks had been subject to inspection by the relevant local authority in accordance with the EPA's national inspection plan for domestic waste water treatment systems. In June 2020, local authorities were informed by departmental circular that applications that had been approved under the previous scheme, and where work had already started, should be concluded under the arrangements of that scheme. This is normal practice.

My Department had no objection to applicants who had submitted an application under the previous scheme that had not been processed by the date of the new circular, and where no works had started, withdrawing that application and submitting an application under the new arrangements, provided all eligibility criteria are met.

The Department is bringing the previous grant schemes to an orderly close, in line with good financial management practices. Local authorities were advised on 14 January 2021 that the date for receipt of claims under the previous grant schemes for private water supplies and domestic waste water treatment systems under the national inspection plan was 30 March 2021.

As Senator Cummins indicated, my Department has received inquiries from a number of local authorities, requesting an extension to the date for receipt of claims. My Department is engaging with the local authorities on this matter. We will consider it and we hope the process will be concluded shortly. I again thank Senator Cummins for his interest in this important matter.

I welcome the changes that were introduced last year. They were a recognition of the real costs involved. I also welcome the review. I hope what I have suggested in terms of inserting the "and-or" clause in recognition of the higher costs for treatment, in particular in areas where water quality is poor, will be fed into the review. I also hope the review will have a successful outcome.

I again emphasise the importance of extending the deadline, in particular in light of the level 5 restrictions. Nobody could have foreseen the circumstances we are in and while prudent financial management is important in closing out older schemes, we must be cognisant that people were approved under the previous scheme and they must be allowed time to carry out the work. I say that, notwithstanding the fact that they can submit a new application. The prudent approach would be to extend the scheme and I urge the Minister to do that.

Senator Cummins's point is very well made. I will give it serious consideration with the Minister, Deputy O'Brien, as it is directly under his jurisdiction. I accept the pressure that is on local authorities and their staff due to the level 5 restrictions. The Senator's case has merit. We do not want people to suffer because of the restrictions that have been imposed. We will take a serious look at the issue. We are engaging with the local authorities. I welcome the Senator's suggestion on the re-profiling of the expenditure and his further input into the review. It is a good suggestion and we can look at it.

Harbours and Piers

Cuirim fáilte roimh an Aire Stáit. Ba mhaith liom labhairt faoi Chuan Dhún Laoghaire, atá faoi Chomhairle Contae Dhún Laoghaire-Ráth an Dúin. The Minister will be aware that a number of years ago a policy decision resulted in the transfer of many harbours and ports to local authorities around the country. One of them was Dún Laoghaire Harbour under the charge of Dún Laoghaire-Rathdown County Council, of which I was a member at the time. We welcomed the decision. It was a very important measure of local democracy to involve the local authorities and, by extension, councillors in the administration and running of the harbour, which is an asset to the council. When I became a councillor in 2009, local authority members were removed from the board of the harbour company, which was a retrograde step.

As the Minister is aware, Dún Laoghaire Harbour is a Victorian harbour built in the first half of the 19th century. It is a massive granite edifice off the coast of Dún Laoghaire. The town developed in its wake and with the construction of the Dublin to Kingstown railway. The harbour is a fabulous heritage asset, as well as being a port that facilitates the Commissioners of Irish Lights, the body that services the buoys and lighthouses around the island of Ireland. It facilitates fishermen who use the coal harbour and much pleasure and leisure activity through sailing and other water sports. It also facilitates occasional visits from cruise ships, although not recently.

While the harbour was under the management of the Dún Laoghaire Harbour Company, which was a commercial entity that existed from the 1990s until the harbour was taken back under the control of the county council, it is my opinion that the harbour infrastructure was substantially mismanaged. There were serious financial problems with the administration of the harbour. Certainly from 2015, when Stena Line left, a massive income stream was lacking and that simply meant there was no money to pay for important infrastructural maintenance and upgrades. We know, for example, that recent storms have substantially damaged the east pier and other parts of the harbour walls and they need to be upgraded. An engineering report and an assessment were done before the hand over that said the liability could be as much as €45 million. That finding was pooh-poohed by the then Minister for Transport, Shane Ross. I do not know whether a final figure has been arrived at but we know that with Dún Laoghaire harbour, there comes a massive financial obligation on Dún Laoghaire-Rathdown County Council. The reality is that the harbour as a heritage port and facility does not have the same capacity to make money like larger or more commercial ports. The harbour is located very close to Dublin Port so we cannot compete on the same level.

The harbour company talked about plans to put in place a cruise berth facility at a cost of between €17 million and €19 million, which would never have washed its face. The company talked about creating a badeschiff, which is a swimming pool inside a barge inside a harbour. The company talked about floatels inside the harbour as well. None of these things ever came to fruition but there was great talk. The reality is that the Dún Laoghaire-Rathdown County Council has been left holding the baby. There is now a situation where the council has a massive financial obligation and no means to fulfil that other than to transfer it to the taxpayers of Dún Laoghaire-Rathdown, and transfer the commercial rates on to small businesses in the county or the local property on to the residents of the county. That is wrong and central government must make financial provision for the county council not just to run the harbour but to ensure that it is maintained to the highest possible standards to make sure that we do not lose any aspect of this beautiful heritage facility and historic part of Dún Laoghaire town and the Dún Laoghaire-Rathdown area. I call on the Minister of State to make provision for that funding.

I thank Senator Ward for raising this issue and giving me an opportunity to update the House.

The national ports policy, as set out in 2013, provides for the transfer of certain ports to the relevant local authority and sets out the arrangements for giving effect to this. In that context, the Dún Laoghaire Harbour Company transferred to the Dún Laoghaire-Rathdown County Council on 3 October 2018 in accordance with Part 3 of the Harbours Act 2015 that provides, inter alia, for the dissolution of the port company and the transfer of assets, liabilities and rights to the council.

My Department has a prudential role in the financial integrity of all local authorities and seeks to ensure that local authorities' finances, as far as is practicable, are on a sustainable footing. In that regard, it is my Department's position that, in the case of all transfers of ports, the relevant local authority should not unduly be encumbered or exposed to financial risk by the effective transfer of a commercial body to their control.

Dún Laoghaire harbour is a substantial strategic asset and amenity that, as the Senator has quite rightly pointed out, notwithstanding its ongoing expenditure requirements, also generates income from a number of sources that can be directed towards investment needs. The transfer of Dún Laoghaire harbour to the council provides a real opportunity for the harbour and town to become more integrated.

The Dún Laoghaire-Rathdown County Council is currently working on an economic plan for the harbour. The council has appointed Indecon and KPMG to prepare economic and spatial plans for the Dún Laoghaire harbour and town. The council has very recently undertaken a public consultation on a roadmap to assist and guide the ongoing optimal development and strategic planning of both Dún Laoghaire harbour and town given the synergies and interdependencies between both. The consultation, which closed last week on 28 February, has sought the public's views on the future uses and development of the harbour, and how the town might be more connected and integrated with the harbour.

To be clear, while central government responsibility for ports policy and associated issues remains a matter for my colleague, the Minister for Transport, as the Senator quite rightly articulated in terms of the past Minister, I am focused on promoting the sustainable development of our local authorities in the context of Project Ireland 2040. I, therefore, look forward to seeing proposals from the council, which we expect, on the future development of this very strategic key asset.

Gabhaim buíochas leis an Aire Stáit as ucht an ráitis shoiléir sin. I am not sure exactly what the Government means when it says that no local authority should be unduly burdened. The reality is that, for the first time since local property tax was introduced, although opposed by Fine Gael councillors, the local property tax was increased in Dún Laoghaire-Rathdown County Council's last budget, notwithstanding that householders in Dún Laoghaire-Rathdown pay the highest rates of this tax in the country. Part of the excuse for this increase was that money was needed to pay for elements of the harbour. To my mind, that is an undue burden on the citizens of Dún Laoghaire-Rathdown. I welcome the consultation the Minister of State has mentioned, which is a good step forward towards making progress, but we need to make it possible, and even easy, for the local authority to maintain this important historic asset and to ensure that no further damage is done to the piers as a result of not being properly maintained. Money is required not only from the Minister of State's Department, but from a range of Departments, to ensure the council has those resources.

Again, I welcome the opportunity to address the House on this very important matter. As I articulated, a report is being carried out by two independent agencies at the request of the council. We will have to wait and see what comes back. This is a strategic asset and we want to see what its future direction of travel will be. I do not want to predetermine that. We need to discuss the matter with the council. I will, however, be very clear that no one, including my Department, wants to see any council being encumbered with a great financial risk on its balance sheet from which it cannot derive significant income. As a Department, we are very aware of that. As I have said, the Minister for Transport has the key role in funding ports but we will engage with the local authority. I look forward to seeing the result of both of these reports which will, I hope, give us clear direction.

Passport Services

Cuirim fáilte roimh an Aire Stáit, Teachta Brophy. As he will be aware, we are under strict limitations at present as a result of Covid. All of us who are present in the House are extremely aware of that and of all that has been done in that regard. This is, however, an important issue. As we are an island nation, passports are unfortunately required for people to leave this island to travel to college, to work or for medical or emergency reasons. Many people need passports to open bank accounts, to apply for driving licences, to rent houses and even for matters as simple as getting a television or phone supplier. The passport offices of most of our counterparts are still open and are providing a reasonable level of service. One only has to look across the water to Britain, which is also at the highest level of lockdown, to see quite a decent level of service being provided with regard to passports.

The number of staff involved in this particular service is quite small. I know the restrictions we are under and the challenges we face but it is not good enough that there is no one available to answer the phone or to do anything online. The number of people involved is very small. We are not talking about something like the construction industry going back to work or the large-scale movements involved in opening schools in full; we are looking at a small number of people who provide an important service. The excuse or reason that has been given before is that these employees have to be in the office and that their work is very concentrated. Security reasons have been cited as a reason that much of the work cannot be carried out from home. I understand that but it is not acceptable that there is no one to answer the phone and that passports cannot be renewed online after all the hard work has already been done in that regard. The buck stops with the Minister of State's Department.

I urge him to, at least, consider a more conjoined way of thinking regarding the passport service. We have had more than a year to get some sort of a mechanism in place. It has not happened. We need to look to upgrade this.

I thank the Senator for the opportunity to address the essential work of the passport service, which has continued to deliver throughout the global pandemic.

At level 5, employers are asked to only undertake essential tasks to help stop the spread of Covid-19 in our community. I am satisfied that the passport service is continuing to provide an essential service while respecting the level 5 restrictions announced on 23 December. The passport service provides a same-day service for citizens who need to travel for urgent medical treatment abroad and for citizens who require lifesaving treatment. Travel in these circumstances is unforeseen and the passport service has gone above and beyond to assist families in very stressful and emotive situations.

Our travel emergency team continues to assess every request from citizens under these criteria. I ask that citizens bear in mind that the same-day service is only for those in the most urgent and unanticipated cases, typically when an applicant is in hospital and requires medical transfer. The passport service also offers an urgent service on a weekly basis for those who need to travel overseas for less urgent but essential medical treatment. Adult renewals are processed when a citizen needs to travel for work, study or other essential reasons. We also offer assistance when a passport is needed urgently as proof of identity, for example, to meet a legal obligation. All of these service are provided through the online channel and applicants are requested to provide documentation to support their application and validate their essential need for a passport. These documents will be verified before a passport is issued. Applicants should, in the first instance, contact the passport service through the web chat facility.

Citizens who live overseas are assisted through our network of Irish embassies and consulates. We continue to process renewals and first-time applications where a citizen is only entitled to Irish citizenship and when they are legally required to hold a passport for residency purposes. The applications that have been paused are adult renewals that are not required for essential purposes, applications which are complex or require supporting documentation, such as child renewals where the consent of all guardians must be obtained and verified, and first-time applications. When there is an essential reason to travel each case will be considered.

The processing of all online applications will resume at level 4. I will outline how the passport service will resume operations. Significant work has been done in recent years through the passport reform programme to deliver a more efficient and effective service. The passport service online application channel, which was introduced in 2017, has been key to the delivery of services during this time and will be key to their resumption. It allows adults renewing their passports to apply from the safety of their home. It allows us to keep applicants informed as to when operations are paused and again when service resumes. My staff have examined the current application patterns and the forecasted number of applications estimated to be received up to May 2021 and they are confident that any backlog will be cleared in approximately six to eight weeks.

The first applications to be approved will be the online applications for adult renewals, then child renewals and then first-time applications. Every effort will be made to return to reliable turnaround times as quickly as possible. I assure the Senator of our continued attention regarding this issue in the months ahead. I reassure everyone that every effort is made to facilitate anyone who requires a passport in an emergency situation or for essential services or travel. There is a commitment in place to do that.

I do not mean to contradict the Minister of State, and I appreciate him coming to the House today, but I have had experience dealing with people who feel this service is being provided on a piecemeal basis. The Minister of State mentioned towards the end of his contribution that information is taken into consideration. Parents who want to get their child a passport must send in their own passports and this is caught up in the system. All their certificates and everything that they supply is caught up in the system. There is no guarantee of return when they look for documentation back because, for example, they need their own passport returned. If I look for a passport for my child because he has something going on at the end of the year and I send in my passport but it gets tied up in the system, I would not be able to get my passport back, unfortunately.

If one had to get one's passport in an emergency, one would be told that within 30 days of reopening, it would be fished out. That is not good enough. We are talking about a small number of staff. Level 5 will continue possibly until early April. As has been indicated, there will be some exceptions for some building projects and I would seek to have the Passport Office included at that point, if not before. I hope the Minister of State will push that strongly.

I will make some concluding remarks. When the service is paused, people are requested not to submit supporting documentation or documentation they may need because once it goes into the system, there is a problem returning it as staff are working remotely. Again, I thank Senator Davitt for raising the issue again today. The Department is willing to engage in a reform programme as it has been doing for delivery. We have undertaken substantial reform and expansion of the service. The online service will be expanded to various other countries once we resume, including Australia, Canada, New Zealand and the United States from April this year. It is important to note the work the staff in the Passport Office and everybody in the public sector has done and to acknowledge that some have worked in other departmental areas in helping to tackle Covid-19.

I appreciate Senator Davitt raising the point. I assure him the service is there in emergency situations. We will continue to improve and innovate the service as we can when we return to normal service.

Some people's paperwork is in the system since October.

I cannot comment on an individual case-----

Unfortunately, it has. It has been tied up. That is the problem.

Eating Disorders

I appreciate the opportunity to speak about the important issue of eating disorders. I mention that this is international eating disorders awareness week, a week providing information around eating disorders. I refer to the correlation with Covid-19 over the past 12 months. We are aware from a recently published article that sadly there has been a sharp increase in admissions for eating disorders during the Covid-19 pandemic in Ireland. Bodywhys has provided good information over the week and I recommend that anybody impacted by eating disorders, whether it is oneself, a family member or a friend, look at the website and webinars. The telephone number is 01 2107906.

We are talking about eating disorders such as bulimia, anorexia and binge eating. They affect up to 5% of the population at some point in their lives and are not primarily about food but about body image. They are linked with a feeling of loss of control over other aspects of one’s life. They can be seen as a way of coping with a type of emotional stress which is characterised by self-starvation, purging and bingeing. It can be both physically and emotionally destructive and causes huge stress, not just for the individual but for family members and friends. Sometimes it is acknowledged and sometimes it is not.

An article published in January’s edition of the Irish Medical Journal noted a 66% increase in hospital admissions for eating disorders in 2020 compared to 2019, which is a huge jump. Almost half of the eating disorder referrals seen during the pandemic came in the last three months of 2020 to just one adolescent service.

Eating disorders have the highest mortality rate of any psychiatric issue. Therefore, these statistics are very concerning. The authors of this report noted factors such as distress and anxiety related to the pandemic. The interplay of social and economic factors and the impact of restrictions can account for this huge rise.

Since eating disorders span the mental and physical health services, a specialised, integrated approach is vital. There are no emergency services in paediatric psychiatry in Ireland, which needs to change. The HSE has recommended creating 16 specialist hubs around the country as the ideal model of care. We need to see this rolled out in all our hospitals to provide more beds for sufferers of this disease. According to recent media reports, the national eating disorder plan looks set to be delayed by almost four years. That is just not acceptable.

We know and appreciate that resources are stretched to the limit in the health service but eating disorders have the highest morbidity rate of any of the mental health disorders. Reports from professionals working in the area indicate they do not feel well supported in terms of training, resources and supervision. It is also of note that only about 5% to 15% of people with eating disorders seek help. Early intervention and treatment are vital for their recovery.

I am here this morning on behalf of the Minister of State at the Department of Health, Deputy Butler, to answer Senator O'Loughlin's questions.

I welcome the opportunity to speak about Ireland's model of care for eating disorders, particularly during eating disorders awareness week. Eating disorders have the highest mortality and morbidity, as the Senator said, of all mental health conditions. An estimated 190,000 Irish people will experience an eating disorder at some point. Sadly, eating disorders often have a very high cost for individuals and their families, as well as for health services and broader society when they are not treated or if they are not treated effectively. Enhancement of specialist services for eating disorders, including improved access and shorter waiting lists, remains a key priority for the Minister of State. She has special responsibility for mental health in government as a whole and in the HSE.

In response to the growth in cases presented to mental health services, €5.7 million has been allocated to the eating disorders national clinical programmes since 2016. The eating disorders programme, launched in 2018, was developed in partnership with the College of Psychiatrists of Ireland and BodyWhys, the national support group for people affected by eating disorders. I commend the work of these organisations in supporting people and families affected by eating disorders. It is imperative that these valuable services, provided through the HSE and our partners, continue to be supported to meet current and growing demand.

Some €1.77 million has been invested to date in eating disorder specialist posts with 21.8 full-time equivalents now in place. In addition, the balance of €3.94 million is fully available to the programme and will enable further investment in specialist posts throughout this year. The Minister of State, Deputy Butler, is keenly aware of previous delays in implementing the programme and she has made it a priority to ensure there are no further delays. She met the programme's clinical lead, along with BodyWhys, this week. They will report to her on a quarterly basis to ensure that real progress is made on the development of eating disorder services this year.

As the Senator is aware, Covid-19 has challenged us all with increased stress, anxiety and fear, not least for those affected by eating disorders and their families. While we do not yet fully understand Covid's impact on mental health, we know that presentations of eating disorders, particularly in young girls and young women, have increased during this time. Funding available to mental health in 2021 will help to tackle increased demand for mental health services due to Covid-19, including the continued development of the eating disorder programme through the establishment of three more specialist eating disorder teams this year.

I understand the Minister of State is fully committed to ensuring that the €3.94 million allocated to the programme is invested this year, in line with clear commitments to improve eating disorder services under Sharing the Vision, our national mental health policy. The funding allocated to date has seen significant growth and improvement in our services.

As of last year, there are three specialist eating disorder teams in place. This means that we can treat more 90% of people with eating disorders in the community, avoiding more serious inpatient treatment. Despite the significant increase in referrals in 2020, there was a 43% increase in the number of eating disorder assessments completed compared with 2019, with twice as many people starting treatment. In addition to the three new teams, completion of the three existing specialist eating disorder teams will occur this year.

I commend the work of the programme and the progress made in the past year and I look forward to the full utilisation of the State's investment in this vital service.

I acknowledge that the Minister of State, Deputy Butler, contacted me to apologise for not attending and to assure me of her commitment to this issue.

I thank the Minister of State, Deputy Ossian Smyth, for his response. It is good to hear that three more teams will be established this year. That is important because the longer a habit is established, the more it takes on a life of its own. Young people are finding their lives being taken over by this difficult disease. As such, early intervention is very important.

I agree with a model that provides care in the community. If we can deal with eating disorders in the community prior to someone needing a hospital bed, it will be important. That there are no emergency services in paediatric psychiatry is wrong, though, and must change.

This is an ongoing issue, but I appreciate the Minister of State's commitment and presence today.

I thank the Senator for raising this important issue. Everyone wants the best outcomes for people who are affected by eating disorders. It is clear that progress in establishing the clinical programme has not been as rapid as we wished, but this does not mean that nothing has happened or that there is no work in progress. Considerable work has been undertaken and the programme continues to be developed in line with clinical evidence and international best practice. The Minister of State, Deputy Butler, is committed to ensuring, in collaboration with relevant partners, that significant progress will be made this year and that access to appropriate treatment will continue to increase.

With the right support and interventions, people can and do recover from eating disorders. With the HSE and its partners, the Government is committed to providing and expanding the high-quality treatment and support for all of those affected by eating disorders.

Covid-19 Pandemic Supports

I welcome the Minister of State. While we would have loved to have the Minister, Deputy Catherine Martin, with us, he will convey our message to his Green Party ministerial colleague.

As the Minister of State knows, it is almost a year since the arts, culture and live entertainment sectors had to shut down operations. A series of good and positive initiatives have been designed by the Department of Tourism, Culture, Arts, Gaeltacht, Sport and Media to assist them, but this matter relates to the €50 million live entertainment fund announced in budget 2021. We are nearly five months on since that announcement, but I am unclear as to whether we have any additional detail on how the fund will be rolled out and to whom it will apply. While we agree with the Government taking a cautious approach under Covid-19 Resilience & Recovery 2021: The Path Ahead, there should be no excuse for a lack of clarity or full information on this support fund. The essence of a sector such as the live entertainment industry means that it needs time to plan. It also needs confidence in the transparency around how the funding will be allocated. With a degree of horror, we watched the criticisms levelled at the Department last year regarding how the music industry stimulus package was allocated.

I am raising this matter in the context of broader concerns for the sector, in particular the stories we are being told time after time by workers and people with small businesses in the live entertainment sector who say they are hanging on by their bare fingertips. Indeed, some people have already exited the sector. Those in the sector still have costs even though they are not operating. They must maintain their insurance because they do not want a break in cover and there are other overheads. Time and again, the response from the Government is to point to the Covid restrictions support scheme, CRSS, and the Covid business aid scheme, CBAS, but many businesses are excluded because those only apply to rateable businesses.

I cannot for the life of me fathom why the Government continues with its fixation on rateable businesses. I understand there have to be criteria and that the public finances need to be protected, but I do not understand why the Government, having listened to months of criticism from all of us in the Opposition and within the Government, remains fixated on rateable businesses. There are alternatives. There were 212,007 active VAT traders in the country in 2019. Surely VAT could be the metric, the anchor on which businesses could be targeted for support. In 21st century Ireland, it is not acceptable to suggest that a business has to operate from a premises with a shopfront. Thousands of businesses operate from a back room, which goes back to the issue of rateable businesses.

My initial question was regarding the €50 million fund. It is very welcome but we need to see detail of how and when it will be rolled out and to whom it will apply.

I take the Senator's points about rateable businesses. I will describe the supports targeted specifically at the live entertainment sector and the arts. It is true that not every business will have a premises these days.

Covid-19 restrictions continue to have a devastating effect on the live entertainment sector. Restrictions on mass gatherings are necessary to prevent the spread of the virus but have meant that opportunities for live performances in front of an audience have been almost completely restricted over the past year, which has had grave consequences for these sectors. In 2020, the Department provided grant aid to a range of programmes and initiatives to produce much-needed cultural and live entertainment content for audiences throughout the State and abroad. These schemes included the pilot live performance support scheme, LPSS, the music industry support package, MISP, Tradfest, Ireland Performs, Hot Press gigs and Other Voices Courage.

These initiatives sought to assist individual musicians, commercial venues, producers and promoters to provide income and employment opportunities for workers in the creative sector. The pilot LPSS awarded €5 million to 59 projects, providing thousands of days of employment to hundreds of musicians, actors, crews and technicians at a time when no other opportunities were available. Artists and supporting roles were employed to do what they do best and provide the general public with much-needed entertainment. Our initiatives have provided a pipeline of exceptionally high-quality livestreamed concerts, as well as pantomimes and theatre productions, which were very well received. They were watched both in Ireland and throughout the world. Irish audiences need to see and experience Irish art.

The House may be interested to learn that over the past three months, virtually all new artistic output in Ireland has been generated through public funding, mainly through the Department. In particular, the pilot LPSS provided a much-needed varied and timely benefit to Irish people everywhere. There is strong support for a new LPSS arising from the experience of the pilot and this demand comes from throughout the live entertainment sector. The pilot allowed promoters, venues and producers to innovate and try out new ways of reaching audiences. The new approach has resulted in significant learnings on new successful models, including paid platforms, and this strengthens the live entertainment and performance sector. Other feedback from musicians, artists and producers revealed a powerful well-being benefit to artists and musicians from being given the opportunity to perform live, especially after such a long time, even when the performance was to an empty room.

In budget 2021, there is a higher order of magnitude of support than that of last year. It is envisaged that a roll-out of €50 million in allocation will include a grant scheme similar to the live performance support scheme. Other measures are under consideration, including those that emerge from engagement with the sector, stakeholders and the local authorities. The Department has gained valuable insights into the pilot and will apply these learnings as soon as possible when allocating the funding this year.

As I said earlier, I appreciate that much good work has been done in the Department, but I came to the debate to learn something new. Many others have asked about the €50 million fund and, unfortunately, we have not heard any new information.

With the greatest respect, I have heard the Minister, Deputy Martin, speak about the lessons that have been learned. The Minister of State mentioned the pay platforms. However, we do not have any additional certainty or clarity for those who are hoping to apply. It is a very simple question and I think those in the sector deserve simple answers. I appreciate that the Minister of State is here to deliver a message, but I ask him to tell the Department that it is not good enough to send that message into this Chamber and reiterate all the good things that were done last year. We are now in 2021 and we want to hear about progress. It is about looking ahead, not looking back.

I thank the Senator. I take her points on board and will convey them to the Minister, Deputy Martin, whom I meet regularly. This year, we are doing something which is ten times larger than what we did last year. I cannot pre-announce what the Minister will announce but I know this issue is very dear to her heart and she is very keen to deliver on her commitments.

I draw the attention of the Senator to the Minding Creative Minds well-being and support services. Although the restrictions affect everyone, there is an added source of stress and tension for artists and creatives who are prevented from expressing through their art. In December, the Minister was pleased to announce funding of €230,000 for the expansion of the Minding Creative Minds service to the entire creative sector, both at home and abroad. This innovative 24-7 well-being support programme provides the Irish creative community with access to experienced counsellors and psychotherapists who can offer short-term intervention and advice covering practical day-to-day issues that cause anxiety and stress. This funding comes with the recent recommendation from the arts and culture recovery task force which specifically highlights the need for well-being supports for the sector. I would be grateful if Senators were to highlight this important service in their respective areas.

The next Commencement matter will be taken by the Minister of State, Deputy Joe O'Brien. I call Senator Gavan.

I thank the Acting Chairperson. It is nice to see him in the Chair. The Minister of State is very welcome. It is nice to see him. I thank him for coming to the House. I wish to raise an issue relating to a deposit return scheme for drinks containers. As the Minister of State will be aware, his colleague, the Minister for the Environment, Climate and Communications, Deputy Eamon Ryan, announced that such a scheme will be introduced. It is hoped that it will be introduced in the near future. I believe the introduction of a deposit return scheme represents a once-in-a-generation opportunity to reshape our relationship with the environment.

Last year, the Minister, Deputy Eamon Ryan, unveiled his vision for the design of the scheme. He announced that the scheme would only include polyethylene terephthalate, PET, plastic bottles and aluminium cans. I ask the Government to urgently reconsider that decision. To exclude materials such as glass bottles from the scheme is short-sighted in the extreme. It goes against a wealth of statistical evidence and totally ignores public opinion on this issue.

Recycling rates for glass in Ireland reduced from 86% to 78% between 2018 and 2019, meaning that close to 30 million glass bottles were not recycled. Glass is one of the most common items to pollute our beaches. It is also one of the litter items that causes most concern, particularly among parents and pet owners, because of its potential to cause injury. Broken glass causes a real hazard for local authority, private sector and voluntary clean-up crews and can contribute disproportionately to other litter-related damage such as punctures.

The current exclusion of glass from the scheme flies in the face of internationally recognised best practice on deposit return schemes, such as that in Denmark. Its deposit return scheme, which has levied a deposit on glass bottles since 1922, is the envy of the world. Since introducing its scheme, the recycling rate for empty glass in Denmark has risen to 90%, one of the highest in the world.

To exclude glass would be to ignore the opinion of the public and leading Irish environmental charities on this issue. A poll published last year by VOICE Ireland revealed that almost nine in ten people believe all drinks containers should be included in a deposit return scheme. It highlighted that a majority of Irish people support the inclusion of glass bottles in the scope of the scheme. In late 2020, some 20 leading Irish voices, including the CEOs of Friends of the Earth, An Taisce and VOICE Ireland, signed a letter calling for the inclusion of glass. Now more than ever before, the Government must listen to the people on this issue.

I wish to take this opportunity to highlight to Seanad Éireann and the Minister of State the need for a deposit fee that varies according to the size and material of the container. This really is a common-sense proposal. A flat rate 20 cent deposit has been proposed for the vast majority of containers, regardless of size, from 330 ml servings of lemonade to 3 l containers of cola.

For smaller servings of less than 0.5 l, a 20 cent deposit represents a huge percentage increase on the price charged to the consumer and for larger containers the increase is less significant. One can see the problem, as this will encourage a shift in consumer behaviour towards larger containers, which is not good when we think about overall health policy. We do not want people buying larger containers of sugary drinks, for example. A variable deposit scheme is far better and I can cite a number of examples, including Norway, Sweden, Finland and Denmark. We know best practice is to move to a variable deposit scheme.

I urgently call on the Minister of State to ensure Ireland's deposit return scheme is fit for purpose. We must make it one of the leading schemes in the world and we must be ambitious. It should be a scheme that countries across the EU can admire and replicate. Failure is not an option and glass must be included, with the deposit varying according to size and material of the container. I look forward to the Minister of State's response.

I welcome the Senator's call for ambition on this subject. While I will touch on the glass issue in a moment, in an initial statement I am happy to update Members on progress on this matter this morning. Members will be aware that plans for the introduction of a deposit return scheme, DRS, for plastic bottles and aluminium cans were announced in last year’s programme for Government.

A deposit return scheme for plastic bottles and cans involves the application of a refundable deposit to incentivise consumers to return the drinks containers for recycling or reuse. There are a number of reasons we need such a scheme in Ireland but, put simply, too few plastic bottles and cans are currently being captured for recycling and too many are being discarded as litter and this needs to be addressed if we are to meet our existing obligations and achieve our ambition set out in the waste action plan to put Ireland among the top EU waste and circular economy performers.

The single use plastics directive, which will be transposed by July this year, sets a collection target of 90% for plastic bottles by 2029 with an interim target of 77% by 2025. A report prepared by the Eunomia consultancy concluded that a deposit return scheme is considered to be the only feasible way to achieve the required levels of performance under the single use plastics directive. In reaching this conclusion, the study shows that we are currently achieving an estimated 55% separate collection rate for plastic bottles and aluminium beverage cans, leaving us behind the 2025 target and well short of our 2029 target. The directive also requires that plastic beverage bottles contain at least 25% recycled plastic by 2025 and that all plastic beverage bottles contain 30% by 2030. A well-operated and managed deposit return scheme is capable of producing high-quality food grade recyclable material, which can be used by beverage manufacturers to meet these recycling content targets.

The Eunomia report outlines other reasons why we should introduce a deposit return scheme in Ireland, even if we were not facing these EU targets. It estimates that a deposit return scheme could reduce the cost of litter to communities by €95 million. It could also reduce littering of drinks containers by 85% and reduce the tonnage of these containers that are landfilled or incinerated by 88%. The consequent reduction in greenhouse gas emissions in a year is valued at €1.83 million, with the annual reduction in other air pollutants valued at €550,000.

Following the commitment in the programme for Government, the Waste Action Plan for a Circular Economy, launched last September, sets out a clear roadmap for the introduction of the deposit return scheme for plastic bottles and aluminium cans in the third quarter of 2022. This process began with the launch of a public consultation on the design of a deposit return scheme for Ireland last October. I was heartened by the level of public engagement in this first part of the process, with the vast majority of the 364 submissions received in favour of the introduction of the scheme. It is clear that the public is very much behind the introduction of this scheme.

Officials are currently engaged in the next steps of the process. Bilateral discussions with a range of stakeholders have taken place and a stakeholder working group, consisting of beverage producers, retailers, environmental non-governmental organisations and waste collectors has been established to progress the design of the system. Colleagues from the Department of Agriculture, Environment and Rural Affairs in Northern Ireland have sat in on the working group discussions as observers.

Based on the work being carried out by this group, a second public consultation will be launched later this month. This will seek views on the preferred model of a scheme and invite submissions on the legislative parameters required for its introduction. Ireland has a well-established track record in using the extended producer responsibility model for dealing with various waste streams, including plastics and packaging, electrical appliances and batteries. This model is based on the polluter pays principle and I have stipulated that the deposit return scheme must similarly be producer-led and operated on a not-for-profit basis.

The legislative basis for the delivery of a DRS will be provided through the transposition of the single use plastics directive. This will be done by the deadline of 3 July this year.

The DRS will complement other measures that we will be introducing under this directive in order to deal with a wide range of single use plastic, SUP, items, including the banning of SUP items such as straws, cutlery, plates, cotton bud sticks and balloon sticks. The Minister will also be introducing measures to significantly cut down on the number of SUP cups and food containers we use. These measures will include the introduction of levies, legislating to prohibit their unnecessary use and trialling the elimination of coffee cups entirely in selected towns with a view to eventually banning them at a national level. I will pick up the glass issue in my next contribution.

I thank the Minister of State for that lengthy response. I understand he will come back to me because he has not really answered the key questions. We know the Department was resistant to introducing the deposit return scheme. We know from freedom of information requests that were released to my colleague, Senator Boylan, that the Irish Government was instrumental in delaying this EU directive until 2029. This is where the Minister of State and the Green Party have to make a difference.

We spoke about ambition and it is crucial that glass is included in this deposit return scheme. I have cited best practice in the world and I could also cite what is happening in Lithuania, where they have reverse vending machines as a requirement for all rural shops to make sure there is no rural-urban divide. What has happened there is that the shops are now asking for those machines because they can see a commercial benefit to them. There is a host of best practice opportunities and my fear is that we will miss out on them. I am hoping the Minister of State will give us a clear and positive response that glass and the variable deposit scheme will be included. We will not get the opportunity to get this right again. It needs to happen now.

On the variable charge, I would suggest that there will be an opening for that point to be made in the consultation process that will be coming up.

On glass, many of the submissions received in the first round of public consultation on the introduction of the DRS called for glass to be included. The DRS facilitates a high rate of recyclability because the material collected in it is generally not contaminated. Ireland, through its bring bank collection system, already achieves a high rate of glass recycling. The most recent statistics show that we are achieving a rate of 82%. This well exceeds the EU target for 2030 of 75%. Our focus for glass should turn to reuse as this is further up the waste hierarchy, rather than recycling. Therefore, some form of DRS for glass which facilitates reuse rather than recycling may be looked at in the future. It is a question of the best approach to take and reuse is always better than recycling. We are doing so well on glass in Ireland that this is the area we want to look at for now in terms of glass. However, there are opportunities for other avenues to carry out recycling in the future as well.

There are not enough glass recycling centres in Dublin. In many cases, residential glass ends up in public bins on streets.

Sitting suspended at 11.40 a.m. and resumed at 12 noon.