Léim ar aghaidh chuig an bpríomhábhar

Seanad Éireann díospóireacht -
Wednesday, 10 Nov 2021

Vol. 280 No. 2

Nithe i dtosach suíonna - Commencement Matters

Psychiatry Services

Cuirim fáilte roimh an Aire Stáit, mo chomhghleacaí agus mo chara. I thank the Cathaoirleach for considering this matter and allowing us to debate it. I thank the Minister of State, Deputy Butler, for coming to the House to deal with this Commencement matter. The Minister of State's commitment to mental health and to older people is well recognised throughout the country. To be honest, communities continuously tell me about the great work being done by her. I want to acknowledge that here this morning.

It would be fair to say that it was during my time as a Deputy, that the Minister of State would have heard more about the old Rosalie Unit, as we discussed it over and over again. The centre was a home for several people who suffered from dementia. There was controversy when it was closed. That is water under the bridge at this stage, but a new centre was promised, which was announced in June 2020 by the then Minister of State with responsibility for mental health, Jim Daly. I believe the head of the HSE was there and, if I am not mistaken, then Taoiseach, Deputy Varadkar, was also online as was the Minister for Health.

This new centre was to be a day care centre for CAMHS and for psychiatry in later life, which is vital and important. There have been some developments there, and I welcome the commitment of the Minister of State, Deputy Butler, to the centre. I am informed that CAMHS' work is up and running on certain days in the week, which is very welcome. I am aware it is the Minister of State's desire to see everything that was promised is done. I am aware the Minister of State is committed, and that when she has something she wants to achieve that she will achieve it.

I am looking for an update as to where we stand with the new e-health centre in Castlerea, County Roscommon. There seem to be issues around psychiatry of later life services. Is it a staffing issue? I am aware that the Minister of State has provided the money. I do not know if there are issues around getting staff. It is important and crucial that once and for all we ensure this centre gets up and running as quickly as possible.

The Minister of State will also have heard me speak previously about the unspent money from 2012 to 2015, which was €18 million for mental health services for our county. That money was not returned. The money should have been put into mental health services at the time. It is still a big bone of contention with people and it is highly regrettable that this has happened. When the system needed that support it did not get it. This is an issue for the people who deal with mental health and with the public in our own county.

I will not delay any longer and I look forward to the Minister of State's reply. I hope that we can get some clarification this morning. I am sure the Minister of State will appreciate the absolute importance of the centre. It is great that it was promised. It is great that part of it is up and running, but we need to get the whole matter sorted now. I look forward to the Minister of State's reply.

It is good to see Senator O'Sullivan in the Chair.

It is lovely to see the Minister of State, Deputy Butler, in the House. It would be remiss of me not to welcome you.

I thank Senator Murphy for raising this issue in Seanad Éireann. I can safely say that this is not the first time I have heard about this from the Senator. As Senator Murphy has said, we have spent a lot of time discussing the previous Rosalie Unit.

Staffing for the CAMHS Connect day hospital includes a consultant psychiatrist, a non-consultant hospital doctor, an advanced nurse practitioner, a senior social worker, a clinical nurse specialist, a senior psychologist and an occupational therapist. We are trying to put in place multidisciplinary teams around the country that will be able to support people with mental illnesses across all disciplines. The consultant, the non-consultant hospital doctor, the advanced nurse practitioner and the senior social worker for this team have been recruited. The remaining three posts are at an advanced stage of the recruitment process.

The following services are now available from the CAMHS Connect team: CAMHS multidisciplinary clinics, including a monthly mental health intellectual disability clinic; diagnostic assessments; cognitive behavioural therapy, CBT, and family therapy, which is important in supporting the families of loved ones with mental illness; outreach support; and CAMHS group work, which is being run to deliver therapy to young people. There is an existing psychiatry of later life service at Castlerea. Staffing for the new psychiatry of later life day hospital includes a consultant psychiatrist, a non-consultant hospital doctor, an advanced nurse practitioner, a social worker, a clinical nurse specialist, a senior psychologist and a senior occupational therapist. The non-consultant hospital doctor has recently taken up the duties of the position, and the remaining posts are going through the recruitment process and will be filled as soon as possible. Funding is allocated to the local mental health service as staff are appointed.

One of the real challenges being experienced is in recruiting staff. It can take up to 50 weeks to recruit and successfully put a person in place in a role, especially if the post must be backfilled. We are seeing this challenge with recruitment throughout the country and I have had many discussions about this issue. I met the CAMHS team in north county Dublin yesterday. When we are recruiting for staff, whether in the public, private or voluntary areas, and regardless of whether the recruitment is undertaken by NGOs or the HSE, we are all dipping into the same pool of personnel. It is difficult, but suffice it to say the will is there, the funding is there and recruitment for posts is under way.

The new psychiatry of later life day hospital on site will meet evolving mental health needs across a wide catchment area. A major component of the new services is outreach to emergency and inpatient units through telepsychiatry. This approach will continue to be developed by mental health professionals. The new psychiatry of later life day hospital reflects a new and improved approach to meeting the mental health needs of older people in the region, compared with the old Rosalie unit which was based on the same site in Castlerea. The day hospital will provide a real alternative to inpatient mental health care in Roscommon and will facilitate older people living in their own homes or in nursing homes. Specific programmes will be delivered for older people with severe mental health difficulties and individuals with dementia, including a new memory clinic. The service will provide another option in addition to acute hospital care, delay admission to continuing care and provide carer respite capacity. Services also include cognitive behavioural therapy and other therapies, anxiety management, recovery programmes, as well as art, music and healthy living skills.

I welcome the statement from the Minister of State. Commitments were given regarding CAMHS and they have been fully looked after with these developments. I welcome that the Minister of State addressed the subject of the psychiatry of later life, but it is now clear that some issues remain concerning staffing. The Minister of State explained the situation very well in respect of how long it is taking to get staff into certain areas. The good thing I take from what the Minister of State said is that good progress is being made in this area.

It is also interesting to note what was said about telepsychiatry. Things change and this is something new and it will be part of how we deal with issues such as this in future. It is clear from what was said that this service will be up and running fully and that new ideas and approaches are emerging. I would love if the Minister of State would come to visit County Roscommon and this centre and have a discussion on these issues, including going through what is happening there. It would be well worthwhile. The invitation has been issued now, and I hope the Minister of State does not think I am being cheeky in pushing it on her like this. We would love to have her down there with us soon to discuss this matter further. I thank her for being here this morning and for her clear answers.

I thank the Senator for his positive approach. The Castlerea mental health hub represents a new approach to developing options in mental health services delivery, including the psychiatry of later life. It is my intention, and that of the HSE, that the Castlerea hub will help to inform this objective nationally. I will take up the Senator's offer to visit his county to see the centre. As I said, this is a new approach to developing options in mental health services and it is so important. One of the things I was most pleased to secure funding for in the budget for next year is in the context of the integrated care programme for older persons. Everyone will be aware of what the programme does, but it does not deal with the psychiatry of later life. I secured funding for three pilot teams so that we will not be duplicating services in this area. If an older person presents with frailty, a broken hip or related issues, any issues concerning the psychiatry of later life can be addressed then as well. I am pleased about that.

Mention was made of the €18 million. When I came into my post last year, there was a deficit of €53 million in the area of mental health services in the Department of Health. I have managed to clear that and we are going into next year with no deficit. Working with the Department and the HSE, we went back as far as 2012 and we were able to see where some savings were made. One relevant aspect from my previous life is that I was good at figures. What we have been able to do is to secure the budget for the future. None of the €1.149 billion funding allocation for mental health services is owed or will have to be spent on something that happened previously. I am very pleased about that aspect because it is so important in light of Covid-19 and all the other challenges that people face that we have a good and robust mental health system. I look forward to visiting Roscommon and my office will talk to the Senator about it.

Vaccination Programme

I welcome the Minister of State to the Chamber. She is always welcome and I thank her and the Cathaoirleach for facilitating this debate. I am raising this issue because the Minister of State will remember that a couple of weeks ago there was a lot of controversy about the continuation of the Covid digital certificate and the recommendations being brought in by the Government. The issue that seemed to upset some people was the continuation of the Covid digital certificate.

My question is how successful that digital certificate has been in recent weeks. I ask that because I was supportive of this initiative and I have seen the advantage of it in recent months. I refer to how people have embraced it, how it has encouraged people to get vaccinated and, most importantly, and this is the part people frequently forget, how the Covid digital certificate is there to support businesses. It is not impeding businesses in any way. It is a little bit of an inconvenience for people to have to check it when people come in, but the whole point of the digital certificate is to allow businesses to remain open.

Some weeks ago, about 370,000 people over the age of 12 were not fully vaccinated. My question is where are we now in respect of those 370,000 people, and I am asking because the impression I get is that there seems to have been an increase in the uptake of the vaccines. If Clonmel is anything to go by, and we are very lucky to have a vaccination centre there, as well as one in Nenagh in Tipperary, there has been an increase in the number of people receiving vaccinations. I have seen that myself. There was a sense before 22 October that if people who had not been vaccinated - for whatever reason, some people have genuine reasons and some people just do not want it or do not want to do what the Government is asking them to do, and it is always going be the case that we will have a percentage of people like that - just got to 22 October, they would then have got over the end line and that would have been it.

I get the sense now, though, that people realise the Covid digital certificate is not going to be gone any time soon. One of the major and positive decisions we made in respect of the Covid digital certificate is that there is no end date for it. There is talk that there might be such a date in future, but I strongly encourage the Department not to have an end date for when the Covid digital certificate will be phased out, because a date, such as 1 January 2022, would give people the ability to decide to wait until that end date arrives and try to get past it that way. If we have learned anything from our experience over the past 18 months, it is that we cannot predict anything and therefore we should not have an end date because it just causes us more problems.

One suggestion I have concerns what is happening in other countries, such as Spain, where it has been successful. I refer to the fact there seems to be a lower uptake of vaccinations among non-English speaking residents in Ireland. If we could start a campaign to encourage those people to get vaccinated, that would be very helpful.

We know many people are either sceptical of this or come from countries where there is a scepticism about vaccines even in their governments over years. We could set up a campaign within the Department of Health to encourage such people to get vaccinated.

I welcome the discussions between the Taoiseach and representatives of the hospitality sector, such as the Restaurants Association of Ireland, the Vintners' Federation of Ireland and all the other groups that participated in yesterday's process. Now is the time to encourage all businesses to use digital Covid certificates. It is the mechanism to keep the industry open over Christmas but we need everybody on board. I am sure the Minister of State knows businesses that have not been checking the certificates and I have gone to bars and restaurants where it does not happen. It is different everywhere. Some places are very positive and engaging while others are not. Even the businesses that are quite good may not look for photo identification, and I might refer to that in my concluding remarks. Now is the time for businesses in the hospitality sector to ensure as many bars and restaurants as possible can continue checking the digital Covid certificate over the next two months.

I thank the Senator for raising this matter, which is important. He has set out the position clearly. On 19 October, the Government approved the reopening of the remaining aspects of the hospitality, entertainment and night-time economy. The hospitality sector has been permitted to reopen only with a full range of protective measures in place and the wide and robust implementation of the EU digital Covid certificate. Thinking back to the debate on the digital Covid certificate in the Dáil - I read the transcript a couple of weeks ago - I recall it being very emotive. Only the Government parties and one Independent supported it at the time. The digital Covid certificate being implemented to allow hospitality to fully reopen was likened to a pig in a poke and an Irish solution to Irish problem. It was labelled discriminatory. I can now see how all parties have engaged with the digital Covid certificate as a solution.

I was in a premises on Sunday morning when I did a bit of shopping. I do not mind mentioning I was in a Starbucks and I was so impressed when I entered the premises. A person is first asked for a digital Covid certificate when sitting down and identification to complement it. After sitting, a person can scan a code at the table to indicate the time and date when he or she is there. Some places are implementing the process well. Unfortunately, as we have heard, 37% of establishments are not up to speed and it is important that they participate fully in the process.

More than 7.6 million doses of the Covid-19 vaccine have now been administered since the programme began last December. This figure encompasses both primary vaccination and the administration of booster doses. Vaccination of those not yet inoculated remains an immediate focus of the programme. In recognition of this priority, the HSE has established an uptake improvement group, which has deployed initiatives that include pop-up clinics and targeted media campaigns.

In addition to the full reopening of the hospitality sector on 19 October, the Minister for Health announced an update to Ireland's Covid-19 vaccination programme in extending the booster vaccination to those aged between 60 and 79. The change was made on foot of a recommendation from the national immunisation advisory committee that a booster dose of the Pfizer BioNTech vaccine should be offered to all those aged 60 to 79 who have completed their primary vaccination course. The recommendation has subsequently been updated to include provision of a half dose of Moderna's Spikevax vaccine to be offered to those aged 60 to 79. Persons aged over 60 will be offered an mRNA vaccine regardless of the type of vaccine used for their primary vaccination course. The booster dose should be given after an interval of six months, or at least five months, following the previous dose of any authorised Covid-19 vaccine.

I am pleased to report to the House that significant progress has been made in the weeks since the announcement. An estimated 336,000 persons aged over 70 are in scope for booster vaccination and nearly 33,000 doses have been administered to date. GPs are responsible for the administration of booster doses to this cohort and I express my sincere thanks for their ongoing contribution to the success of the vaccination programme.

The HSE anticipates that the booster vaccination of those aged over 70 and residing in the community will be completed by the end of November. Those aged 60 to 69 are being vaccinated through community vaccination centres and 13,000 doses have been administered to date. It is expected that the roll-out of booster doses for those aged between 60 and 69 will be substantially completed by the end of December. The roll-out of booster doses to those aged 60 to 79 is occurring in parallel with the vaccination of those aged 80 and living in the community and to healthcare workers, with the process for those in long-term care facilities having been substantially completed.

I thank the Minister of State. The question is fairly simple and the Department might be able to respond to it. The key figure I am seeking is how many first doses have been administered since 19 October, as this would give an indication of how many people have been vaccinated since the announcement. How many people took a first dose in the two weeks prior to 19 October, as it would indicate the percentage increase of people who have taken a first dose? This could strengthen the Government's case for how it takes decisions to protect people's lives and people could see the long-term strategy.

The Minister of State is correct in her comments on the opposition to this. She knows where I am from and I must listen to utter rubbish quite a lot in Tipperary from people who go whichever way the wind blows. Some of the comments relate to the decisions we make as a Government to protect people's lives and they are just outrageous. The majority of people do not listen to that rubbish.

I have another suggestion that the Department might consider. We all know places where the process of asking for a digital Covid certificate is done well but identification may not be requested. These certificates may remain for a long time. Has the Department considered the option of photo identification being part of the digital Covid certificate? The majority of pubs and restaurants are seeking these certificates. We encourage those that are not doing so to do it. The photo identification element is important. It would make no difference to the restaurant or bar that must check a certificate in any case but it would discourage people from using fake Covid certificates or certificates from somebody else. More powers should be given to the Garda to fine people rather than bars or restaurants, as this is about discouraging people from using other people's Covid certificates.

I do not disagree with anything the Senator said. Every decision taken by this and the previous Government was to protect people's health and to ensure they could be kept as safe as possible. I know the Government had to make tough decisions. The difference is we have vaccination and booster programmes now, along with the digital Covid certificates.

I will try to get data on first doses given since 19 October and I am sure it will be easy enough to get. I take on board the Senator's point relating to photo identification being part of the certificate and I will pass it on. It is only by coming into the Dáil and Seanad that we hear suggestions and that is a good one.

We started the booster roll-out four weeks ago for those aged over 80 and in long-term residential care facilities. Already in the past two weeks we have seen a fall in the number of people in nursing homes contracting Covid-19 because of the booster shot. It is certainly working. Of all breakouts in nursing homes in the past four months, 83% have comprised five people or fewer. That is heartening as previously they could have involved up to 40 staff and members of the community. There is no doubt the data indicate the booster shot is working. I am glad the decision was made that our front-line workers will also receive it now. As far as I am concerned, that cannot happen fast enough. I thank the Senator for his constructive approach.

Hospital Investigations

I want the Minister for the Health to make a statement on the disposal of baby organs in Cork University Hospital.

This is probably one of the most troubling cases I have come across in my workload in recent weeks.

On 28 September, an "RTÉ Investigates" programme showed an unfortunate incident in the maternity hospital in Cork, where 18 families were told the news that their children's organs had been disposed of. Subsequent to that, one of those families contacted my office and they were very irate about how this was dealt with. I have had two meetings with them about this issue. Seventeen families were informed of the news; the 18th family found out on the eve of the programme's broadcast. On 28 September, one family got a phone call to inform them that an "RTÉ Investigates" programme would be aired that night with evidence relating to this issue outlined. They were told their poor baby's organs were cremated, but they were actually incinerated. They were not aware of all the evidence until they watched the "RTÉ Investigates" programme. It was a shocking programme in many ways. It involved 18 families and a breach of faith in respect of the organs of their loved ones who died. The 18th family had hoped and agreed that the organs of their child would be buried in the angels' plot in CUH, which was appropriate. They had the child baptised according to their religious beliefs. They wanted the child to be part of their family. That was all shattered when they got the news, literally on "RTÉ Investigates", that the organs of their deceased child had been incinerated in Belgium alongside waste. There has been a breach of faith here that will take an awful lot of work to rebuild. We need an urgent review of how this happened and, more importantly, an urgent review of this case in particular. One family was not informed. One family found out only on the eve of the programme's broadcast. One family had to sit down, watch the programme and learn that way where their child's organs ended up. That was inappropriate.

There needs to be a better way to do business. I have been involved in public life since 2003. Never have I seen a case such as this. We have no real line of communication put in place that would have ensured that these families were appropriately informed of the evidence of what had happened and how the breach of trust had happened.

We have a body of work to do. I will forward the Minister of State the information on this family after this session. The family needs to be contacted not by liaison people from CUH but by the senior staff of CUH and the HSE to explain who was involved and how it transpired that they were not made aware of this incident until hours before information on it was aired on RTÉ. There also needs to be a major change in the law. My understanding is that there is only a guideline for how these loved ones' organs are dealt with in a morgue. That is not appropriate. We now need legislation brought before the Houses of the Oireachtas to ensure that people are empowered such that when it comes to these issues they have the law on their side, they have the right to make sure justice will be done and their loved ones' organs will be taken care of appropriately.

This is a frightening case. It is beyond belief. It is a betrayal of human life and a betrayal of so many families. We need to come clean here. We need to deal with this family. We also need to deal with the law and we all need to put in place an assurance that never, ever again will we have a scenario in which organs are shipped to Belgium as waste and incinerated without the approval of the family. It is a sin and a crime, and I hope the Department will take heed and do something about these issues.

The Senator has used the words "shocking", "heartbreaking" and "a breach of faith". There is not one word he has said that I disagree with. I feel so much for the 18 families. I did not realise that one family found out on the eve of the "RTÉ Investigates" programme and that the other 17 families were informed before then. There are no excuses for that, and nothing I can say here will give comfort to the 18 families, not least the one family that was not included. It is absolutely heartbreaking. I was very upset when I heard about these much-wanted, loved babies' organs.

My colleagues and I are aware of the hurt this incident has caused to the families affected by the incident in Cork University Hospital. These families have been through the tragedy of having lost a beloved child, and it is absolutely unacceptable to me and to the Minister, Deputy Stephen Donnelly, that the organs of their children were disposed of in such a manner. There are no words that will ever give these families comfort. While it is not appropriate to comment on individual cases, I wish to accept and acknowledge the bravery of the couple who spoke about their experience and heartbreak on the "RTÉ Investigates" programme on 28 September and the other families who shared their experiences on 19 October. These are parents who have suffered the loss of a child, and this extremely distressing situation should not have happened as it has only added to their distress and grief. Not only did they lose their loved, wanted babies, but to learn in such a way how their babies were disposed of - there are no words to describe it.

The Department of Health is advised that the HSE, the South/South West Hospital Group, CUH and Cork University Maternity Hospital have apologised to the bereaved families and very much regret the incident. The Minister for Health and the HSE are committed to ensuring there is learning across the health services to prevent such events happening again. This can never happen again. The Senator spoke about changing the law. The HSE has advised that a systems analysis review is being undertaken by the South/South West Hospital Group. The purpose of that review is to find answers as to what happened, why and what can be done to reduce the risk of it happening again. However, reducing the risk is enough. It cannot happen again. I would have zero tolerance for it. We cannot only reduce the risk of this happening again; it cannot happen again.

The HSE advises that the review team met last week to review queries raised by families and to plan meetings with families who wish to engage with the review. Family meetings will be offered on 22 November and 24 November. The timeline for completion of the review will depend on whether there is a requirement to reinterview any staff regarding any new issues raised by families. The review team will further consider the issues after those meetings. The South/South West Hospital Group advises that it will act on any recommendations emerging from the review. Open disclosure with the families involved is an ongoing process and continues for a considerable time in the aftermath of an incident. This includes engagement in the review process and in sharing the review with the families.

As for legislation, which the Senator raised, the human tissue (transplantation, post-mortem, anatomical examination, and public display) Bill will implement the key recommendation of the Madden report that no hospital post-mortem examination should be carried out and no tissue retained for any purpose whatsoever without the informed consent of the family or next of kin. That would have prevented this incident if it had been in place. The Bill will ensure that the principles of protection of the bodily integrity of the individual before and after death, respect for the autonomy of the individual, and the rights of the bereaved are enshrined in legislation.

I stand here as Minister of State with responsibility for older people and mental health in the Department of Health. I can only apologise to these families. I am heartbroken for them. It is an absolutely awful tragedy, it is shocking and it is an awful breach of trust for these families and their beloved babies.

I thank the Minister of State for her response and her compassion regarding this incident. Yes, it really was a breach of trust. The lack of communication, or the breakdown in communication, needs to be looked at directly by the HSE. The communication lines were not appropriate, they did not work and they failed this family in particular. The review team needs to look at that when it meets. The meetings of 22 November and 24 November should be held both physically and online. Some of the families will want to attend online, and that needs to be accommodated. I hope the Minister of State will make sure that at some stage, sooner rather than later, senior members of the maternity services in Cork will meet these families.

They are meeting a liaison officer at the moment. She is doing her best, but that is not appropriate. Senior consultants and senior staff in CUH have never spoken to these families. That is not the game. Responsibility needs to be taken at the very top. We must prioritise this legislation. It cannot be put on the long finger. Guidelines have previously been breached. This is not the first time it has happened; we have seen breaches in guidelines before. This legislation needs to be prioritised by our parties in government during the next session of sittings in the Dáil and the Seanad.

I do not disagree with anything the Senator has said about the breakdown in communication. I will ensure that both options are available if some families want to meet in person and others want to meet online. How they engage will depend on how those families want to address the matter.

The Senator is right about the legislation. It is hugely important that we do not lose any more time on it.

The South/Southwest Hospital Group has confirmed that the capacity issue around cemetery places has now been addressed with a new plot in St. Mary's Cemetery in Curraghkippane, just outside Cork city. I will certainly bring back to Government the Senator's comments.

Agriculture Industry

The Minister of State is welcome. I have a question for him and his Department. I am seeking an update on the Department's plan for the viability of the sheep sector, along with an update on the wool feasibility study. As the Minister of State knows, sheep farming is a sustainable sector. I hope the Department will pay more attention to it and see it is a strong, sustainable sector. It has demonstrated time and again that it plays an integral role in protecting and enhancing the diverse habitats that are commonly found on marginalised farmland and lowland farms. With the correct supports, this livestock can coexist with fragile conservation sites, areas of scientific research and breeding sites for endangered wildlife.

I welcome many of the proposals in the Common Agricultural Policy, CAP, but many in the sheep sector are disappointed with the new sheep scheme. The next CAP will only deliver €2 for the sheep welfare scheme. I have generations of sheep farmers behind me. I am a sheep farmer's daughter so I know the importance of the sheep sector and the importance of this funding to farming families. I come from north Louth and I remember the devastation in the farming and sheep sectors that we love when we lost all our stock to foot-and-mouth disease many years ago.

Like every market, the sheep sector experiences fluctuations. We saw some very high prices this year, although they have now dipped. The cost of production has gone up dramatically. Sheep farming is labour intensive and sheep require a lot of attention. The age cohort of farmers is increasing and due to the work involved, older farmers are finding it difficult. Herding sheep, dipping, clipping, feet maintenance and dagging to prevent maggots are all required. Much work needs to be done to look after sheep. The Government and the Department must support the sheep sector to make it more attractive to young farmers.

Despite the intensity of the work required, the sheep sector delivers a low income for those involved in it. From talking to sheep farmers, many of whom are elderly, I know that this new sheep improvement scheme is important. I wish to highlight a matriculation when it comes to payments on livestock. One livestock unit equates to one cow or 6.6 ewes. Cattle farmers will receive €150 for their first ten cows and €120 for each cow thereafter. Sheep farmers are paid €79.20 per livestock unit. That is a sizeable discrepancy. Sheep farmers have a significant role to play in the agricultural sector and industry.

There is an issue around the lack of movement from the Department on creating markets for our wool. A sheep must be clipped every year. It costs €3 to clip a sheep and a farmer gets a return of 25 cent. Many farmers are putting their wool into storage and holding it. There is so much that the Government can do. I am asking for a research fund and I encourage the Government to put that out to tender. It should facilitate companies. There is much that companies and the Government can do to facilitate an increase in the size of the market for traditional wool for clothing and new products for insulation. Far better and brighter people than me can find creative ways to use our wool and to give farmers a proper payment for it.

I thank the Senator for raising the important issue of the viability of the sheep sector and its importance to our overall agricultural and rural economies, and our food production and exports.

I am pleased to see that the strong performance of the sheep sector in 2020 has continued into 2021 in terms of overall prices. It is good to see the market providing returns which goes some way to rewarding farmers for their hard work, commitment and dedication to producing a world-class product, as the Senator has outlined. Global production patterns and increased demand are expected to support this continued strong performance. The current average price is €6.54 per kg, which is 33% above the same period last year. This is impressive, given that the year-to-date figure for sheep slaughtering is only slightly behind that for the same period last year.

Bord Bia analysis suggests that retail demand for sheep meat increased over the last year, as consumers invested more time in preparing home-cooked meals. In addition, data from the Central Statistics Office shows that 2020 was a strong year for Ireland's overseas sheep meat trade, with 64,000 tonnes exported to 38 international markets at a value of nearly €356 million. This represents an increase of 12% in value terms on 2019. In 2020, 73% of sheep meat products in value terms were exported to the EU, 12% to the UK and 15% to other third-country markets. France remains the single most important export destination, accounting for a third of Irish sheep meat exports in 2020. The future prospects for Irish sheep meat exports remain positive.

As Minister of State with responsibility in the Department of Agriculture, Food and the Marine for new market development, I and my officials continue to work on seeking new outlets for sheep meat, as well as enhancing existing access to as many markets as possible. The sheep meat protocol with China was signed recently. There are a number of steps still to be taken in that regard, but it is another sign of progress in the work the Department is carrying out. We are well positioned to benefit from the opportunities presented by an expanding global demand for high-quality Irish lamb.

Notwithstanding the strong market prices, I am acutely aware of the need to provide support to sheep farmers who are the cornerstone of the sector. Provision for over €1.8 billion of funding was made in budget 2022 for the overall agriculture sector. This is in addition to almost €1.2 billion in EU-funded direct payments received annually to support farm incomes and reward good agricultural and environmental practices. This year's budget provision included funding to allow continuation of the sheep welfare scheme in the transition period until the new CAP. The scheme is an important support for sheep farmers, as it assists them to undertake important management practices such as scanning or mineral supplementation.

The Minister, Deputy McConalogue, has, subject to approval from the Department of Public Expenditure and Reform, updated the reference year for the scheme to 2017 from 2014-2015, as the Senator will know. That will allow for a greater number of ewes to be made eligible for the scheme.

I can expand on the general points about the sheep welfare scheme in my supplementary reply but I wish to move to the Senator's point about wool, the production of which is an important component of the agricultural industry. Unfortunately, as the Senator outlined, I am aware that the wool industry has been under pressure for some time. I have met with merchants, farmers' representative organisations and directly with sheep farmers. Wool is a sustainable, organic, renewable and natural material that can be used in a wide range of products, such as textiles, fertilizers, insulation and packaging. It fits closely with the goals of the climate action plan to develop a circular and bio-economy.

One of the actions in the programme for Government is to undertake a review of the potential demand in domestic and international markets for wool-based products such as insulation and fertilizers. We allocated €100,000 in the budget for this review. A public consultation process was initiated to determine the terms of reference. I can outline the terms of reference in my supplementary reply.

I thank the Minister of State for his response. The Government has been doing a lot of work on finding markets for sheepmeat. With regard to the sheep improvement scheme and the €2 increase, agricultural schemes are open to every farmer but the sheep improvement scheme is specifically for sheep farmers. I am glad to hear that there will be some movement on the wool feasibility study. Instead of studies, pilots and reviews I would rather see some action very soon. Because it is so far back, the reference year often penalises and restricts younger farmers and ambitious farmers trying to get into the sector. On behalf of young farmers I ask that the reference year be looked at.

The Senator is right. The role of the Government is to support sheep farmers in the very important work they do. With every reference year there are hard cases and challenges. It is definitely to the benefit of farmers that we move the reference year from 2014-15 to 2017 because it will bring in more ewes.

The terms of reference for the wool feasibility study involve the identification of market opportunities domestically and internationally for wool-based products, carrying out economic feasibility and cost-benefit analysis on proposed market opportunities, determining mechanisms that can be used to support industry initiatives and the identification of potential research projects available to support the identified market opportunities. This is important work and it will be followed through.

We are building on the dedicated work of the country's sheep farmers through a number of avenues, which I have already outlined. We continue to support farmers through the new CAP transition period. There will be further support in the new CAP to build on these schemes. While market prices are strong at present we will continue efforts to open up new markets for sheepmeat as well as to enhance the value of existing markets. We are seeking to restore the value of wool as a byproduct. Our work is ongoing and we recognise the very important role played by sheep farmers. We will continue to support them.

Sitting suspended at 11.23 a.m. and resumed at 11.38 a.m.