Léim ar aghaidh chuig an bpríomhábhar

Seanad Éireann díospóireacht -
Thursday, 16 Dec 2021

Vol. 281 No. 9

Nithe i dtosach suíonna - Commencement Matters

Hospital Staff

I appreciate the Cathaoirleach allowing this matter to be discussed. He is aware of its importance. I welcome my fellow county man, the Minister of State at the Department of Health, Deputy Feighan, to the House to reply on this matter. I know he has a good interest in it.

We have to consider the importance of this issue throughout the health sector. University Hospital Galway, UHG, is the western regional centre for neurology. However, it is short of neurology nurse specialists. Patients are waiting longer for diagnosis and treatment. National and international guidelines recommend that, on the basis of catchment area, there should be 13 neurology nurse specialists in this region but there are only four of them. Investing in more neurology nurses is a cost-efficient way of improving the efficiency of outpatient clinics, reducing waiting times and ensuring patients have access to the specialist support they need to manage their conditions. Patients who have access to neurology nurses have reported an improved sense of involvement in their care and being more prepared for tests and investigations. The provision of more neurology nurses will ensure that patients get quicker access to outpatient therapy, reducing waiting lists and ensuring any deterioration in the health status of patients can be mitigated. This will also ensure that additional hospital resources can be focused on those who need them.

I fully support the campaign of the Neurological Alliance of Ireland for 100 extra neurology nurse specialists, of whom nine will be for Galway. We should take note of all the areas of health that are related to neurology, such as epilepsy, head trauma, multiple sclerosis, motor neurone disease, headaches related to migraine, muscular dystrophy and other disorders, particularly those relating to the spine. There are 700,000 people in Ireland affected by neurological issues. The Minister of State may have some good news for me. I am very interested in appointments to UHG. I will speak about Cork University Hospital, CUH, in a moment. I particularly want to know about the clinical nurse neurology paediatric position, the paediatric neurodevelopmental position and the clinical nurse specialist dealing with neurology and headaches. The Minister of State may not have that specific information for me today. If he does not, I hope he will be able to provide it to me in the near future.

I refer to the west and north-west regions.

There is a population of almost 600,000 people and University Hospital Galway is the centre of neurology to deal with that whole area. Some of the people campaigning for this have made the point to me that an additional nurse, who could talk to patients on the phone, can often talk a patient who is suffering from neurological issues through his or her circumstances and he or she may not need a hospital visit.

It is crucial we address this issue and that we seek better neurological services throughout the country for the many people who need them. I thank the Minister of State for attending. I hope he will have some good news for me.

I thank the Senator for raising the issue and giving me the opportunity to update the House on the matter. Neurology nurse specialists play an important role in triaging, assessing and providing ongoing support to neurological patients, as the Senator outlined, which in turn builds capacity within neurological services and allows for more timely access to efficient, equitable and high-quality care for patients.

The national clinical programme for neurology, in conjunction with the Neurological Alliance of Ireland, completed an all-Ireland survey of neurological services in 2020. The survey highlighted that, although all neurological centres have access to a designated clinical nurse specialist or an advanced nurse practitioner, the total number of neurology nurses specialists is significantly below what is recommended in international guidelines. The national programme recognises the need to address this deficit to ensure the provision of efficient and timely care. An additional 16 clinical nurse specialists and advanced nurse practitioners have been sought for 2022 for different specialities in hospital groups. While a decision on funding is awaiting finalisation in respect of the HSE service plan, the additional posts sanctioned will initially address the areas of greatest geographical inequity and the sub-specialties most in need. Plans to increase incrementally the overall number of neurology nurse specialists will then be developed to address the remaining needs.

The national clinical programme for neurology recognises the value skilled and highly trained nursing staff add to the neurological services and has endeavoured to endorse this by focusing its current work streams and initiatives on nurse-led clinics, nurse liaison services and outreach programmes. Examples of this include the headache programme and the epilepsy outreach programme, both of which are funded under the Sláintecare innovation fund. These programmes involve the reconfiguration of the management of these conditions, enabling clinical nurse specialists and advanced nurse practitioners to lead and co-ordinate the care of these conditions in the community. This reduces the reliance on consultant neurologists and tertiary services, in turn reducing waiting lists, allowing more timely access to service and improving the overall quality of care, as the Senator outlined.

In regard to the catchment area of University Hospital Galway, Saolta University Health Care Group has advised that the current cohort of permanent neurology nurses in the hospital, which includes two advanced nurse practitioners, will be augmented by a further three appointments in 2022. The Senator asked about a few other appointments, and if he wishes, I will follow up with the Minister for Health or the Department.

I acknowledge the Minister of State realises we need more nurses in the neurology services. That is good news about University Hospital Galway. While it will not go the whole way, it will certainly make improvements, with three new appointments in 2022, I hope those appointments will happen in early 2022. I understand that, in the context of some of these matters, filling the position the nurse is leaving will be the issue. He or she may be ready to come into the neurological service but filling the position is an issue. Obviously, a person cannot be taken out of where they are working if there is not someone else to fill it.

I asked the Minister of State about a few specifics, which I probably should not have done because I did not give him advance notice. I appreciate his commitment to reverting to me on those matters.

Excellent work is done in Dublin and Cork in neurological services. Nevertheless, Cork University Hospital, for example, deals with a population of 1.5 million. The recommended outpatient waiting time should be six weeks but I am told the actual time is 18 months to two years. The recommended number of neurology nurse specialists in that area is 20. Overall, we need more neurology nurses.

I thank the Minister of State and appreciate him taking the matter.

The national clinical programme for neurology recognises the importance of having an adequate number of neurology nurse specialists in position to provide efficient, high-quality care and ongoing support to neurological patients. The 2020 survey of neurological services highlighted that the total number of neurology nurse specialists needs to be increased to reach the levels recommended in international guidelines. It is planned additional posts will come on stream incrementally and the areas of the greatest need will be addressed first. The commitment of the national clinical programme for neurology to meeting the needs of patients is illustrated by proposed appointments such as those planned for University Hospital Galway, which the Senator welcomed.

The commitment of the Government to the provision of quality health services in University Hospital Galway is further underlined by the development projects under way there, including a new radiation oncology unit costing €56 million and the development of a temporary but substantial emergency department, ED, building in advance of the provision of a new emergency department and a women's and children's block.

Legislative Reviews

I welcome the Minister of State. He may very well know that the Animal Health and Welfare Act 2013 ensures animals are given pain relief before procedures are carried out that could cause them pain and distress. There are two issues to note about that. The first is it is a matter of legislation, not of being left to medical experts, and the second is that yesterday, during the debate on the Health (Regulation of Termination of Pregnancy) (Foetal Pain Relief) Bill 2021, which was brought before the Oireachtas, the Government tabled an amendment to delay or prevent its progression. The line coming from the Government is that it is a matter that should be left to clinical guidelines.

I think that is horrendous, particularly when one considers that all the dramatis personae of recent years who pushed for change to our abortion laws, such as Dr. Peter Boylan, the Institute of Obstetricians and Gynaecologists and all those organisations, have been completely silent on the question of precautionary pain relief. There can be only one explanation for that, namely, for those who see abortion as something desirable in the law, anything that suggests the humanity of the unborn child is to be avoided, even if that involves cruelty. That is a desperate situation and it cries out for legal remedy.

That is why it is vital that, in the context of the three-year review to take place of the abortion legislation, there be a strictly independent chairperson, not somebody, in the words of the Department of Health official, Ms Geraldine Luddy, appearing before the Oireachtas Joint Committee on Health last week, with and a sexual-and-reproductive-rights approach. That is code for buy-in to abortion. We are talking about a three-year review of abortion legislation, legislation which many people in this country oppose. Indeed, even some people who voted for repeal of the eighth amendment would think it goes too far in certain key respects. There has to be strict independence here; there cannot be thought control about this issue. That is why last week I recommended it be a judge or a retired judge. None of us is neutral on the subject of abortion - it is a life-and-death issue - but somebody such as a judge, who has had to make a career out of striving for neutrality and impartiality, might be best placed to chair this review. That is vital.

I have heard the Minister for Health make the point the policy has been decided and the legislation will not change but rather that this review is about examining the workings of the legislation. A closed-minded approach such as that, however, is never taken when there is a three-year review. The reason for a three-year review is to see whether anything in the legislation is counter-productive or is not working. What is working from some people's point of view will mean it does not sufficiently facilitate abortion, but for other people, what is not working is that, for example, it has led to a dramatic increase in the number of abortions.

We know that to be the case, with 13,000 over the last two years. That is way in excess of the annual rates before it was legalised. This is something we did not know before, although many of us warned about that point in advance of the advent of legislation, and it must be relevant to a review.

Pre-eminently, though, I refer to something like pain relief and the case for precautionary pain relief in light of what the science now appears to be telling us about the capacity of the unborn child to feel pain in the context of later-term abortions. This aspect must be among the subjects to be reviewed. In circumstances where the Minister has not so far engaged with anybody who would regard themselves as a defender of the welfare of the unborn in this situation - and the Minister gave me a private verbal commitment that he would engage but we will have to see what that means - what is more important is that there be an independent chair of this review committee who will, as a matter of professionalism and determination, engage with all sides and not just with those who are happy with the abortion law and those who want more facility for abortion in this country, but also with those who wish to protect the unborn.

Therefore, this is not just an issue of life and death. It is a matter of fundamental human decency. In the reply from the Minister of State, I hope the Government will give a commitment that the chair of this review will be strictly independent and that means independent on the subject of abortion, as far as that is possible.

The Health (Regulation of Termination of Pregnancy) Act 2018 was signed into law on 20 December 2018 and commenced on 1 January 2019. A review clause was included in the Act to facilitate monitoring of the impact, operation and effectiveness of the legislation in practice, as well as of the delivery of services in this area. The Minister for Health commenced the review of the Act on 8 December 2021. Phase 1 of the review will capture information on the operation of the Act from the perspective of women who access the service, health professionals who deliver the service and the public. Later, it may also include service users and service providers. Phase 2 of the review will be led by an independent chair. Senator Mullen pointed out that the Minister had given him a private verbal commitment that will be an independent chair.

I am sorry, I did not mean to mislead the Minister of State. To clarify, the Minister for Health only gave me a commitment that he would engage with me and others.

I am sorry about that.

Phase 2, led by the independent chair, will assess to what extent the objectives of the Act have been achieved and analysing in that regard the findings of the three strands of information concerning the operation of the Act. The extent to which the Act's objectives have not been achieved will be assessed and recommendations made to address any barriers identified. The chair of the review will also draw on the findings of other relevant peer-reviewed research and consult further with stakeholders, as necessary, before providing conclusions and any recommendations to the Minister in 2022.

For the review to be effective, it must find out whether the legislation provided access to termination of pregnancy services in practice to those who wish to avail of them. In this regard, independent research exploring women’s experiences of termination of pregnancy services and gathering their views on how the system has operated since 1 January 2019 will be essential.

Information from service providers will supply the second key strand for the review. Here, we will need to gather the views of those involved in providing termination of pregnancy services in community and acute settings in Ireland. A tender for this research was issued on the eTenders website last week.

It will also be important to include, as the third strand of the review, an opportunity for members of the public, special interest groups or any other interested parties to submit their views for consideration in the review process. This will be achieved through a public consultation process, and that was launched on the Department of Health’s website on 8 December. That aspect will run until April 2022.

I am pleased that a review of the Act has commenced, and I assure the Senator that the Minister is aware of the need to appoint a chair who will conduct this work thoroughly and efficiently in a fair and transparent manner.

"Thoroughly and officially”, but no mention of independence. In everything said by the Minister of State, there was not a single concession to the idea I referred to. It was all about consulting first with service providers and those who avail of the service. No mention was made of medical people who have a conscientious objection or of scientific and other experts who have concerns about the impact of this legislation in respect of rising numbers of abortions, issues around pain relief and questions concerning promoting positive alternatives to abortion. There was nothing of that nature.

All that is being hived off to just some general consultation with the public heading. That really shows the contempt that the Government has for the unborn child and for those who would defend his or her welfare, even within the context of an abortion regime. That is truly tragic. There was not a word there that acknowledged that there is any expert concern about the impact of the abortion law on unborn children. That is an utterly tragic situation. A review should not just be about looking at whether the objectives of the Act have been met. It should, and always is in these cases, also be concerned with looking at whether any aspect of the Act is counterproductive. Therefore, I ask the Minister of State, personally, and others listening to make their views known to the Government, because clearly it is not interested in authentic independence on this issue.

I will bring the Senator's views and concerns back to the Minister. He has commenced a review of the Act in line with the statutory and Government commitments. The review of the operation and effectiveness of the Act gives us an opportunity to hear the views of all those involved and, most particularly, those of service users and service providers. I am confident that the information which will be gathered during the review on the operation of the 2018 Act will provide us with evidence of how to proceed in future to continue to ensure that the service mandated by the people in May 2018 is operating effectively.

I will bring the Senator’s concerns to the Minister regarding the appointment of an independent chair to lead the review who has the necessary expertise and ability to carry out the work in an objective manner. I assure the Senator that implementing the Health (Regulation of Termination of Pregnancy) Act 2018 and ensuring access to services under the Act remains a priority for the Department of Health.

By the way, it was not mandated by the people. It was permitted by the people.

Dental Services

I welcome the Minister of State to the Chamber this morning. Dental services in Ireland are exempt from VAT in accordance with EU legislation. This is vitally important, because dental treatment should be cost-effective and it should be provided at a cost that does not prohibit public or private patients from availing of it. A new interpretation by the Revenue Commissioners, however, concerning fees paid by associate dentists to principal dentists, threatens to undermine Ireland’s dental scheme entirely and to cause many problems for dental practices and the patients who use those practices regularly.

Many fear that the increased costs which will be incurred by dentists from having to apply an additional charge in respect of VAT at 23% will result in people putting off visits to their dentist or simply not going at all because they cannot afford to do so. A VAT increase of 23% will mean higher costs for dentists and patients. Dental practices across Ireland will be impacted, but particularly those in the Border region where I come from. They already face stiff competition from dentists in Northern Ireland, because a 23% VAT rate is not charged there.

Approximately 300 dentists practising across the Border region are directly threatened by the imposition of this VAT rate. All of them will be subject to increased costs and some consideration must be given to the impact this development will have on ordinary people and the increased costs they will end up paying for their dental care. This situation also has serious implications for the future of many dental practices. An added VAT liability of 23% would have enormous economic implications and consequences for the viability of dental practices in the Border region that compete, as I said earlier, with dentists in Northern Ireland. This is an issue that would affect dentists across the entire Republic of Ireland, where access to dental care is already at crisis level.

Representatives of the Irish dental sector maintain that it is already in a state of crisis. At present, the medical card system in this regard, the dental treatment services scheme, DTSS, operated by dentists for the HSE, is losing participating dentists daily at a significant rate.

The latest figures suggest there are fewer than 700 dentists operating a scheme that caters for 1.5 million medical cardholders. This equates to more than 2,000 patients per dentist. If a VAT liability is applied to dentists there would be widespread closures of dental practices and a further decline in the service to the public. I am disappointed to see that the HSE and the Department have failed to engage on the DTSS, which is a separate issue but it is connected to what I am talking about here this morning.

A recent survey carried out across 19 EU countries showed that none of them were charging VAT at 23% for dental services. This also applies in the UK. This issue needs to be looked at with a degree of urgency. I thank the Minister of State for coming to the Chamber this morning to take this issue on behalf of the Minister for Finance, Deputy Paschal Donohoe. I plead with the Minister of State that a meeting could be organised between the Irish Dental Association and the Minister to try to work out some solution to this problem.

I am advised by the Revenue Commissioners that a VAT exemption applies to dental services provided to a patient by clinic, a principal dentist or an associate dentist, and this has not changed. The supply of facilities to a dentist to enable him or her to carry out a dental practice, is subject to VAT, and this has always been the case. Some dental practitioners operate a fee-sharing arrangement where a principal dentist provides a premises and other facilities to other dentists in exchange for a fee, and provision of such premises and other facilities constitute a service, which has always been subject to VAT.

In summary, the exemption from VAT in respect of dental services relates only to a dental service provided to a patient. The supply of premises and other facilities to a dentist in exchange for a consideration is not, and never has been, covered by the VAT exemption. This approach is fully in line with the VAT directive, with which Irish law must comply. Exemption from VAT for certain activities in the public interest are set out in Chapter 2 of Title IX of the directive, and these provisions are transposed into Irish legislation in Part 1, Schedule 1 to the Value-Added Tax Consolidation Act 2010, where paragraph 2 (5) of Schedule 1 provides for an exemption in respect of supply of professional dental services. The legislation that transposes Article 132 of the directive, and Revenue's interpretation of the legislation, ensures that exemption from VAT to the supply of dental services is applied consistently in a manner that is not dependent on the legal form of the person supplying the service. In accordance with the directive and the current jurisprudence of the European Court of Justice, the VAT exemption applies to dental services provided by a clinic, a principal dentist, or by an associate dentist whose services are provided to a patient.

I am aware that dental practitioners are seeking that the VAT exemption on dental services for patients would also apply to the supply of premises and facilities provided by one dentist to another. Aside from the central legislative position that I have already outlined, there is also an issue of fairness in why such an approach would be inappropriate. It is quite possible for a person other than a dental practitioner to provide some or all of these services to another dentist, and in such a case the supply of the services would be chargeable to VAT in the normal way. Therefore, it would distort competition if the service were to be exempt solely on the basis that it was provided by a dental practitioner. The EU principle of fiscal neutrality ensures that where economic operators are carrying on the same or closely related activities, then those operators should not be treated differently in relation to VAT. I understand that Revenue has been clear at all times regarding the VAT treatment of dental fee-sharing arrangements, and has outlined its position in correspondence and meetings with the Irish Dental Association.

With regard to the VAT applicable to the supply of dental services in Northern Ireland from 1 January 2021, Northern Ireland is no longer part of the EU in respect of the supply of services and is therefore no longer under the remit of the VAT directive in relation to those services. The Senator has outlined an issue that is of concern with regard to the UK leaving the EU, which has created that anomaly as the Senator has rightly outlined. I also represent a Border constituency. The Senator has sought a meeting with the Minister and I will bring his concerns and those of the Irish Dental Association, back to the Minister. It is an issue that has emerged over the past year and I thank the Senator for raising this important matter.

I thank the Minister of State for his response. As I said earlier, this could have serious implications for dental practices along the Border areas in particular and for all of the citizens who live in those areas. From my information, the European Court of Justice has made deliberations on this particular subject. As I said in my earlier contribution, a recent survey showed that 19 EU countries do not charge VAT for dental practices, and the UK also does not charge VAT. It puts Ireland in an awkward position and many dental practices in a very bad position. I would be grateful if the Minister of State could use his good offices to arrange a meeting with the Minister for Finance, Deputy Donohoe, and the Irish Dental Association to tease through the issues. The Irish Dental Association has serious concerns and would like the Minister for Finance to listen to those concerns. I would be grateful if the Minister of State, Deputy Feighan, could facilitate a meeting on their behalf.

I cannot speak on behalf of the Minister but if the Senator would send an email to me requesting that meeting I will raise it with the Minister. The Revenue Commissioners are also satisfied that the correct interpretation of the legislation has been communicated to the Irish Dental Association consistently since they first raised this issue in 2018. When a person or group is not satisfied with the response from the Revenue Commissioners they can raise the matter with the Tax Appeals Commission, whose role it is to adjudicate, hear and determine appeals against the decisions or determinations of the Revenue Commissioners concerning taxes and duties.

With regard to the situation in Northern Ireland and the rest of the UK, unfortunately a different tax or VAT regime applies, and the Revenue Commissioners are satisfied that there is no scope in the VAT directive to exempt the fees in question from VAT. The Senator, however, has raised an issue that is unique in the Border area that has been accelerated over the past months. Perhaps the Senator will write to me looking for a meeting with the Minister and I will seek to have that meeting.

I thank the Minister of State for his time.

Agriculture Industry

I thank the Minister of State for coming to the Chamber today. Senator Lombard and I put down this matter for the Commencement to outline Fine Gael's view on the agriculture industry, the agrifood sector and, in particular, young farmers. It has been Fine Gael's policy as long as it has been in government, for as long as I can remember anyway, that we have been very supportive of the farming sector and young farmers especially. I remember the Common Agricultural Policy, CAP, negotiations in 2011 and 2012 when decisions were made to positively discriminate in favour of young farmers. We recognise, as a party, the contribution that the agrifood sector makes to rural areas and towns in areas like mine in Tipperary.

Very distressing comments were made by a Green Party MEP a week ago that have caused real fear within the agricultural community where I am from in Tipperary. The comments were ill-informed and inappropriate and they have not been clarified by the leader of the Green Party either. Will the Minister of State get the leader of the Green Party, Deputy Eamon Ryan, to clarify that the comments made by Mr. Ciarán Cuffe are not Green Party policy, as if they are we will have bigger problems? Will the Minister of State reassure farmers in my county in Tipperary that as long as Fine Gael is in government, we will support the agricultural sector, young farmers and the farming network? We as a party recognise the contribution farming makes to communities like mine in Tipperary and the knock-on positive effect it has for rural towns. Businesses are created on the back of a good agricultural industry and Fine Gael will support that for as long as we are in government.

I support this Commencement matter, which I have brought with Senator Ahearn. The agricultural industry has never been under so much pressure. There is a Climate Action Plan, a nitrates action programme, CAP reform and inputs of products have gone through the roof. The farming community have never felt so berated.

We are trying to generate a cohort of young people to get involved in farming but a Green Party MEP has lambasted them when speaking about investment. It is a major issue for the industry and this Government. If this MEP had such views on investment, why did he not say people in urban areas should not get motor loans? Instead, he attacked the rural agricultural community, and it makes no sense.

We must ensure our young farmers get involved in agriculture and that they will drive forward our economy and feed the world. We produce enough food in this country for 50 million people. A statement like this from an MEP was totally disrespectful and ill-informed. We must have a statement from the Government this morning indicating it will support young farmers and their views because we have the best young farmers in the world and they are the best-trained young farmers in the world. They do not go to agricultural college any more, they go to university. We have farmers out there with PhDs because that is the standard of our farming community. We need the Government to stand up and back these young trained farmers. We need to dispel the fear that comes from a misinformed MEP who is just trying to play politics with this matter and damage rural Ireland in the process.

The Minister for Agriculture, Food and the Marine, Deputy McConalogue, and I are ardent supporters of generational renewal and the need to support and encourage young farmers as a way of ensuring we have the best and brightest in the sector. As outlined by the Tánaiste in the Dáil last week, people are entitled to their opinions and to write whatever letters they see fit but I and the Minister want to assure all farmers that Government policy is to support them in investing in their businesses to make them more economically and environmentally sustainable. The Minister was once a young farmer and he knows how important access to credit is and farming is an exciting career option for so many. We want to do all we can to encourage people into the sector. In Boyle I have been a businessman and understood how important the farming sector was to my business and town as well.

The challenge of generational renewal is widely recognised both at national and EU level, with the new CAP citing it as one of its nine key objectives. Our own Food Vision 2030 also highlights the challenge and proposes a number of actions, including maintaining the strong level of current support, the promotion of land mobility and succession planning, and increased education. This reflects the need to ensure a vibrant agriculture sector equipped with skilled and innovative young farmers to respond to societal demands for quality food and environmental public goods.

There is a range of measures both in the existing CAP and at national level that support younger farmers. There is the young farmers scheme, with payments of €110 million benefitting over 8,000 farmers each year, and the national reserve, with €35 million allocated since 2015, providing financial support to young farmers during the crucial early years of setting up a farm enterprise. Additionally, under the targeted agricultural modernisation schemes, TAMS, Il young farmer capital investment scheme, young farmers can avail of a 60% grant rate and over €133 million has been paid to over 5,000 farmers to date. Support to young farmers is also provided under the collaborative farming grant scheme. These partnership structures are further supported through the availability of a tax credit at national level to assist with the transfer of farms within succession farm partnerships, promoting and supporting the earlier transfer of family farms.

In addition, strong taxation measures assist land mobility and facilitate succession and are worth approximately €200 million to the sector per annum. Long-term leasing income tax relief has been an important driver of land mobility by providing access to land and security of tenure for younger farmers and a route to retirement for older farmers.

In terms of the new CAP strategic plan, CSP, the Minister has been actively engaging with stakeholders throughout the process of developing the new plan. Under the current CSP proposals, Ireland will continue to implement the young farmers scheme with an increased allocation of approximately €35 million per year to help young farmers establish their farming business. Qualifying young farmers will be paid on a per hectare basis, which will be more advantageous to young farmers than the current system, which was linked to payment entitlements. In tandem with this, we will also implement the national reserve in each year of the new CAP, along with maintaining a higher grant rate for qualified young farmers. The CSP will also continue to provide support for collaborative farming and will propose innovative ways to advise older farmers on succession and retirement options, which will increase the availability of land for younger farmers.

Access to finance is a crucial business need and as well as liaising with the main banks on issues relating to the agrifood sector, we work closely across government to provide important supports for businesses, including farmers. Most recently this has been to ensure that they have access to finance during the pandemic and also to help deal with the challenges brought about by Brexit. These supports have been delivered with the Strategic Banking Corporation of Ireland, SBCI. The future growth loan scheme was developed with assisting young farmers among its primary objectives and has been in great demand, with 1,296 loans to the value of €156 million sanctioned to farmers.

I thank the Minister of State for his reply. I acknowledge that people are allowed to have individual opinions, and I have no problem with that, but they should not relay individual "facts" that are not true. Is there any other sector that would see a high-profile politician write to a bank to say it should not give those people loans? Could we imagine if somebody wrote to banks asking them not to give plumbers loans because it is not right? It is just not acceptable and as far as I am concerned, it is an attack on rural Ireland and where I am from. It is an attack on businesses and really good and progressive business people in the farming sector who want to support their local community. They spend locally and everything goes back to the community. It benefits Tipperary and all the towns around it.

It is a disgrace that comments like that have not yet been clarified by his leader.

I concur with my colleague. The farming community is facing a financial crisis. Fertiliser prices have gone up by 300% in the past three months. We are going to have a major issue from now until spring. Farmers have been told to pay up front for fertiliser. A senior politician stepped out and said that no money should be given to farmers. We need the Government to stand up and say enough is enough. We need to support the farming community. It is under enough pressure as it is. The media is fundamentally against the farming community on the majority of issues. After a gap of eight months, RTÉ has still not appointed a correspondent for agriculture. We need to have a strong statement from the Government supporting young farmers and what they do for our society.

Again, I thank the Senators for raising this important issue. It is important not to understate the deep hurt and upset caused in what is a cornerstone of rural communities by the letter written by Mr. Cuffe. It left farmers feeling unfairly targeted. I acknowledge that Mr. Cuffe has since stated that he should not have singled out young farmers, which is welcome. What we are asking farmers to do to achieve our climate targets in agriculture is not to carry out drastic or radical actions like herd cuts but to make gradual management changes on their farms that reduce emissions and increase carbon sinks while maintaining food production. In some cases, this will require that they invest in their businesses. Technologies such as low-emission slurry spreading, LESS, have significant benefits from a grass-growth perspective. Given fertiliser prices ahead of spring, making the best use of organic manure will be more important than ever. As the Senators know, the technologies involve a cost which is higher than that relating to less environmentally friendly options. Farmers have shown an appetite to adopt the newer technologies. In a few short years, we have gone from low levels to having more than one third of all slurry spread through LESS technology. This is a testament to farmers' willingness to act. It is up to the Government to support them in that.

We have already outlined the various schemes and enhanced grant rates. We are committed to ensuring that young farmers have a fair crack of the whip. We have work to do. Mr. Cuffe has since stated that he should not have singled out young farmers, which is welcome. I thank the Senators for raising this vexed and important issue.

Sitting suspended at 11.22 a.m. and resumed at 11.30 a.m.