Léim ar aghaidh chuig an bpríomhábhar

Seanad Éireann díospóireacht -
Tuesday, 22 Mar 2022

Vol. 284 No. 10

Nithe i dtosach suíonna - Commencement Matters

Recycling Policy

I welcome the Minister of State, Deputy Ossian Smyth, to the House.

I welcome the Minister of State. I am very glad to get an opportunity to speak about this topic of the deposit return scheme. It is a concept that has potential to enable an entirely new way that people look at packaging and create new, positive habits for our country. It is a gateway to an entirely new way of consuming goods and re-imagining the concept of packaging.

I am sure that some of us remember running around as children and lifting any glass bottles that we could find in order to sell them back to the shops to earn enough money to eat our weight in Macaroon Bars, Clove Drops and cough sweets. I have wonderful memories of picking bottles out of ditches, cleaning them and bringing them back to my local shop where Mrs. Barry, who is now deceased, would take control of the transaction and look after us very eager and sugar deprived children. That model, irrespective of the motives back then, is very similar to the circular economy that we need to incorporate into our lives. The Minister of State will agree with me that we need to design products that will last. This country needs a drinks deposit returns scheme that is as ambitious as possible. I will understand if the a scheme is introduced in a phased way but I urge that targets are set for each phase and that we legislate for the targets. I stress that there needs to be clear timelines to include glass, carton packaging and the move towards a digital deposit returns scheme, DRS, thus enabling the model to be expanded into a reuse model. The DRS should use a variable fee that includes all of the materials. Such an scheme would be a powerful tool to improve recycling rates and make consumers think twice about the environmental impact of the product that they buy.

I hope that the scheme has a variable rate fee and that containers are allocated a deposit value based on the size. A flat-rate model or fixed fee could apply to all beverage containers. Recently I met representatives of the Aluminium Packaging Recycling Organisation Ireland, ALUPRO, who highlighted that research shows that the possibility would cause an unfair advantage for plastic bottles as many consumers would be unwilling to pay extra upfront in terms of the flat rate for, say, a 24-can multi-pack compared with the far cheaper 2 litre bottle. We should acknowledge that packaging is not worthless or should not be seen as waste. We need to move towards a scheme of a deposit return for packaging for the reuse model and only use the linear single-use recyclable model in the most limited circumstances. There will still be a need for single-use plastics but we need to reduce where practicable and always incentivise companies to change to better products. Ireland is a small nation and has a huge opportunity to make its economy one of the best examples of a circular economy. I am incredibly ambitious for this deposit returns scheme. I want this Government to be bold and ambitious too. People want a modern, accessible and wide-ranging scheme.

Recently I had an interesting meeting with representatives of the Alliance for Beverage Cartons and the Environment or ACE Ireland and we discussed this topic. ACE Ireland believes that a digital or smart deposit returns scheme should be examined alongside the conventional return to retail scheme. A digital DRS would ultimately prove a more flexible and adaptable system for widening the scope of acceptable materials. In order for there to be less waste we need to enable people to change. A digital system would result in a more user-friendly system where customers could access a scheme through placing materials in their mixed dry recycling bins that are collected at the kerbside. A digital DRS could also remove the burden on consumers who store used packaging materials in their homes and return them in bulk to shops or supermarkets during their next visit. I want people to change but we need that help. We need to make recycling easy. We need to incentivise, encourage, create opportunities and create ways to access a new-age circular economy in Ireland. We can do that by using modern and ever upgrading technology to provide a DR scheme. I know that such developments cannot happen overnight but we can do it in the next five years if we are really ambitious to provide such a scheme.

I congratulate the Senator on her enterprising childhood. The equivalent in my area was to gather and sell frogs, which were sold to the European market.

The Senator is correct and her questions are excellent. Many people remember, with some nostalgia, that they could get money back for bottles. Just like the Senator I recall going to the local pub before I was of an age where I was allowed in and returning bottles and getting money for them. It was a clear link and reduced the amount of litter on the ground. People understand the concept. They know that a DRS is good and has worked in the past. A lot of principles within the circular economy involve a return to practices that our parents would have engaged in such as repairing clothes, shoes, etc.

On the specific point of a digital returns scheme, this is something that we have looked at and the industry has lobbied for same.

With that in mind, the regulations we issued allow for a digital returns scheme. It is possible within those regulations to allow for variable pricing. I understand the benefits that can come from offering different amounts of money depending on how recyclable a product is. I can see the advantages.

The challenge for me is that such a scheme, as far as I am aware, is not commercially operating anywhere. I am bringing in a scheme which will operate for 5 million people in one go. I need to bring in something I know will work. I know the industry has carried out a pilot scheme in one area, which is a good first step. There were 200 people involved but I am bringing in a scheme for 5 million people.

The programme for Government marked a turning point in how Ireland approaches waste management and the circular economy. Instead of narrowly focusing on how we treat and dispose of the waste we produce, the Government is committed to building a circular economy where waste is minimised, economic growth decoupled from resource consumption and the value of goods and materials retained in our economy for as long as possible.

Reforming our use of plastic is one of the key measures outlined in the Waste Action Plan for a Circular Economy. Tackling our excessive use of single-use plastics is an urgent priority here and across the EU. Under the 2019 single-use plastics directive, Ireland must achieve a collection target of 90% recycling for plastic bottles by 2029, with an interim target of 77% by 2025. A report prepared for my Department concluded that a deposit return scheme, DRS, is the only feasible way to achieve the required levels of performance under the single-use plastics directive.

In September 2020, the Waste Action Plan for a Circular Economy set out a roadmap for the introduction of a deposit return scheme in the third quarter of 2022. To deliver on this objective, a public consultation on the design options of such a DRS was completed in 2020 and a working group of Department officials and stakeholders was established to discuss the implementation of the scheme. The group met on a number of occasions and, arising from these discussions, a second public consultation focusing on the preferred model was completed early in 2021. The preferred model that emerged is based on a return to retailer in respect of plastic bottles and aluminium drinks cans. The beverage industry will fund and operate the scheme.

The separate collection DRS regulations 2021 give effect to the outcome of this policy development. They were published in November and provide the framework for the approval of a scheme operator.

The regulations introduce a requirement on producers to establish a DRS or to appoint a body to operate it on their behalf. The deposit return scheme will apply to beverage bottles manufactured from polyethylene terephthalate, PET, with a capacity of up to 3 l and beverage containers manufactured from aluminium or steel with a capacity of up to 3 l. They also introduce an application and approval process for the appointment of an approved body to operate the scheme, set out the functions to be carried out by such an approved body, the obligations required of producers, retailers and return points and make provisions relating to the deposit to be paid.

While these regulations represent a significant milestone in the introduction of a DRS, some important issues remain to be addressed in further regulations. Some technical and transitional matters required further considerations, including planning exemptions for DRS infrastructure and VAT matters and the level of the deposit zero rated in the November 2021 regulations, enforcement arrangements and some limited exemptions.

The next milestone in the project is the appointment of an approved body to operate the scheme. I understand from industry representatives that in recent weeks a company was incorporated which will design and propose a deposit return scheme for my approval. While industry has noted that the timeframe for introduction of quarter 3 of 2022 is ambitious, my Department is monitoring progress closely.

I have allowed further time to consider the level at which a deposit should be set and to consider matters such as whether the deposit should be variable and what provisions should apply to beverage containers sold as part of a multipack. Senator McGreehan raised this issue and I take her point. However, I will introduce further regulations prior to the introduction of the scheme to establish, among other things, the level of deposit for the materials to be collected.

As the saying goes, I have a dream. I have a dream that our waste and packaging will not be perceived as waste, rather as a valuable part of our economy for which there is always a use. We spend substantial amounts on picking up waste. Councils' resources are stretched by picking up rubbish. It is not rubbish, however, but a valuable product that we should always utilise.

The Minister of State has the support of Fianna Fáil in pushing for a reuse model for packaging throughout the commercial and small business sector, with incentives and support to make it possible for consumers to change over. He will have buy-in from all consumers and businesses.

I want to hold on to the wind of change and make sure we succeed, in the lifetime of this Government, in bringing in a positive, worthwhile and proper circular economy.

I want to hold onto that and make sure that we succeed in bringing in a really positive and worthwhile proper circular economy within the lifetime of this Government. I really look forward to it. It is a hobby horse of mine. I am a great champion of it.

I can hear the Senator's enthusiasm. I have to give the Department credit for doing a lot of work, before I was appointed, in engaging with the industry. I refer not just to the people making bottles, but to the retailers themselves. They were making sure that it would not be a scheme that would work in theory but not in practice or something that people would be against. Part of that involved bringing retailers to meet their equivalents in other countries where the scheme had been running for decades and allowing one supermarket owner to say directly to another what happens in practice, how the scheme works and how it can be made work.

Last week, I was in Spain for St. Patrick's Day and I visited the person who is in charge of setting up the scheme in Spain, which is facing the same issues as we are although it is not as far down the road as we are. Engagement is the most important part so that we do not bring in a scheme that works in theory but not in practice. We have the industry, the retailers and the public on side.

The Senator mentioned littering during the pandemic. One would wake up in the morning and find the remains of picnics. When the bars were closed, people, and not just young people, were leaving large quantities of cans and bottles in fields. That is not going to happen when they are worth money. Nobody is going to leave cash on the ground. It will be an immediate solution to that problem. I expect the Tidy Towns groups will find that not only will there be much less to pick up, but that what they do pick up will be worth money.

Hospital Overcrowding

The Minister of State is very welcome to discuss this important issue. I will share time with my colleague, Senator Conway. Senator Ahearn sends his apologies. He has his own very strong views on the issue of overcrowding in University Hospital Limerick.

From my own experience and from hearing from people in Limerick, I know that there are great concerns. Only today, I spoke to a man who has been in hospital for three weeks. He is seriously ill and has a lot of underlying health conditions. When he first went into University Hospital Limerick, he spent at least three days on a trolley. He is still in the hospital three weeks later. He is very grateful for the care and attention he received once he got into the hospital but spending three days on a trolley when one is very sick is not acceptable. He is just one example of the many people who are waiting on trolleys.

There are no visitors allowed at the moment. Visits are very restricted unless somebody is very seriously ill, a child or a confused patient. That is a result of Covid. The number of people with Covid is increasing, as we are all very aware. There were 97 Covid patients in University Hospital Limerick yesterday, which is a really high number. That is adding to the troubles. My concern is that people are going into the hospital and waiting on trolleys. As I said, the care they receive is excellent but there is also the matter of the safety of the people working in the hospital. They are working under very difficult conditions. I have been speaking to patients and to staff. I know there was to be a Health Information and Quality Authority, HIQA, investigation. I am concerned that the Taoiseach said that there would be a HIQA investigation but that the Minister for Health said that he would consider it. That needs to be clarified.

If there is to be a visit to the hospital, this should not be recognised or announced. The people who will be carrying out this inquiry will have to go and see for themselves, unannounced.

Hear, hear. Gabhaim buíochas leis an gCathaoirleach Gníomhach agus leis an Aire Stáit, who is very welcome to the House. I agree with the sentiments of my colleague, Senator Byrne, who, like me, has been inundated with people’s views on what is happening in Limerick. It is not at all attractive and is not something we can stand over.

In spite of the great work being done by the nurses, clinicians and consultants on the ground, a problem remains and I cannot really work it out. Some €40 million was spent on building a state-of-the-art, brand new accident and emergency department in 2014. A modular unit was then deemed necessary because the overcrowding persisted and €22 million was made available by the then Minister for Health, Deputy Harris, in 2017 to build a 62-bed modular unit on the grounds of University Hospital Limerick. Despite this, the numbers on trolleys at UHL are the highest in the country. They range from 80 to 100 depending on the day of the week. On Mondays and Tuesdays, the figure is usually over 90. The problem then seems to dissipate somewhat towards the end of the week because discharges and so forth run relatively smoothly.

We must ask what the management situation is in University Hospital Limerick. Are management clinicians on duty at weekends? I suspect not. Are people on duty at the weekend who are in a position to sign discharge documentation for people? I suspect not. I suspect we are dealing with a management issue, from both a front-door perspective in the hospital and a back-door discharge perspective.

A commitment has been made to have an independent inquiry and we are told it is to be carried out by the Health Information and Quality Authority, HIQA. It is not ideal that HIQA is carrying out this inquiry given that it has already stated it does not consider that there is an issue in University Hospital Limerick. Really and truly, it should be an independent inquiry. If it is to be carried out by HIQA, let it be HIQA but let us get on with it. I want a timeline from the Minister of State for when the inspection and inquiry will start and conclude. Will the recommendations be published and acted upon?

I welcome this opportunity to address the House on the issues raised by Senators Byrne, Conway and Ahearn. Senator Ahearn cannot be present and I acknowledge that he has also raised this issue previously.

I acknowledge the distress that overcrowded emergency departments, EDs, cause to patients, their families and front-line staff working in very challenging conditions in hospitals throughout the country. Senator Byrne spoke about the case of an elderly gentleman who spent three days on a trolley. That is just not acceptable to anyone and is definitely not good enough. On top of extremely high emergency department attendances, the health sector is also under significant pressure from Covid-19, as was mentioned.

Yesterday there were 1,308 Covid patients in hospital, 83 of whom were in UHL. The emergency department in Limerick is one of the busiest in the country, with over 76,000 attendances in 2021, up 16% compared with 2020 and 7% compared with 2019. However, the numbers of patients waiting on trolleys for admission in UHL in 2021 were 4.7% lower than in 2020 and 35% lower than in 2019.

The University Limerick Hospitals Group has reported that it is continuing to deal with high volumes of patients attending the UHL emergency department, a pattern that has been sustained over a number of months and is being replicated around the country.

UHL is working to ensure that care is prioritised for the sickest patients. As part of its escalation plan, additional ward rounds, accelerated discharges and identification of patients for transfer to UL Hospitals Group model 2 hospitals are all under way. There has been continuing substantial investment in UHL and the wider hospital group in recent years to address capacity issues, including a new emergency department that opened in 2017. This was referred to by Senator Conway.

Since the start of 2020, 98 new beds have opened at UHL. This included a 60-bed modular ward block, which became operational in November 2020, established to provide a rapid-build interim solution to begin to address the bed capacity issues.

This also included a 24-bed single-room block which functions as a dedicated haematology oncology unit, and a temporary 14-bed single-room block designated for confirmed and suspected Covid-19 patients, initiated in May 2020 under the national action plan in response to Covid-19.

The winter plan for 2021 to 2022 was published on 15 November. It builds on the significant investment in last year's winter plan and the additional capacity delivered in health services in 2021. The winter plan aims to address the significant combined challenges faced by the health service over the winter period and recognises that a whole-system response is required across primary, community and acute care. The scale of these challenges and the demands our health system faces require both a plan and an associated system of governance and accountability. The winter plan sets out the national, area and site level leadership and governance arrangements that are in place.

The matter of performance in hospital emergency departments is under constant review by the Department through ongoing engagement with the HSE. The situation is still very distressing. There is a situation where patients are in the emergency department on trolleys. Yesterday, there were 83 people in the hospital who have Covid. The most important thing we can do is to improve throughput in the hospital so that when a person is deemed well enough, he or she is discharged. We have put substantial investment into step-down beds, transitional beds and home care. The most important thing is that we can transition people through hospitals as quickly as possible.

It is very distressing for families, patients and staff when there are high numbers on trolleys, and I know this is happening daily in Limerick.

I thank the Minister of State for her response. The staff work very hard but staff morale is at an all-time low. It is a question of safety for the staff and the patients. Once most patients get into the system, they have an excellent experience, but it is about getting into the system. It is not acceptable. As Senator Conway said, there has been a lot of funding and new beds, but there is a problem and it needs an independent investigation to see what that problem is. It needs a fresh pair of eyes looking at the situation. Realistically, this cannot continue. I know other places have engagement with private hospitals, as we had during Covid, so they can use other beds or transfer patients. I believe there needs to be an outsider looking in to find new ways of doing things.

Over the past decade, anything the senior management team in Limerick Hospital has looked for, it has got. The Government has stood up to the plate on each and every occasion when a request has gone in, even to the stage of committing to build a new 96-bed unit, which I believe has gone out for tender and which will in real terms create 48 beds. That is happening. Everything the team has looked for, it has got, so I want to know where the problem is. The only way we are going to find that out is by somebody going in, drilling down, asking the hard questions and challenging people as to what is going on. At the end of the day, it is taxpayers’ money but, much more importantly, there are people who are very sick, sitting on trolleys. That is something none of us here will defend and nobody within the health service should defend. That is why questions have to be asked but they need to be answered.

It is accepted that a key part of the solution for Limerick is additional beds. The new 60-bed modular ward block at UHL is a significant step in addressing this and provides modern single-room inpatient accommodation with improved infection prevention and control capabilities. This follows the completion of two separate rapid-build projects delivered under the Government's national action plan in response to Covid-19, which provided an additional 38 inpatient beds on site at UHL. Furthermore, Project Ireland 2040 includes provision for a 96-bed replacement ward block at UHL. This project has now been tendered in line with public procurement requirements, with tenders returned on 3 February. This tender evaluation process is under way and it is hoped to progress this process in the coming weeks with a view to seeking HSE board approval for the award of the works contract. If that can be escalated as quickly as possible, it would have a major impact.

The Department and the HSE will continue to work with local hospital management to further improve patient experience in UHL.

Both Senators raised HIQA and an investigation. I will bring that to the Minister's attention on the Senators' behalf.

Before we move on to the next Commencement matter, I warmly welcome two Galwegians in the Visitors Gallery, Councillor Alan Cheevers and his good friend Frank Owusu, who is a community activist. They are very welcome to Seanad Éireann.

Local Authorities

I welcome the Minister of State, Deputy Noonan.

I thank the Cathaoirleach for selecting this Commencement matter and welcome the Minister of State. The Commencement matter is about municipal bonds and the important issue of financing local government. I was spurred on to table the matter by an inquiry from Councillor Karey McHugh Farag, on Galway County Council, who is doing a master's degree on the issue of bonds and the importance of funding to local government.

The Minister of State knows and I know, as I think all politicians in these Houses know, that local government is experiencing significant difficulties and challenges with the provision of ongoing funding. My focus is on how we might in some way leverage some mechanism of bonds. There are similar operations in New Zealand, Australia, Canada and the United States. I am familiar to a lesser extent with the position in Britain but am very conscious of what is happening in Denmark and Belgium. There are other imaginative mechanisms and innovative ways of leveraging money for essential infrastructure projects. We have to learn about best practice. There has to be alternative infrastructure financing that we can use in respect of strategies in developing long-term infrastructural development that communities and local government need.

I wish to focus on three issues today. How can we look at the need for new funding sources to generate resources for infrastructure projects? How can we look at new financing mechanisms that offer flexibility but also the potential for cost-effective ways of financing critical infrastructure across the country? How can we look at new financial arrangements and synergies that involve the private sector and that partner with the private sector, the non-profit sector and the public sector? They can all participate and ultimately have some benefit in these critical infrastructure projects. That is the key. We all want to deliver critical infrastructure, and there are a number of key issues when we look at this. We need to help to fund new development. We need to match payments with benefits in some way. If people put something into this, they need to have some benefit. It is very important that this is a mechanism whereby we can raise funding. This is critical and does not require voter approval. It should be remembered that the electorate votes people into office to get on with the job. We should not apologise in that regard. People are put into power and into office to get on with the job. We know the importance of critical infrastructure. Yes, there are weaknesses in the system in terms of administration. I do not want to overburden local government administration with the administration of additional mechanisms, particularly in the area of finance and funding, but there is enormous potential if we develop imaginative and constructive ways of looking at infrastructural funding.

In summary, like many elements of local government, these elements are challenging, but we need innovation, we need infrastructure and we need finance. That has to be at the very heart of new projects if we are to succeed. There is no doubt but that there is ambition in local government and on the part of central government, although perhaps not enough. If I have any criticism of central government, it is that it lacks real commitment to devolving real powers back to communities. We talk about mayors and reform of local government, but nowhere do I see a real commitment centrally, in central government, to devolve powers. When powers are devolved to somebody else, be it local government or whatever else, that must come with finance. The core issue I would like the Minister of State to look at today and maybe undertake to look at further with his officials in the Department is how we can leverage finance and bonds to facilitate the roll-out of our ambition, which is critical infrastructure and the engine to get the economy and communities going.

Gabhaim buíochas leis an Seanadóir as an gceist seo a ardú. It is a really interesting question. He and I have debated this on a number of occasions, both in the Chamber and in these corridors.

Local government services such as those referenced in the matter raised here today are funded in a variety of ways. Some programmes are supported by Exchequer funding and others from local authorities' own income, often a combination of both. Local authority income, in turn, comes from sources such as commercial rates, local property tax, charges for goods and services and, importantly in the context of the matter raised, through borrowing.

There is a framework in place to manage local authority borrowing, with authorities having recourse to the Housing Finance Agency, retail banks and to both the European Investment Bank and the Council of Europe Development Bank. Municipal bonds do not form part of this framework and are not considered necessary at the current time, although they could be given consideration.

Local authority borrowing and overall compliance with fiscal rules are managed and monitored by the Department of Housing, Local Government and Heritage, in conjunction with the CSO and the Department of Finance. These rules form part of the EU Stability and Growth Pact, which has its origins in the Maastricht treaty. Under the pact, there is a limit on budget deficits across the EU. As part of this, the general government balance, GGB, monitors borrowings and budget surpluses or deficits across the wider government sector, which includes local government.

Adherence to these rules by individual authorities requires a balanced revenue account and keeping the net increase in non-mortgage borrowing within approved levels. It is for this reason that local authorities are required to seek sanction from the Department, or to quote from the legislation, from the appropriate Minister, for all borrowing, over and above the requirement for formal approval by the elected members.

Expenditure of local authority reserves or own resources, including development contributions which often contribute to community infrastructure such as lighting and footpaths, is also subject to GGB limits. In order to ensure Ireland remains compliant with the overall pact, local authorities have been directed that capital expenditure should generally not exceed capital income within the reporting year. Notwithstanding that, within the overall limits, there is capacity for the expenditure of capital balances and own resources, subject to sanction. In reviewing requests for both borrowing sanction and the expenditure of reserves, consideration is given to ensuring that priority infrastructural investment can proceed, that contractual commitments and ongoing projects can proceed; and that development contributions already collected and aligned to specific capital projects can be utilised efficiently. The Department makes every effort to facilitate all such requests.

Compliance with the pact means that member states must avoid deficits above 3% of GDP and must limit public debt to 60% of GDP. To put that in context, in 2020 Ireland recorded a deficit of 4.9% and a debt to GDP ratio of 58.4%. There is therefore a need to carefully manage any proposed increases in local authority borrowing within the overall envelope. There are no current plans to expand the borrowing options available to local authorities through the introduction of municipal bonds, which as I have said are not at present a feature of the local government funding model. Having said that, it is critically important that research is done into alternative sources of funding for local authorities. The Senator mentioned that research piece.

I thank the Minister of State for his reply. It is clear there is no intention of introducing municipal bonds. I have read extensively in a number of papers in the last few days. There is a lot of information on best practice in other jurisdictions. It is something we should look at. We have to be ambitious. We have ambitious public representatives in local authorities. We have ambitious chief executives in local authorities. The Minister of State knows from Kilkenny that there is no shortage of ambitious ideas coming up from the ground. I understand we have to operate within the fiscal rules and the Department of Housing, Local Government and Heritage ultimately has a role as does the Department of Finance. However, we can be more ambitious. We have to convince the people we represent in local communities that we can deliver greater infrastructure and develop a range of greater resources. However, they have to be financed. People are ready to commit to financing local authorities. People do not expect everything for nothing. They are not looking for a free ride.

Perhaps the Oireachtas Joint Committee on Housing, Planning and Local Government, of which I am a member, could look at the matter and work with the Department. Let us look at municipal bonds, how they work internationally and whether we can apply any aspect of that to our own situation in Ireland. I thank the Minister of State for coming in today.

I thank the Senator. The suggestion he made there is very useful. It would be a really useful exercise for the housing committee to have a look at this and at the overall funding of local government in general. We have a significant challenge. As the Senator rightly said, our local authorities are ambitious both at corporate level and among the elected members.

They show real innovation - often in the face of dwindling resources - yet they cannot continually rely on car parking charges or development contributions, which are not sustainable sources of funding. We are trying to decouple them and move towards sustainability. If we look at possibilities around public banking and local authorities being involved in that or developing energy supply companies, we can see there are opportunities there on which local authorities in other European countries have been leading. We should look at all options given the challenges we face and the opportunities, particularly around climate action, biodiversity and all various aspects of local authorities' work, which is expanding. The work rate is expanding and yet the funding sources are challenging. The Department will continue to work with local authorities. The Minister of State, Deputy Peter Burke, is deeply committed to doing that but it is important to consider all sources.

Diplomatic Representation

I thank the Minister of State, Deputy Butler, for taking this issue on behalf of the Department of Foreign Affairs. I am conscious she is busy today taking a lot of issues for other Departments. I have enormous respect for all officials within the Department of Foreign Affairs for the work they do and our ambassadors. My question is about how we appoint our ambassadors. At present, the recruitment of ambassadors is essentially through the ranks of the Department of Foreign Affairs. It is very rare for somebody who has not come up through the ranks and served as a long-standing official in the Department of Foreign Affairs to be appointed and when it happens, it is normally somebody from another Department such as our new ambassador to London. In the old trade union days, that would have been referred to as a closed shop.

The Department will make the argument that there are some open competitions at lower levels within the Department but there should be an open competitive process when it comes to these very senior appointments. The role of the ambassadors, as with others in the Department of Foreign Affairs, is to represent Ireland and promote and protect the interests and values of the State and our citizens. Yes, people coming through the Department of Foreign Affairs can do that but so too could people with business or academic experience, contributions through charity and voluntary organisations and indeed through political life. I am not arguing that it should be a decision of the Minister to name whoever he or she may want. I believe it should be an open competition. This was introduced for a number of posts in the UK. It also happens in other jurisdictions. The individual must show that he or she is competent and can carry out the functions of representing his or her country as an ambassador but I do not accept the argument that only people from the Department of Foreign Affairs are capable of being the representatives of our country abroad.

I need to be clear that I am not suggesting in any way that they should be political appointments as we see in the US, where about half of its ambassadors are appointed by the US President. Interestingly, under Article 2 of the US Constitution, all US ambassadors must be ratified by the Senate so the question of ambassadors coming before an Oireachtas committee or even a Seanad committee to present their credentials and outline how they would represent Ireland before they are appointed to represent the country might be something we could look at in terms of Seanad reform. The point I am making is that there are a lot of people who in many ways already represent Ireland very effectively in the arts and other areas and who may have the requisite skills to represent us.

I also think it would be very good for the Department of Foreign Affairs to broaden the pool to ensure there is diversity within the Department at ambassadorial rank and that it is infused with different ideas and views at a senior level. I know the Department's argument is that we do that at the lower levels of the Department but then people are sucked into the culture and in order to progress, they must move up the ladder.

I sincerely believe it is time for reform and I hope the Minister of State will agree with me.

I thank Senator Byrne for raising this matter. The mission of the Department of Foreign Affairs is to serve the Irish people, promote their values, advance their prosperity and interests abroad, and provide the Government with the capabilities, analysis and influence to ensure Ireland derives the maximum benefit from all areas of its external engagement. To fulfil that mission, the Department is staffed with a team of dedicated civil servants who promote Ireland's values and interests, working from 97 embassies, consulates and representative offices across the globe as well as at the Department's headquarters in Ireland. The Senator's question is very timely as our ambassadors have been very much to the fore in the past week for the St. Patrick's Day celebrations and engagements throughout the world. They do an excellent job.

As the Senator will be aware, Ireland has a long and proud tradition of a non-political Civil Service and the individuals nominated as ambassadors are drawn from that service. I note the Senator was very clear that he was not suggesting these would be political appointments. Since the foundation of the State, Ireland has regularly demonstrated its capacity to exert influence and make a distinctive contribution on the international stage. Civil servants and those appointed as ambassadors have played a crucial role in these efforts. All currently serving ambassadors are established career civil servants employed by the Department of Foreign Affairs and recruited through the Public Appointments Service, PAS, or competitions administered by the Department of Foreign Affairs in accordance with the code of practice for appointment to positions in the Civil Service and public service, as set out by the Office of the Commission for Public Service Appointments. Open recruitment competitions are held to join the diplomatic service at third secretary, first secretary and counsellor level.

Officers recruited to join the diplomatic service are tested on key competency areas relevant to the grade during the recruitment process. Resilience, resourcefulness and a commitment to foreign language learning are among the requirements. The Department also works closely with the PAS to build diversity in the Department of Foreign Affairs and ensure it is representative of the people it represents.

I thank the Senator again for his question and would, of course, welcome his support and that of all Members in encouraging applications to open recruitment competitions to join the diplomatic service.

I thank the Minister of State. I certainly would encourage anyone to serve in a public service capacity. I note that the reply from the Department of Foreign Affairs avoids the question I asked. It does, however, make a very clear point in stating that when the Minister is considering an appointment, he will look at applicants' "management experience, regional knowledge, country knowledge ... language skills, policy experience" and so on. However, he only looks at those factors among a very limited pool of individuals, namely, people from within his Department. The argument I am making is there is very rich talent in this country. We have people from a vast range of different backgrounds who may have been able to gather that experience in other fields. They should be able to compete openly to enter public service at ambassadorial level. It would serve any Minister very well for such people to have that opportunity. To ensure greater diversity within our public service and to ensure it is no longer a closed shop, competition should be open for positions for ambassadors representing our country and all of its citizens.

I welcome the Senator's interest in this topic. To ensure that our diplomatic team is of the highest quality and representative of the people of Ireland, the Department works closely with the PAS to ensure a robust and fair recruitment process for diplomatic grades. In the last year, the PAS has administered open competitions to the grades of counsellor, first secretary and third secretary. Further recruitment to the diplomatic service is expected later this year. All competitions are advertised on the PAS website and via social media. Officers who have been recruited through the open recruitment competition represent Ireland abroad including as ambassadors.

I accept the Senator's point that we should look at having greater diversity. Knowing how tenacious he is, I have no doubt that this will not be the last time we will hear this issue being raised in the Seanad.

Senator Malcolm Byrne also has my support on the matter.

Cuireadh an Seanad ar fionraí ar 2.26 p.m. agus cuireadh tús leis arís ar 3.33 p.m.
Sitting suspended at 2.26 p.m. and resumed at 3.33 p.m.