Léim ar aghaidh chuig an bpríomhábhar

Seanad Éireann díospóireacht -
Thursday, 24 Mar 2022

Vol. 283 No. 12

Nithe i dtosach suíonna - Commencement Matters

Agriculture Schemes

I welcome the Minister for Agriculture, Food and the Marine, Deputy McConalogue, back to the House.

I thank the Cathaoirleach; I think that is his official title for today anyway. I thank him for stepping up to make today possible. It is appreciated.

I thank the Minister for coming into the House. He is always very good. When anyone has a Commencement matter, as lead Minister, he always comes in and takes it..

As someone from a farm of tillage farmers, it is first important to note that we often feel as though we are forgotten farmers in the scheme of things. Dairy, beef, pig and sheep take much of the coverage but it is good to recognise the role that tillage farmers play in this country and the important impact they have.

It is important to recognise the scheme that was announced this week and the €12 million package, which is very significant, to prioritise the sector. That is really important. Of that €12 million, €10 million is for the new scheme that is being set up. The other €2 million is for schemes that are in place. There is approximately €1 million each for both those schemes, that is, greater aid for protein crops and the multispecies scheme. What was the uptake on those schemes previously? If more money is being put into them, is the uptake of those schemes so high that there a demand for it anyway? If an extra €1 million is being put into those schemes, does the Minister expect it to be drawn down? That question is just to see if it is worthwhile putting money into those schemes.

I have spoken to farmers in County Tipperary over the past number of days on this issue. There is a certain level of confusion about how the scheme will work and how tillage farmers will benefit from it. That is understandable because this is all being done very quickly on the back of what is happening in Ukraine.

However, most farmers who are even considering it say that when they take into account the rising costs in fuel, fertiliser and everything that goes with it, and if they have a contractor coming in to do the work, €400 per hectare will not be financially beneficial. It is more hassle than it is worth for people to do it, to be perfectly honest. That needs to be taken into account.

I have a number of questions regarding the scheme. When we talk about tillage farmers, is there a definition of "tillage farmers"? How many acres does a person have to have on his or her land to be classed as a tillage farmer to be able to apply for this scheme? Will there be a cap in terms of how much land a person can use for this?

There is a bit of confusion over someone leasing land they did not have last year but that was used for tillage and crops. Will that person be able to apply for this scheme? If, say, the Minister had 30 acres he was farming last year and then this year, he decided to lease it to me, it is still the same 30 acres that has crop on it. We are not actually gaining any crop. Is the new farmer who owns that land qualified for that? The argument he or she will make is that it is the same land and same crop but if it was not leased to that farmer, then that land might not have been used. It is a valid enough argument.

In terms of what land people can use, in my area of Tipperary there is a limited amount of land set aside. Can wild bird cover be used? Do EU measures for land that has been set aside need to be relaxed so that it could be used to increase feed? The people I have been speaking to welcome the package and that tillage farming is being prioritised, but more information would be appreciated. I thank the Minister for coming to the House to deliver the response.

I thank the Senator for putting the matter on the agenda. I join with him to utterly condemn the illegal invasion of Ukraine and impact that has on the people who are displaced and the unacceptable humanitarian situation that has evolved there. As a Government and as a people, we remain resolute in our solidarity and support for Ukraine and we reiterate the call on Russia to cease all hostilities immediately and to withdraw from Ukraine unconditionally.

At a time when tractors are in the fields, lambs are being born, cows and calves are heading for grass in Ireland, our farming brothers and sisters in Ukraine are taking up arms to fight for their country's freedom. The Government continues to monitor the ongoing situation caused by Russia's illegal and immoral war on Ukraine, and Ireland's co-ordinated humanitarian, economic and diplomatic response to the crisis.

As Minister, I have raised the challenge facing our farm families at national level and European level consistently in recent months. We have listened to farmers and we have acted to support them as best as possible. We all know that the crisis in Ukraine has had an impact on Irish agriculture and supply chains. Every sector is being impacted by the rising costs but farmers are especially feeling the pressure at present. The price of energy, animal feeds, fertiliser, fuel, silage plastics and other farm inputs have all increased. From a trip to the diesel pump or to the local store for fertiliser or feed, we are seeing the reality of the impact on supply chains. For many farmers, the energy cost has gone up by between 80% and 100% in the past year. We have a high reliance on imported feed with more than 60% of feed used on Irish farms imported. Approximately 30% of world wheat and maize exports originate from Russia and Ukraine. In the past year the price of key ingredients used to manufacture animal feed has doubled.

Then we have the challenge of fertiliser, which is particularly acute. As the Senator will be aware, all the chemical fertiliser used on Irish farms is imported and 20% of these imports originate in Russia. The cost of fertiliser for farmers has more than doubled this year compared to last year, and has increased further in recent weeks. Given the seriousness and urgency of the situation, I have put in place a rapid response team chaired by the Secretary General in my Department, Mr. Brendan Gleeson, to actively monitor the impacts on agrifood supply chains, to design appropriate mitigation measures and to contribute to the whole-of-government response to the crisis.

I also quickly established the national fodder and food security committee to examine how best to advise the sector to manage the disruptions. This committee, under the chairmanship of Mr. Mike Magan, is doing excellent work and I will continue to support it. Separately, and continuing with the necessity to act quickly to support farm families, I announced a €12 million package to support the growing of additional tillage and protein crops and to support the establishment of multispecies swards, as outlined by the Senator. These targeted measures will help build resilience against the expected impact of the situation in Ukraine. This three-pronged approach will contribute towards the expected deficit in tillage and protein crops. It will also assist farmers to deal with the challenges related to both the availability and price of animal feed and fertilisers. The total package is projected to cost just over €12 million, with €10 million for a tillage incentive scheme and €1.2 million to guarantee a payment of €400 per hectare for protein crops and an additional €1 million for a multispecies sward scheme. We are now finalising the finer details of the package of measures. We have a short window to make use of these important measures. I know all farmers have listened to the signals that, if they can plant more grains I will back them and support them. The €400 per hectare will be available for all additional areas planted this year. I also continue to engage with our European partners to respond in a comprehensive and flexible manner, using all of the tools at our disposal.

It is a period and challenge like no other in our lifetime. War has visited the Continent of Europe for the first time in more than two generations and it is having an impact on everyone in every aspect of their lives. We think about the people of Ukraine. We think about those who have been forced to either flee their homes or take up arms to defend their country. At home and on farms, I know our farm families stand in solidarity with their farming counterparts in Ukraine.

I thank the Minister very much for his detailed response. I raised the matter of supporting farmers with the rising cost of fertiliser in recent months and he came to the House on that occasion to respond to it. We discussed the matter before Christmas. We have one party in government with us that will be in up in arms with this suggestion. Is there a way to support tillage farmers with the cost of fertiliser? If we are trying to increase the production of crops, being honest, the quickest way to do that is to add more fertiliser. Many farmers are reducing the volume of fertiliser they are using. I know that is what we want to do in the long run and I do not have a problem with that, but they are reducing the volume of they use because of cost.

If we are changing land from grass to growing crops, there is a potential risk that we will not have enough grassland for cows in future. What are we doing? Are we prepared for that in terms of having a plan in place? Farmers take risks. I am aware of a farmer in Tipperary at the moment who sees an opportunity to grow more grass as opposed to growing more crops, because there will be a shortage of silage in the future. Do we have a plan in place because that could be our next problem?

It is important that we plan. One of the pluses in the real challenges we face is the timing in that we are at the start of the growing season and the breeding season. It is important that at family farm level, each farmer plans for the year ahead and for next winter to make sure that while they are planning to breed, they are also planning to feed. It is important that such a balance is struck. First and foremost, it is important that farmers grow enough grass for the year ahead but also for the winter ahead, and examine whether they can make a contribution to grain security by growing additional grain. They must plan for that now. That is the reason we have acted quickly to put plans in place and to bring everyone together to meet the challenge and to do so collaboratively. It will take us all working together to do that. The payment of €400 per hectare will be on additional grain grown, whether it is grown by a tillage farmer or somebody who was not involved previously in tillage. The bottom line is that it is an extra hectare of grain, over and above what was produced last year. If farmers did not produce anything last year, and they grow a hectare this year, they will get paid for it. If they produced a certain volume last year and they grow more this year, they will be paid for the extra volume.

Teagasc has provided economics and advice. I saw last week in the Irish Farmers' Journal, Andy Doyle, its tillage expert was looking at the economics of tillage farmers planting as they did last year. Costs have gone up but the price of grain and forward price has also gone up. The estimation is that the economics of it are similar to what they were last year, which was a good year from a tillage point of view. I accept there is more uncertainty but the economics are that it makes sense and, as things stand, there will be a similar margin to last year for existing grain. I also accept there are additional costs in trying to identify additional land to grow additional grain. That is why I moved to try to help support that sector with the €400 per hectare. There is not a cap on it. The objective is to try to ensure we get the message out to farmers that they will be supported to grow extra grain. The payment will not be made on ground that was tilled for cereal last year because I do not want a situation whereby farmers are competing for tillage ground and where a farmer who is producing more than last year will get the €400 per hectare payment and might perhaps outbid a tillage farmer that tilled land last year. We want a scheme that works and delivers on the objective of growing the area under grain and supporting farmers to do that without having unintended consequences. That is the reason and rationale for that.

Recycling Policy

Cuirim fáilte roimh an Aire Stáit. We hear a lot of talk now and we have new buzzwords coming in.

The word “sustainable” is one, although it has been misused for years, and there is also "climate change" and "biodiversity". A newer buzzword that is coming to the fore is “circular economy”. I know the Minister of State has done much work done on that. I therefore thought it would be appropriate to invite him to the House to make a statement on his work on the circular economy, including on proposed funding mechanisms such as the latte levy, and what funding is available to groups, individuals and businesses when working with our developing ideas and processes that look at the circular economy and see what we can do to try to stop the constant dumping in landfill of precious materials, whether it is plastics from fossil fuels or precious ores.

The Rediscovery Centre out in Ballymun, which the Minister of State told me about first, is inspiring. It is diverting furniture, bikes, paint and clothes from landfill, which deals with issues such toxic waste and fast fashion, one of the biggest problems we have in the world. I have contacted the Rediscovery Centre and it is available to go to local authorities, set up academies and engage with community groups that might be interested in setting up social enterprises. There is also money to be made in this. Jobs can be created out of renovating bikes and selling them as well as from selling on paint and clothes. I am pleased to say that, since the Minister of State gave me the notice, I have been to the centre and its representatives are coming Clare on 7 April. We will be inviting community groups to come and avail of free training and see what we can do in Clare. This is something we can do throughout the country. I look forward to hearing the Minister of State's response.

I thank Senator Garvey. Indeed, the term “circular economy” is technical one. It is a challenge for me to get that concept clear to the public. We are bringing in a new circular economy Bill. The Senator is right. The Rediscovery Centre in Ballymun is a great way for people to understand this because it is so practical. It is doing four things: upcycling, paint, bicycles, furniture and clothing. It is very practical, it gives people employment and skills, and it keeps resources within the economy. It is great it is now being duplicated throughout the country. It is a fantastic scheme and I agree with the Senator on that.

The Government recognises that the current take-make-waste economic model is not sustainable, economically, socially or environmentally, and that a fundamental shift in our production and consumption patterns is now needed. We are committed to building a circular economy where waste is minimised, economic growth is decoupled from resource consumption, and the value of goods and materials is retained in our economy for as long as possible. This approach led to our 2020 waste action plan for a circular economy, which committed to a range of actions to make the transition to a circular economy a reality. This included the adoption of a high-level, whole-of-government circular economy strategy.

The strategy was launched last year in December 2021 and it has five main objectives. First is to provide a national policy framework for Ireland's transition to a circular economy. Second is to identify measures that can significantly improve Ireland's circularity rate relative to our EU peers. Third is to raise awareness across society about the circular economy. Fourth is to support increased investment in the circular economy in Ireland. Last is to identify and address the economic, regulatory and social barriers to Ireland's transition to a more circular economy.

My Department has commenced the implementation of the strategy, and this work will be carried out with a strong focus on stakeholder participation, and in co-operation with other policymakers across the Government. In addition, on 8 March, the Government approved the publication of the Circular Economy, Waste Management (Amendment) and Minerals Development (Amendment) Bill 2022. It is intended the Bill will be enacted before the summer recess. The Bill will underpin multiple actions committed to in the waste action plan and it will provide a robust statutory framework for adapting our national patterns of production and consumption.

The Bill provides for new environmental levies on items like single-use cups, food containers and food packaging to incentivise the use of reusable alternatives. The new levies will work in a similar way to the plastic bag levy with the proceeds ring-fenced in a circular economy fund for projects relating to environmental and climate action objectives. The various levies will be introduced incrementally. However, the initial focus will be on the introduction of levies on disposable hot drinks cups. Ireland currently sends millions of disposable coffee cups to landfill every year, and that needs to change. The figure is approximately 200 million per year.

The objective of the new levies is not to raise revenues. Indeed, the aim of introducing them is to encourage the use of reusable alternatives so that the consumer never incurs the levy in the first place. The precise details regarding the scope and rate of the levy on disposable coffee cups will be set out in secondary legislation following the enactment of the Bill, with the intention of bringing the levy into force as early as possible. The amount being considered is 20 cent. The new levies will build on Ireland's successful experience of the plastic bag levy and the landfill levy. I look forward to introducing this levy as soon as possible this year. I expect to see a rapid and significant surge in the use of reusable cups, as well as a decline in coffee cup litter throughout the country.

I recognise the role played by the environment fund since its inception and the need to align its objectives more closely with the promotion of the circular economy. The environment fund will be replaced with a new circular economy fund under the Bill. The fund will continue to support key environmental projects in the coming years. The circular economy innovation grant scheme, which was established last year, is currently funded from the environment fund and it will continue to be funded from the circular economy fund following the enactment of the Bill. This multi-annual scheme directly supports the growth of the circular economy in Ireland and provides examples of best practice to inspire others.

In 2021, ten projects were awarded some €490,000 in funding under the scheme. Applications for funding under the scheme in 2022 will be opening later in the year.

This is great. We have seen this work in other jurisdictions for many years. It is brilliant and I thank the Minister of State, Deputy Smyth for his work, as well as the work of the Green Party in government, in bringing this forward.

When we think in future of single-use plastics, we will ask, "What were we thinking of? What madness." I remember eight years ago I started a social enterprise campaign called Love Your Cup, in which every single business in Ennistymon and many of them in Ennis gave back 30 cent if people brought their own cup. We have therefore been leading the way in Clare. It was a great initiative because it reduced waste. I know that from talking to Tidy Towns groups, who could see the difference it made. We have a free refill station in Ennis and Ennistymon where people can refill their plastic bottles. There is lots of work being done in little spots, but it is to be hoped that seeing it coming across on a national level, where it will be rolled out everywhere, will bring us to a place where we do not take for granted this use of plastics. People do not know that plastic comes from fossil fuels. They also sometimes do not realise that when something ends up in a landfill or on the ground, it often ends up as microbeads and plastics in our oceans. We all know the damage that is doing to our oceans. This is a serious matter, and I welcome the hard work that the Minister of State, Deputy Smyth, has put in to making this happen. I look forward to it being rolled out throughout the country.

I thank the Senator for her praise but, in fact, most of the work on this was done by my Department before my appointment. I have to give the staff full credit for that.

I want to collect as little money from this levy as possible. I want people to use reusable cups. I want it to be a habit and a new culture and I want to make that as easy as possible. I want to give people the choice and a way out of using a new coffee cup every day and throwing it away. With that in mind, I expect that, in the same way we banned ten single-use plastic products last July, including plastic forks, knives and straws, I expect we will ban coffee cups altogether within about four years. This is an interim measure leading to the end of that.

Where people have a coffee in a café or on its terrace, we will legislate so that hot drinks can only be served in a reusable cup on the premises. This is because sometimes people are given a cardboard cup in a café even though they are sitting in the café. That will be another change as well. The whole focus is not about raising revenue, taxation or getting a levy. It is about changing our economy to a more circular economy.

Energy Prices

I do not need to tell the Minister of State that the cost of energy is spiralling out of control. We know that renewables are cheaper than oil. The economic argument for transitioning to renewables has never been stronger and made more sense. However, the more we can produce electricity from renewables, the more we can protect households from the high prices of imported fossil fuels. My question for the Minister of State today is why, when we hear so much about our excellent wind energy resources, are our prices so high?

In 2020, we had our first auction where wind energy cleared at €74 per megawatt hour. This was the highest in Europe in 2020 and in 2021. No one else was in the 70s. We see prices in the 50s. Even in Spain it was in the 20s. At this week's Committee on Environment and Climate Action, we heard from witnesses that the costs and risks associated with navigating the system are excessive and that grid connection costs are in the upper echelons. This is having a particularly negative impact on community-led onshore wind projects that would naturally have less money in the bank. According to the industry itself, it is saying that it can produce the electricity from Irish wind at half the current price.

All that is in the way, it seems, is Government policy. The choices the Government is making have given us the highest price and the choices it makes going forward will determine whether Irish households are paying the lowest or highest possible prices for renewable electricity.

Looking forward to the second auction on 2 May for onshore only, how confident is the Minister of State that the price will fall? Will prices in renewable electricity support scheme, RESS, 2 be lower than in RESS 1? That would seem very unlikely, given what is happening in the commodities market alone. The price of steel, which makes up 80% of a wind turbine, has quadrupled. I know the price of steel is not within the remit of the Minister of State, but it comes on top of already very expensive wind energy. The focus should be on reducing the cost where we can do so. Commercial rates for wind farms have risen between 200% and 300% in the past couple of years, unlike those for fossil fuels. The planning system, as we know, is under-resourced and this is leading to planning delays. Those delays are factored into the bids in the auctions. In addition, the failure to strengthen the grid since 2000 means substantial amounts of renewable power are being lost because the transmission system cannot cope with the volumes of renewable electricity available. As more wind and solar farms are being built, larger amounts of power will be lost, whereas a stronger electricity grid could actually cut costs by 18%. All of this is being factored into the bids when we have these auctions.

What is the Government's joined-up approach to reduce costs, especially in areas where it has the power to do so? The industry has called for a high level cross-government group to sit around a table with a brief to identify where the costs are. For example, it would discuss resourcing the planning system and grid connection costs. The group would then feed back every six months to Cabinet with proposals, having identified where the problems are and how to fix them. Has the Minister of State considered that proposal? Will he accept it? Will he look at the other areas where he has the power to bring down the cost of renewable energy?

There is a fundamental difference in the way the pricing of fossil fuel energy and renewable energy is arrived at. As the Senator knows, oil, gas and coal are traded on international markets and we are subject to the vagaries of those markets. Often they are sourced from highly unstable regions in the world, as we are reminded, whether it is the Middle East or Russia. This has led to great variability and frequent energy crises and shocks. Although people criticise renewable energy for being linked with the variability of the weather, in fact there is huge variability in fossil fuels. The fundamentals of renewable energy are that once the capital cost has been paid, there is a very low cost of generation with no fuel to costs to add to it. Therefore, it is a very different situation.

Given the unprecedented rise in electricity and gas prices, reducing the burden of energy costs on consumers is a matter of serious concern to the Government. The Government is very aware that recent electricity and gas price increases caused by international conditions, including the ongoing conflict in Ukraine, are putting increasing pressure on consumers and businesses, particularly those in a more vulnerable economic condition. It is important to recognise that these price increases are not caused by Government or regulatory decisions, as price regulation in this sector ended many years ago. Suppliers compete with each other on price and set their own prices accordingly, as one would expect in a competitive, commercial, liberalised market. It is important to point out that all European markets are experiencing these price increases. While Ireland has its own specific circumstances, the rise in energy costs is not unique to us.

The most immediate factor affecting electricity prices in Ireland is the upward trend in international gas prices, which has brought them to an unprecedented high. In Europe, wholesale natural gas prices have been on an upward curve since the second half of 2020, for a variety of international reasons. Current indications are that these higher prices will continue at a significantly higher level for the foreseeable future, particularly given the unprovoked Russian invasion of Ukraine. Higher gas prices feed directly through to retail electricity prices, as the wholesale price of electricity correlates strongly with the price of gas, as this is the primary fossil fuel used for electricity generation.

As well as the package of measures that the Government recently announced to combat the increases in the cost of living, it is a fact that the increased roll-out of renewable energy will, in the longer term, reduce Ireland's susceptibility to spikes in international fuel prices. The Government is committed to ensuring that by 2030 up to 80% of our electricity will come from renewable sources. This renewable energy will help protect us from fluctuations in gas prices caused by global supply and trade issues, thereby increasing our energy security.

The key actions to reduce the cost of renewable energy are highlighted in the Climate Action Plan 2021, but I will highlight a few of them now. The RESS, which supports the roll-out of renewable electricity, held its first auction for onshore winds and solar projects in 20201, with 63 projects currently progressing towards generation. The RESS 2 auction qualification process has begun, with the auction scheduled to take place in May 2022, which will deliver a major increase in renewable electricity generation by the end of 2024. A RESS 3 onshore auction is also under development, with an auction due to take place next year. The Department is also finalising the terms and conditions on the first of three planned offshore auctions this decade for the RESS to deliver 5 GW of offshore wind by 2030. All of these RESS auctions are competitive, ensuring that generators are competing on price. When the wholesale price is higher than the bid price submitted by the generators, they will give the difference back to consumers through the public service obligation, PSO, levy. This, in effect, helps insulate electricity customers from price shocks and will help give greater certainty to bill payers in coming years.

The operation of the clean export guarantee, CEG, tariff represents the first phase of a comprehensive enabling framework for micro and small-scale generators in Ireland that allows them to receive payment from their electricity supplier for all excess renewable electricity they export to the grid, which reflects the market value of the electricity. On 15 February this year, the Minister for the Environment, Climate and Communications signed the regulations that transpose Articles 21 and 22 of the recast renewable energy directive, which brought these articles into force. These regulations mean the clean export guarantee tariff is now available for new and existing micro and small-scale generators.

The micro-generation support scheme, MSS, approved by the Government on 21 December 2021, provides capital grants for new domestic, and will provide grants for new small non-domestic, solar photovoltaic, PV, installations. Larger businesses, including farms, that install new larger installations can avail of a clean export premium tariff which will provide a fixed tariff for 15 years for electricity exported to the grid in conjunction with the clean export guarantee. The scheme design will be published very shortly. However, the phased introduction of supports commenced in February, with the transition of the existing Sustainable Energy Authority of Ireland, SEAI, domestic solar PV grant scheme into the MSS. Furthermore, a tax disregard of €200 was introduced in budget 2021 in respect of personal income received by households which sell residual renewable electricity they generate back to the grid.

The Climate Action Plan 2021 also commits to the development of a support scheme for small-scale generators, that is, above 50 kW but smaller than those supported by the RESS, which will be progressed in 2022 and is expected to become available in 2023. This scheme will enable larger businesses, farms and community projects to maximise their participation in the energy transition.

I thank the Minister of State for his response. However, I do not see many answers in it. He outlined how the programme works in terms of how we get the RESS auctions. He is right that renewable energy will protect households from price fluctuations, but it will not guarantee lower prices. We have the highest renewable energy prices in the EU. While some say we are the Saudi Arabia of wind energy in terms of potential, we are the most expensive for delivering renewable energy. Not only does that mean that households are paying more for their electricity, it also means that it undermines and jeopardises our green energy potential as well because cheap renewable energy is needed to produce cheap green hydrogen.

The auctions and bids are banking in the costs, including the costs of planning delays, excessive grid connection costs and inflation because the Government will not index-link the price, unlike other EU countries and Britain. Will the Minister of State give a commitment to consider the proposal to establish a body that will identify where all the costs are and how we reduce the cost of energy for households that are struggling at the moment?

I am happy to look at any proposal the Senator has. My office is always open for her to come to me and discuss a proposal and my mind is always open.

The Senator asked a number of questions. One was about commercial rates on fossil fuel generation, as opposed to renewable generation. That is a matter on which I am happy to engage with the Minister for Housing, Local Government and Heritage, Deputy Darragh O’Brien, because it comes under his Department. Commercial rates, valuation and so on should always be looked to ensure they are in line with the strategy of the Government.

The Senator asked about the RESS 2 auction and whether the prices will come in lower than in RESS 1. As it is an auction, it is hard to know what the bids will be.

The Senator pointed out that at present steel prices are high internationally as a result of commodities. I take her point on that but, fundamentally, we are moving to a system where we will generate electricity from something that has no fuel cost - the sun and the wind. The wind has been blowing over Ireland and we have never harvested it before. What will change in future is that instead of being dependent on Vladimir Putin or Gaddafi, we will have our own free source of electricity. Yes, the capital costs will have to be paid, but over 30 years we will have a significant volume of domestically sourced electricity and power, which will keep us warm, provide our transport, provide us with greater self-sufficiency and make us a stronger, more independent nation that does not have to rely on unstable foreign autocratic regimes to provide basic needs to our public. That is a very good thing to happen. I am very optimistic for the future but I am happy to talk to the Senator and listen to any of her proposals for how things should be done better.

I welcome students from Naas Community College. Ich begrüsse die deutschen Studenten. Ich habe viel über die Umweltbilanz erfarhen als ich in Deutschland wohnte. Die Studenten sind herzlich wilkommen.

Special Educational Needs

The Acting Chairperson is a woman of many talents, unsurprisingly. I thank the Minister of State for stepping in for the Minister of State at the Department of Education, Deputy Madigan.

I will begin by commenting on the progress announced this week regarding special classes at primary and post-primary level, particularly in south Dublin, where fee-paying schools will now open special classes funded by the Department of Education on condition that these are not fee-paying and their lands will be made available for special schools on their campuses. That is very positive. There will be an additional four-classroom special needs base in Templeogue College as well as additional places in Cabra and in Danu Community Special School in Dublin 15. I am aware the latter is moving to its new temporary premises and there will be an increase of six places.

Progress is definitely happening, but I have to raise the issue of Dublin 15. The Minister of State is aware of the pressures there. I will talk about the pressures on special classes at post-primary level. I believe 11 children require special class placements for September 2022. The Minister of State will know where we are as regards helping our constituents with mainstream placements for September 2022. This is based on data that has been collected from the autism school Dublin 15 committee who previously mobilised parents, principals and professionals. They came together to prove to the National Council for Special Education, NCSE, that the numbers that needed a special school were there. Danu opened off the back of their mobilisation and proactivity, where the NCSE had not done this work. Those parents now find themselves in a similar position.

I will talk about one parent who has a daughter in a special class in primary school. She is doing very well. That parent is aware that five secondary schools in Dublin 15 with special classes do not have the space for her daughter. That was communicated to the NCSE some months ago. The parent has been engaging with the NCSE since January 2021 about this issue. The most recent communications from the NCSE indicated that no further schools are guaranteed for special classes at present for the September 2022-23 academic year and it is still working with schools in the area on the possibility of expanding. That is where that parent is. The Minister of State knows, as we all do, the importance of transition from primary to post-primary school for any child. These include the logistics of whether there will be new accommodation, the staff, the school, the pressures on the school and the preparation for next year. The student's neurotypical peers already have school book lists and have decided on their subjects, while teachers have been preparing their learning profiles.

Parents had to mobilise to get the NCSE to act. In fact, it was the Department that acted to get the data for them. What is happening now? They need information at this stage. Dublin 15 has already gone down the road of a section 37. That was very difficult for schools, principals and parents. Nobody wants that, but is that where we are going? If so, where are they in the process? This is a child that has had a disability recognised since she was three years old. She has been in a special class in a primary school for her primary school education. What needs to happen in order for the NCSE to plan ahead?

I am here on behalf of the Minister of State, Deputy Madigan, who cannot be present. I will answer questions on her behalf. In fact, this is a subject that is dear to both our hearts because we have the same issue in south Dublin as the Senator has in Dublin 15. I have to pay tribute to and acknowledge the analysis and work done by the parents of children with autism in establishing that there was a statistical lack and a shortage of special education places in particular areas of the country, including Dublin 15 and south Dublin.

At the outset, I stress that enabling students with additional needs to receive an education appropriate to their needs is an ongoing priority for this Government. This year, the Department of Education will invest in excess of €2 billion, or over a quarter of the Department's budget, in the area of special educational needs support. As a result, the numbers of special education teachers, special needs assistants and special class and school places are at unprecedented levels. Since 2011, the number of special classes in mainstream schools has increased from 548 to a current total of 2,148 for the 2021-22 school year.

Recognising some of the difficulties experienced by parents in securing appropriate school placements over the past two years, the Department and the NCSE have worked closely on a more streamlined and joined-up planning process. This has ensured a targeted approach to meet demand for special needs placements ahead of each new school year. The Department is satisfied that this approach is delivering. This intensive intervention has seen an additional 300 special classes, which provide 1,800 new places. They have already opened nationwide for the 2021-22 school year. The NCSE has responsibility for co-ordinating and advising on the education provision for children with special educational needs nationwide. It has well-established structures in place for engaging with schools and parents. The NCSE seeks to ensure that schools in an area can, between them, cater for all children who have been identified as needing special class placements.

The Department recognises that where parents have difficulties in securing an appropriate school placement for their child, particularly a child with additional needs, it can be a stressful experience. The Department is working hard to ensure that there are sufficient school places, appropriate to the needs of all children, available on a timely basis nationwide. In line with the demographics and as part of forward planning, it is envisaged that special classes will be required at most, if not all, post-primary schools in Dublin.

A range of measures to meet additional special educational needs, SEN, capacity demands have already been put in place, including the utilisation of spare capacity in existing schools and delivery of additional SEN capacity within the scope of existing building projects. Additionally, it is general practice to include a SEN base in the accommodation brief for new school buildings, unless exceptional local circumstances indicate that it will not be required. The extent of provision made at these schools is informed by the level of demand in the area as well as the size of the school. There is currently a network of 41 special classes in Dublin 15. There are 32 special classes at primary level and nine at post-primary level.

The Department and the NCSE are always grateful to schools who express a willingness to open a special class to meet the educational needs of students in their local communities. Special educational needs organisers are located throughout the country and they have a specific remit in helping and supporting parents in accessing the education necessary for their children, including in identifying suitable school placements. The NCSE is currently engaged in a process of establishing new classes for the 2022-23 school year and beyond. The NCSE is looking at local information in relation to projected demand for future special education places, particularly to cater for students with autism who have associated complex needs.

The NCSE has carried out a review of the requirement for special class places for the 2022-23 school year in the Dublin 15 region. This included a review of the available accommodation in the Dublin 15 area and a review of the students known to the NCSE, with recommendations for special class places.

The NCSE is currently engaged with four post primary schools in the Dublin 15 area with a view to opening additional special classes as soon as possible.

Finally, budget 2022 has provided for the creation of 287 additional special classes for the 2022-23 school year. These additional classes will provide in excess of 1,700 new places this year. This additional provision will bring the total number of special classes to 2,435 in the 2022-23 school year.

I thank the Minister of State. The most important part of that response for the parents involved is that "the NCSE is currently engaged with four post primary schools in the Dublin 15 area" with a view to opening special classes as soon as possible. I urge the NCSE to move as quickly as possible on that for the reasons I have outlined vis-à-vis the transition. These parents have been through enough already. One particular parent has been working on this issue for a couple of years now.

I acknowledge the progress that is being made, as do many parents, but when one is in this position, one must be proactive. I am trying to make sure that the NCSE is not asleep at the wheel here. That said, when the Department of Education was provided with relevant information, Danu Community Special School was opened. While we are still working on supports for Danu and its teachers, that is a positive move and I sincerely hope that I will be able to tell these parents very soon that their special class will be open to cater for these 11 children.

I thank the Senator and I share her wish that she will be able to give that information to those parents soon. Two of the most important things that are present here are the political will and the budget to do this. The Minister of State, Deputy Madigan, has used every tool in her negotiations armoury and made every effort to make progress on this. Part of the aim here is to reduce the need for transport because it imposes a burden on people to have to travel a long way to school. Children need not just a driver, but also an escort and so on, which incurs huge costs. We are trying to move towards a situation where children can attend their local school and are given the supports they need locally.

The Senator has acknowledged that huge progress is being made and the numbers are there to prove it. While the number of classes and places has increased, that is no comfort to the parents whose children are not getting the support they need. The statistics are of little comfort to the parents she is representing who are worried about whether their child will have a place next year but I assure her that we are doing everything we can.

It is good that there will be a new Oireachtas committee on autism. I will be a member of that committee and hopefully it will bring these issues to the fore. Since I came into this House, from day one, I have been approached by so many people on autism-related issues. The fact that private schools do not have any special classes is a serious issue when one considers the fact that they are getting State funding.

The local, accessible element of this is absolutely key. It is essential that these children get to go to their local school and are not spending their time trying to plan for travel. I hope this will be the last time that parents will have to go to these lengths.

In rural areas some children are on buses for an hour to get to the closest place for them. It is horrendous. I look forward to working on the Oireachtas committee on this issue. I thank the Senator for raising the issue again this morning and I thank the Minister of State for his time.

Cuireadh an Seanad ar fionraí ar 11.24 a.m. agus cuireadh tús leis arís ar 12.02 p.m.
Sitting suspended at 11.24 a.m. and resumed at 12.02 p.m.