Léim ar aghaidh chuig an bpríomhábhar

Seanad Éireann díospóireacht -
Tuesday, 5 Apr 2022

Vol. 284 No. 4

Nithe i dtosach suíonna - Commencement Matters

Agriculture Schemes

This is a very important Commencement matter and I thank the Minister for coming to the House to brief us on it. There has been a lot of discussion. From looking at some parliamentary questions last year, I note this issue or variations on some sort of scheme or incentivised scheme for retirement have been raised. I have read the Minister's various responses and I think things have evolved somewhat since. There has been recent coverage in the Irish Farmers' Journal and many provincial newspapers of the suggestion that the Minister is considering a retirement scheme for dairy farmers. What I am looking for today is some clarity on this.

As someone who has attended the Joint Committee on Agriculture, Food and the Marine, the Minister will be conscious of this matter and I thank him for his attendance before that committee. As Minister, he takes a significant and active interest in it. I also want to use this opportunity to thank him and acknowledge his engagement with farmers on the ground. I have been at a number of marts he has attended. To get into the ring and engage in a meaningful, very focused and simple way with farmers in the best public space they know - the mart - has been very impressive. There has been significant feedback about the fact the Minister actually went there. When you go into the, dare I say it, circle, you do not know what is going to hit you. The Minister was brave enough to do it and bring his message to the people directly involved in agriculture, and I acknowledge that.

The Minister will know that Macra na Feirme and, in particular, its president, John Keane, who is a very dynamic individual, have continued to highlight the importance of the challenges around retirement and the need to bring young farmers into play. In any scheme for the dairy sector, we must be conscious of a number of things. They include the challenges around the environment, and they are challenges. No final decision has been made. There are many ways of dealing with the environment and how it interacts with the farming community and its incomes. We must move people at a certain pace that best fits their set of circumstances. Macra na Feirme has continued to highlight the need to secure transitional issues around farming and a younger generation in farming, which is a challenge. I am deeply concerned about the current percentage of about 6% of farmers under the age of 35. What does this tell us? This is an enormous challenge for us. However, there are new ways of doing agriculture and new methods. There is diversification in agriculture. Alongside all of that must be incentives, ongoing learning, knowledge and engagement of different practices, here and internationally.

Teagasc has a major role in that. The level of qualification of our young farmers is very impressive. Many farmers are engaging with the green certificate and many are not deriving all their income from agriculture. They have off-farm incomes. It is part of a new model, although it is not ideal for everyone. There are different horses for different courses.

This is the complexity, the diversity and challenge around agriculture for farm families, rural development and income. At the same time people must not feel they are being pushed off the land. An older generation may be able to transfer knowledge and experience. For those people what we are talking about is not just their farm or place of work; it is their home, their community, their language and their lifestyle. We must understand all these complexities when we speak about rural communities and agriculture.

I am asking the Minister to share with us his ideas on the proposed dairy farmer retirement scheme, how it is progressing, the timelines and how he would like to see it rolled out. I thank the Minister.

Before the Minister responds I welcome to the Gallery Senator Eileen Flynn, who has a group from Cork with her. They are the Cork young women's group from the Traveller community, ably led by Ms Mags O'Sullivan. I welcome them here today and I hope they enjoy their day in Leinster House.

I echo the Cathaoirleach's welcome to our guests. I thank Senator Boyhan for raising this important topic.

Generational renewal and ensuring that there is an avenue for the next generation to not only enter our great agriculture, food and farming sector but also to flourish is a core element of my strategy as Minister for Agriculture, Food and the Marine. Despite the many challenges we face, I am convinced that there are bright and exciting opportunities both inside and outside the farm gate. I can assure the Senator and everyone here that generational renewal is at the centre of all our policies in the Department.

The challenge of generational renewal is widely recognised at national and EU level, and farmers at both ends of their careers take a keen interest in this area, unsurprisingly. There are challenges both for younger farmers becoming established and older farmers having concerns about future income, taxation, succession and the retirement process itself.

The new Common Agricultural Policy, CAP, cites generational renewal as one of its nine key objectives. It is also prominent in Food Vision 2030, the new stakeholder-led, ten-year strategy with generational renewal as a key priority. Food Vision 2030 proposes a number of actions, including maintaining the strong level of current support, the promotion of land mobility and succession planning, and increased education and promotion of the diversity of careers in the agrifood sector. This reflects the need for skilled and innovative young farmers to respond to societal demands for quality food and environmental public goods. Supporting younger and older farmers therefore remains a key policy objective.

Given this, there are a range of measures in place at present, both in the existing CAP and at national level, that support younger farmers and facilitate generational renewal. Under the current CAP, this includes the young farmers scheme, the national reserve, the targeted agricultural modernisation schemes, TAMS, II young farmer capital investment scheme and support to establish collaborative farming arrangements. Further assistance is available from national supports, including through taxation measures such as the agricultural relief from capital acquisitions tax, stamp duty exemptions, stock relief and long-term leasing relief, as well as the availability of tax credits via succession farm partnerships. Such interventions, as the Senator knows, are available to all sectors, including dairy, providing vital supports to young farmers in setting up their enterprises and older farmers wishing to retire. They are absolutely crucial.

Ireland’s draft CAP strategic plan proposals reaffirm our commitment to generational renewal. Under these proposals, Ireland will implement the complementary income support for young farmers, dedicating some 3% of the direct payments to help young farmers establish their farming businesses. This allocation of approximately €35 million per year will see qualifying young farmers benefit on a per hectare basis, which will be more advantageous to young farmers than the current system, which was linked to payment entitlements. The proposed rate will significantly increase from approximately €70 per hectare in the current programme to over €170 per hectare, with a maximum payment area of 50 ha and payment on all eligible hectares, even those without corresponding entitlements.

The national reserve will also be utilised to fund at a minimum the mandatory categories of young farmers and new entrants to farming. In addition, a higher grant rate for qualified young farmers is proposed under the capital investment measure.

The CAP strategic plan will also continue to provide support for collaborative farming and will propose innovative ways to advise older farmers on succession and their retirement options, which will, very importantly, increase the availability of land for younger farmers.

I recently established the food vision dairy group, to which referred Senator Boyhan referred, which brings together key stakeholders to advance the actions for the dairy sector identified in the strategy. The group has been engaged in constructive dialogue, with discussions on a variety of issues, including the calculation of the current emissions inventory, pathways to reductions in nitrous oxide emissions and the challenge facing the dairy sector in stabilising and then reducing emissions. While nothing is off the table, similarly there are no defined concrete proposals. I expect that an interim report from the group will be submitted to me shortly and I look forward to that.

My key focus is that the farming and agrifood sector remain strong and sustainable into the future. Our farm families and their businesses are world-class as matters stand, and I want to ensure there is a viable future for the sector for many generations to come.

I thank the Minister. The key word I used in starting this debate was "retirement". The Minister's focus was more on young farmers and I welcome that.

There are two sides to this, first, those coming into farming and encouraging them to stay and, second, those who may wish to diversify, get out of dairy or reduce their input in dairy, which is important. What is critical here, and I know the Minister also believes this, is that we collectively ensure that farming enterprises are retained and encouraged, albeit with diversification. That is the key message. We hear so much about cutting the national dairy herd and dampening down or changing. We need to talk about broad diversification. We want to keep people on the land, keep our rural communities and viable family farms, add, expand, co-operate and use all sorts of synergies. The reality of new farming for many people is that there will be off-farm income. In some cases, that is by choice and it is to be encouraged. There is nothing wrong with that. For some reason, people have a view that such farmers are lesser farmers. Who is a farmer? Farming is a resource. It is historic, tied up with family and it diverse. Let us not push people off the land. This is about encouraging people and sustaining rural communities and agriculture. I thank the Minister for attending in person and giving a comprehensive overview.

I thank Senator Boyhan for raising this matter and for his ongoing and active interest in all matters agricultural, both in the Seanad and on the Joint Committee on Agriculture, Food and the Marine, at which he is a consistent and effective contributor.

The issue of generational renewal and retirement is very important. The Senator referred to my tour of the marts when I visited at least one mart in every single county. Every farmer in the country had an opportunity to engage directly with me, whatever the question was, whether constructive, critical or suggestive, and to receive a response. One of the issues that arose as part of that engagement was generational renewal and one of the suggestions that came forward was to introduce an early retirement scheme, similar to what we had in the past. I decided ultimately not to go down that road. When we did it before it was found that it did not necessarily achieve its key objective of directing funding towards young farmers and getting young people into farming. Instead, it funded farmers who were under 65 years of age to leave early. A large number of farmers aged over 65 years who are entitled to the pension are staying on.

I want to get young people into farming. When we have a certain defined pot of money, is it better to give funding to people to retire early or is it better to target it at the young farmers we wish to encourage? The approach I have taken throughout the CAP has been to try to direct this funding towards young farmers. We have increased funding and improved all of the existing schemes. As we go forward, the key policy objective will be to bring about generational renewal and get young farmers into the industry to sustain it. Farming is a very exciting sector, more so now than it ever was. It is not just about producing food, which is central to what we do and continues to be a core mission, but also about other aspects. For example, how do we produce food sustainably and in a way that contributes to reversing the biodiversity decline that we have seen worldwide in recent years? Farmers have a central role to play in that, while continuing to do what they do so well, namely, producing food.

I thank the Minister for his comprehensive reply.

Regeneration Projects

I thank the Minister of State, Deputy Burke, for coming to the House. It seems he is permanently here. He is always welcome. It is great he takes the time and trouble to be here with us. We all appreciate it. I want to put that on the record. I call on Senator O'Loughlin.

I thank the Minister of State for being here to take this Commencement matter. I invite him to come to Rathangan, which is not so far away and only about an hour from Mullingar, to see our lovely town and have a look at what is happening in St. Patrick's Park. There is a wonderful community living in Rathangan and a great community in St. Patrick's Park, but that has not always been the case. Some 15 to 20 years ago, there was some awful antisocial behaviour in the area that was only being perpetrated by two or three families. The majority of people who lived, and continue to live, in St. Patrick's Park are decent, law-abiding people who contribute to the whole social fabric of the area. Neighbouring fields were set alight and cars were set on fire and abandoned. Indeed, it got to the stage where the area featured on RTÉ's "Dirty Old Towns". The Minister of State may remember that. There was a sense among the people living there that they were being abandoned by the local authority, the local community and the national Government to endure what these two or three families were doing.

In 2011, it was decided that there would be a regeneration project for the area. It was a very big project. The area was one of the only ones chosen for such a project in the country, alongside an area in County Limerick. Plans were put in place. The reason the regeneration was sanctioned was because it was based on a design analysis of the estate that demonstrated issues were caused by the layout of the estate, including the lack of passive surveillance and insecure back garden walls with unsupervised rear access. There was a proposal to put a new build in place to deliver an estate that would be a pleasure to live in and that was clean, safe and secure for all residents, yet here we are 11 years later. Phase 1 of the project considered the refurbishment of 37 existing houses that did not need to come down. That was completed in 2019. That was a good news story. Unfortunately, at this time, a number of houses on the estate have been left derelict. It is very difficult for people to live beside them. A number of residents left their houses and were housed elsewhere. They did not want to leave their community, but they left on the understanding St. Patrick's Park was going to be a better place and this was what was necessitated.

It is an urgent issue. I have raised the matter as a councillor, as a Deputy and as a Senator. Local councillor, Anne Connolly, has been raising the issue on a consistent basis with Kildare County Council. I know that by raising this matter today, I will be subjected to a lot of negative and bad social media abuse by one particular resident. He is going to start the same rumour and innuendo as he did previously. My message to him is that I will report it to the Garda, as I have done with every other threat that has been made against me by this individual. There will be 15 new houses added to the estate. What I am saying to the Minister of State is that while I acknowledge we are in a very difficult housing situation, I cannot understand how it is taking so long to get to the point where we can complete the St. Patrick's Park project and have a lovely, viable place for the residents living there and the new residents who will come to live there.

I thank the Senator for raising this important matter and for the opportunity to provide an update on behalf of the Department of Housing, Local Government and Heritage.

The Department provides funding to local authorities to support a broad range of housing programmes, including the delivery of new social homes through build, acquisition and leasing of new social housing, remediation of existing social housing stock and the regeneration of other areas of disadvantage.

Through the significant funding made available under Housing for All, we are supporting Kildare County Council in the major refurbishment and new build social housing scheme at St. Patrick's Park, Rathangan, through capital funding provided for under the remedial works scheme. This funding is focused on full estate remediation works, rather than individual houses.

In St. Patrick's Park, phase 1 was completed in October 2019, as the Senator referenced, under the management of the council and saw the refurbishment of 34 homes. Since then, the council, following public consultation workshops with the residents, has developed phases 2 and 3. I understand that this involves the demolition of 15 existing homes, construction of seven new homes, refurbishment of 25 and a range of site and landscaping works. This part of the works has recently received pre-planning funding approval from our Department.

A design team has been appointed and is progressing the scheme with the intention, as I understand from the council, to consult the residents further and seek Part 8 planning approval in mid-2022. This should enable Kildare County Council to complete the tendering process in 2022 if approved by the councillors, with the potential for the works to begin subsequently. I understand the council plans to carry out the works on a phased basis to minimise disruption to existing residents. If this progress can be maintained, it could see final completion of the redevelopment of St. Patrick's Park for mid-2025. A regeneration project moves through a number of phases throughout its life: the initial master-planning stage; demolition works; enabling works; refurbishment and consolidation works; and construction. The need for planning approval by councillors and for consultation with residents is important in such projects and this is led by the county council.

Projects involving the improvement of existing housing and the addition of high-quality new replacement housing constitute a valuable part of what we are supporting for the local authorities under Housing for All. Local authorities have scope to use capital funding to deliver new social homes in town centres through projects focused on vacancy and renewal. This commitment to using all opportunities, including social housing budgets, as part of tackling vacancy, is a critical part of Housing for All. Addressing vacancy and maximising the use of existing housing stock is a key concern of this Government.

While the redevelopment of St. Patrick's Park is a complex project, it is being advanced by Kildare County Council so that improved conditions are delivered for the residents. Further information can be obtained directly from the county council in terms of its implementation and management of the programme. I have absolutely assured it of our full support in this regard.

I thank the Minister of State for the update. I appreciate that a regeneration project has to move through a number of phases. However, it certainly should not take 11 years just to have completed phase 1. Many of the gaps were when Kildare County Council would come back to the Department in terms of plans, drawings, etc., and the Department would then take an inordinately huge amount of time and would come back and look for more changes.

I appreciate the Department is under much pressure, but there has to be a better way. From what the Minister of State said, it seems like in three years’ time we should be close to having the regeneration completed, which is good. However, there are families living there. There were children who were born 15 years ago who will be moving out by the time the regeneration is complete. They have spent all of their lives, basically, living beside houses that are derelict, etc. We need to have a better system. I appreciate the update and I sincerely hope that I will not have to raise this again.

I thank the Senator for her query on this very important project. I will raise it with the Minister, Deputy Darragh O'Brien, as well to ensure it gets maximum attention in the Department. As the Senator pointed out, a decade is a long timescale for any project. However, we are assured the Part 8 portion will be ready midway through this year and the timescale for the completion of the project is mid-2025. We reaffirmed those deadlines with the Department. If there is any delay on the projections given, we will revert back to the Senator.

Housing Provision

I thank the Cathaoirleach's office for choosing this Commencement matter. I welcome the Minister of State, Deputy Burke, to the House and thank him for visiting County Galway last Thursday to engage proactively with the director of housing services, Mr. Liam Hanrahan, and the housing team to discuss a number of projects in the county and to visit a number of those in Moycullen, Roundstone and Clifden.

I have always been of the view that all types of houses are needed in all communities in Galway city and County Galway, including private houses to buy, affordable, social and private-rental housing and approved housing bodies. We find a situation, however, where there has been considerable work done on delivery of social housing. As the Minister of State heard last Thursday, there has been close to a 50% reduction in the waiting list in County Galway since 2016. This has been because of initiatives such as Rebuilding Ireland, some projects of which the Minister of State saw at first hand on Thursday.

However, there are challenges with regard to affordable housing and the ability of individuals and couples to purchase homes. They are over the threshold to qualify for the social housing list and, unfortunately, cannot receive a mortgage at a level to be able to purchase a home. That is the squeezed middle, if you like. Developments are happening in many areas within Galway city and County Galway, especially on the outskirts of the city in places such as Moycullen, Barna, Claregalway and Oranmore, but there is dire need for assistance with affordable housing.

We have also seen developments that have planning permission and are ready to go in areas which have not progressed, because, one would have to presume, developers do not have the equity to commence those projects. That is where the advance purchase arrangements are very important. They give that certainty to developers that they will be paid in advance for the delivery of these homes and will have the upfront equity to be able to put in place the infrastructure and development costs for homes.

It is a very important issue, as we know, because the costs to develop any home are increasing because of a variety of situations such as construction inflation. Labour, fuel and materials costs are all increasing and putting challenges on a set budget that any developer or local authority has. The delivery of affordable housing in Galway city and County Galway is very important.

Will the Minister of State elaborate on the engagement between both local authorities and his Department on the delivery of affordable homes? We know there has to be this engagement. The Department has to be able to continue to keep the pressure on local authorities in terms of delivery of units and they also have to engage with the Department of Housing, Local Government and Heritage to ensure there is funding, assistance and guidance for the delivery of affordable housing, whether it is on land the council owns directly or that it has identified through advertising expressions of interest from interested parties for projects. Perhaps the Minister of State might elaborate on engagement with both local authorities regarding affordable housing in both Galway city and county..

I thank Senator Kyne for his Commencement matter, which is key and very important in terms of raising the priority of affordable housing within the Department and in the context of Galway city and County Galway. The Housing for All strategy sets out a very strong target of 54,000 affordable home interventions between now and 2030. As the Senator quite rightly pointed out, Galway has to take its share of this projection.

Delivery of affordable housing, in accordance with the scheme set out in the Affordable Housing Act 2021 and the funding being made available, will be underpinned by the local authorities' housing delivery action plans, including those of Galway City Council and Galway County Council, which were submitted to the Minister, Deputy O'Brien in December 2021. Preparation of the plans allowed each local authority to assess the level of demand with affordability constraint in its area, based on the housing need and demand assessment, and plan provision accordingly.

The plans are currently being revised and updated by local authorities in light of ongoing engagement and clarifications, and I expect that they will be ready for publication by local authorities before the end of the summer. They will also provide a comprehensive overview of projected delivery of affordable housing in Galway, how many units are needed and where they are needed. I had the opportunity to raise this matter with Galway County Council last week when we visited its offices in Prospect Hill with Senator Kyne. I understand there is a significant pipeline of works currently under way. I point to the urgency for affordable housing to be a key component in that context because, as the Senator said, a healthy society must be reflected by a diversity of housing, with affordable housing being a key element along with private housing.

Funding is made available to assist local authorities and approved housing bodies to deliver affordable housing for purchase and rent through the affordable housing fund, AHF, previously known as the serviced sites fund, and the cost rental equity loan. The serviced sites fund is supporting affordable housing development at Merlin Woods in Galway city which, according to Galway City Council, will deliver approximately 85 affordable homes to purchase by 2024. My departmental officials recently met with Galway County Council's director of housing and council colleagues to discuss the progress of plans for a number of affordable purchase schemes in Galway county. I understand that Galway County Council intends to make applications to my Department for AHF funding to support these schemes in the coming months. The schemes are currently at various planning stages and, all going well, it is hoped affordable homes could be available for purchase from 2023.

The first home scheme will be delivered via a strategic partnership between the State and participating mortgage lenders. I can confirm that all parties are working with a view to deploying the scheme by the end of the second quarter of this year. It will improve access to newly-built homes, below the median price point, by using a shared equity model to bridge the gap between mortgage finance and the cost of new homes. This measure, targeted at first-time or fresh-start buyers, will allow purchasers to exit the rental market, help to build developer confidence in realisable consumer demand and contribute to the recovery of our construction sector.

Furthermore, the Land Development Agency is progressing two major projects in Galway city as part of its initial tranche of State lands. These include site locations on Dyke Road and Sandy Road, Galway. Overall projected delivery from these sites is for over 1,500 homes, with the first 170 to be achieved by 2026 on Dyke Road. To date, a preliminary design has been completed for the site and engagement with Galway City Council is ongoing. With regard to the development located at Sandy Road, a design team has been commissioned to prepare a framework for the Sandy Road regeneration. Stakeholder engagement is under way and a public consultation will be undertaken.

Other measures to allow buyers to access newly-constructed housing affordably, such as the help-to-buy scheme and the local authority home loan, formerly the Rebuilding Ireland home loan, are also available to eligible purchasers nationally to make home ownership more affordable.

I thank the Minister of State for his response. Certainly, the delivery of the housing delivery action plans by the summer is very important. The Minister of State spoke about the engagement he, his officials and, I am sure, the Minister, Deputy Darragh O'Brien, have had with officials in Galway city and county councils. I know from my engagement with them that there are plans, whether it be regarding the council-owned lands in Claregalway, where there is a mixture of affordable and social, or in respect of private developments in Moycullen, Barna, Oranmore and other areas that they are looking at. It is important that these plans are progressed.

The Minister of State mentioned the Land Development Agency and its plans for Sandy Road and Dyke Road, but it will still be a long time before the first of these houses will be delivered for purchase. That is worrying because these are two strategic sites in the heart of the city but the Minister of State is talking about 2026 before the first delivery of some of those homes. We need the Land Development Agency to step up to the mark and to deliver more quickly than it is doing both in Galway city and across the country. This is supposed to be a game changer with regard to State-owned lands and we need quicker progress and delivery on this.

I understand the urgency on the ground for affordable housing and also private housing. People must have a clear pathway to get the chance to own the keys to their new home for the first time. From 2023, Galway County Council will have a number of options for affordable housing. The 85 units in Merlin Woods in Galway City Council will be important to underwrite that capacity.

We will prioritise it as much as we can.

With regard to the engagement, other funds like Croí Cónaithe will make it easier to bring derelict properties back into use. That will be tailor-made for County Galway, so that the areas the Senator referenced, such as Clifden, Moycullen, Letterfrack and Roundstone, will get an opportunity as well under that scheme, which is very important.

I understand the urgency of affordable housing and we will be prioritising this. The plans are now being looked at within the Minister, Deputy Darragh O'Brien's division within the Department in order to have them operationalised this year. Hopefully, people will be able to see a clear pathway to how to get to keys to their home for the first time.

Public Transport

I welcome the Minister of State, Deputy Naughton.

I am here today to welcome a really progressive and ambitious project that we are embarking upon, which is the youth travel scheme. For those who do not realise it, the youth travel card is providing 50% free cost of travel to those aged between the ages of 17 and 23. The reason I am standing in the Seanad today to raise this in the Commencement debate follows on from a very important meeting I had yesterday with Paddy Matthews, who is the founder and managing director of Matthews Coaches, which operates buses from Dundalk, Drogheda and Bettystown. If I have to declare an interest in one sense, I was a commuter with Matthews Coaches for seven or eight years to Leinster House, when I worked here as a member of staff. It is a wonderful service that provides so much for people in my community. It was a service that started 20 years ago, when there were no direct services between Dundalk and Dublin and Drogheda and Dublin. It provides a valuable resource for the people of my county.

The problem is that the introduction of the 50% levy is not scheduled to take place on 9 May for the commercial bus operators alongside all of the public service operators. It will be included at a later date, and that has been confirmed in the past 24 hours by the Minister, Deputy Eamon Ryan, so we know that. What I am coming to the Minister of State, Deputy Naughton, and the Government about is that we need to bring clarity as soon as possible for those in the private bus sector and to be able to say to them that the 50% will be available for them at a certain date.

I googled the figures before I came into the House. At the minute, a return ticket on a Matthews Coaches bus from Dundalk to Dublin works out at about €17 whereas a return ticket on Bus Éireann works out at about €11. If we were to take the 50% off for Bus Éireann which will come in on 9 May, 50% of €11 is €5.50, so why on earth would I get a bus for €17 return when I can take one at €5.50 on Bus Éireann? Granted, the Bus Éireann 100X bus provides a different service and takes longer to get to Dublin because it goes via other villages and via Dublin Airport, but that is a substantial price discrepancy. That will be the case even when the 50% discount is introduced for private buses, given 50% of €17 is €8.50, so Bus Éireann will still be cheaper.

The problem is that what we are introducing now is a massive discrepancy between public and private operators. We are coming out of a pandemic in the last two and a half years where bus passenger numbers have been down massively. Before this pandemic, Matthews Coaches would have carried about 7,000 people a day but it is operating at 51% to 56% of that today. For it to be able to get any sort of profit or run a manageable service, it needs to get back to about 70% of pre-pandemic levels. It accepts it will never get back to 100% because of remote working and because of the way things are, but it needs to get back to a certain sustainable level. I am not saying we are doing this as a Government - this is just a grey area that has come along. However, we are completely undercutting people who are involved in the private bus sector around the country as a result.

Competition is key. We need to provide competition in an open market to provide the best outcome for consumers, but this is not open competition. It is providing a substantial financial advantage to public sector bus operators compared to the private sector. What I am looking for from the Minister of State today is clarity that the Government will introduce the 50% discount and provide a timeline for when it will come in. That clarity and certainty will be very important for those who are involved as private operators in the bus sector.

I thank Senator McGahon for his question. I welcome the opportunity to discuss this important topic. I am answering on behalf of the Minister, Deputy Eamon Ryan, so I will be relaying the Senator's comments to him.

I understand that the Senator's question is on the inclusion of the commercial bus sector in the young adult card initiative. It has always been the intention of the Minister to include commercial bus operators in this exciting fares initiative. I want to be very clear that licensed bus and coach operators are an integral part of the overall public transport system, particularly in areas around the country that are not covered by existing public service bus and rail services.

In recognition of the important role that these operators play, the Government has continued to provide temporary financial supports throughout the Covid-19 pandemic for certain licensed commercial services with a view to protecting capacity across the public transport sector throughout the crisis.

In acknowledgement of the continuing difficulties facing the sector, I am pleased to inform the Senator that the Minister recently approved an extension of the supports up to 30 June 2022. To date, during this challenging time, over €60 million has been provided to support the commercial bus operators.

On the Senator's specific question regarding the young adult card — which recognises the importance of incentivising more young people to use public transport — the Minister was delighted to secure €25 million in funding for the scheme's introduction as part of budget 2022. The exciting initiative will entitle anyone between the ages of 19 and 23 to discounted travel costs and to increase the level of discount over and above the current student discount level to an average of 50% across all services, including city, intercity and rural services.

Mature students in full-time education will also be included in the scheme, as will eligible visitors to Ireland within the young adult age cohort. The discount will initially be made available on all subsidised public service obligation, PSO, bus, rail and Luas services. I expect to launch the young adult card on PSO services next month. It will be broadened to include commercial operators at a later date, with an expectation to launch before the end of the year. It is clear that the young adult card will be of great benefit to the cohort of users in question. Not only will it promote a modal shift in the transport sector but it should also contribute towards reduced reliance on private transport, with the associated benefit of transport-emissions savings.

The National Transport Authority has commenced work on the implementation of the new fares structure for young adults and its deployment. It is technically more challenging to roll out the young adult card on the commercial bus network than on the Leap-enabled PSO network. As such, it will take longer to make the fare discount available to commercial bus operators.

The NTA is in detailed discussions with transport operators and my Department regarding the range of issues that need to be addressed. To assist with this process, the NTA has established a working group to consider options and develop a plan to implement the young adult card on commercial buses in as timely a manner as possible, taking account of current ticketing capabilities to ensure a viable scheme is implemented.

The working group includes three representatives from the Coach Tourism and Transport Council of Ireland, two further representatives from the commercial sector and a representative from the Department of Transport. The industry experience of the working group will likely expedite the process of deploying the young adult card to the wider commercial bus sector. I will relay the Senator's comments to the Minister, Deputy Eamon Ryan.

I thank the Minister of State for the clarity. The commercial bus operator sector is central in providing an effective and inclusive public transport system. We need to have private operators along with public sector operators. Commuters from my town who get the Matthews bus to Dublin will be discriminated against between 9 May and whenever the Government decides to introduce the 50% reduction for people who avail of private transport.

This is the crux of the issue that I want to get to. I accept that the Government is going to do this and am very appreciative of that. I am looking for clarity from the Government. I appreciate the Minister of State going back to the Minister, Deputy Eamon Ryan, about it. I am looking for clarity as soon as possible so that certainty can be given to private bus operators that the 50% will be included with them by whatever date. The longer it goes on, more passengers are going to stop taking private buses and go with the cheaper option of public bus companies. It is about making sure there is a fair playing field for commuters and those in public and private bus operating sectors also.

I hear the sense of urgency around getting this over the line. I reassure the Senator that both the NTA and the Department of Transport have been engaging directly with commercial bus operators to help inform policy decisions in respect of the transport sector. On the working group I mentioned earlier, the Department of Transport has been liaising with the Coach Tourism and Transport Council of Ireland, CTTC, since May 2020. To date, 22 meetings have taken place and a further meeting is scheduled to take place later this month. More recently, on 25 March, the Minister, Deputy Eamon Ryan, met with the CTTC to discuss its concerns regarding the sector. As outlined earlier, it is his intention to include commercial operators as part of the youth adult card initiative. The NTA is working closely with operators in order to achieve this as quickly as possible. I will certainly relay the concerns the Senator has highlighted to the Minister, Deputy Eamon Ryan.

Cuireadh an Seanad ar fionraí ar 3.22 p.m. agus cuireadh tús leis arís ar 3.35 p.m.
Sitting suspended at 3.22 p.m. and resumed at 3.35 p.m.