Oireachtas Joint and Select Committees
Tuesday, 30 March 2021
Select Committee on Transport, Tourism and Sport
Estimates for Public Services 2021
Vote 29 - Environment, Climate and Communications (Revised)
Vote 31 - Transport (Revised)
No apologies have been received. This meeting is for the consideration of Revised Estimates for public services 2021 in respect of Vote 31 - Department of Transport and programme A of Vote 29 - Department of Environment, Climate and Communications. The Minister of State, Deputy Naughton, has conveyed her apologies as she is running late due to a Cabinet meeting starting later than expected. Accordingly, I propose we suspend the meeting until the Minister is available. She has indicated this will be sometime after 4.30 p.m. With the members' indulgence, I propose we suspend the meeting until 4.45 p.m. Are members agreeable to that?
I welcome Minister of State at the Department of Transport, Deputy Hildegarde Naughton, and her Department officials to the meeting. We are waiting with bated breath on the announcements of Cabinet today. She can give us a heads up and run it by us to see if we are happy with them or not.
The Dáil ordered the following Revised Estimates be referred to the committee for its consideration: Vote 31 - Department of Transport; and programme A of Vote - 29 Department of Environment, Climate and Communications. I remind members that the committee has no role in actually approving the Estimates. It is an ongoing opportunity for the committee to examine departmental expenditure, to make the process more transparent and to engage in a meaningful way on relevant performance issues.
As I said earlier, I welcome Minister of State, Deputy Hildegarde Naughton, and her Department officials to the meeting this afternoon. Witnesses are reminded of the long-standing parliamentary practice that they should not criticise or make charges against any person or entity by name or in such a way as to make him, her or it identifiable or otherwise engage in speech that might be regarded as damaging to the good name of the person or entity. Therefore, if the statements of a witness are potentially defamatory in respect of an identifiable person or entity, the witness will be directed to discontinue his or her remarks. It is imperative that witnesses comply with any such direction.
Witnesses attending remotely from outside the Leinster House campus should note there is some limitation on parliamentary privilege and, as such, they may not benefit from the same level of immunity from legal proceedings as witnesses physically present. Witnesses participating in this meeting from a jurisdiction outside the State are advised that they should also be mindful of their domestic law and how it may apply to the evidence they give.
Members are reminded of the long-standing parliamentary practice to the effect that they should not comment on, criticise or make charges against a person outside the House or an official either by name or in such a way as to make him or her identifiable. I remind them of the constitutional requirements that they must be physically present within the confines of the places in which Parliament has chosen to sit, namely, Leinster House and the Convention Centre Dublin, in order to participate in public meetings. I will not permit a member to participate where he or she is not adhering to this constitutional requirement. Therefore, any member who attempts to participate from outside the precincts will be asked to leave the meeting. In this regard, I ask any members participating via Teams, prior to making their contribution to the meeting, to confirm that they are on the grounds of the Leinster House campus. I call on the Minister of State, Deputy Naughton, to make her opening statement. We are conscious of time and I note she had made reference to an abridged version of her statement. I thank the Minister of State for that. Within the confines, we have to be out of here by 6 p.m.
The Taoiseach will announce decisions of Cabinet at about 6 o'clock today. I will proceed with my opening statement. I thank committee members for the opportunity to present the 2021 Estimate for the Department of Transport and for programme A of the Department of the Environment, Climate and Communications. The set of transport Estimates before members provides an overall gross allocation to the Department of Transport of €3.556 billion, which constitutes €1.029 billion in current and €2.527 billion in capital. In addition, €151.48 million in capital carryover from 2020 will be invested in 2021. We are using the funding to provide ongoing services, protect services which are impacted by the Covid-19 emergency and to continue to invest in maintaining existing infrastructure, as well as continuing to develop new infrastructure with a focus on climate change. This funding for 2020 represents a €500 million or 16.4% increase on our investment levels for 2020.
In line with the Exchequer guidance in advance of the 2021 budget, the Department has stayed largely within its existing level of expenditure for current expenditure which excludes emergency supports.
In total, €443.1 million in additional emergency funding has been provided in 2021. This constitutes €426.6 million in current and €16.5 million in capital. My budgetary focus for 2021 is threefold. First, I want to ensure that where non-Covid current expenditure is concerned, the Department remains within budget. Second, I want to monitor Covid expenditure closely in order to identify pressures as early as possible. Finally, I want to ensure that the capital budget is fully invested and that existing capital programmes are progressed as quickly as possible under the circumstances to deliver the infrastructure planned under Project Ireland 2040 and the programme for Government ambitions.
I will turn now to aviation. The core non-Covid investment in the regional airports during 2020 will be approximately €31.5 million. This includes ongoing public service obligation, PSO, support to the regional airports via the regional airports programme. The sum of €10.15 million is allocated to cover costs associated with our membership of international organisations such as Eurocontrol, and recurring costs such as air accident investigation insurance. The Covid crisis has severely impacted the aviation sector. To mitigate the impact in aviation, an additional €41.6 million has been provided. The purpose of this funding is to provide additional supports to the regional airports and to Cork and Shannon airports. The sum of €16.5 million in capital supports has also been provided for investment in Cork and Shannon airports. In 2020 the Government sanctioned €15 million to meet the costs of repatriating or refunding customers affected by the collapse of tour operator businesses. A total of €1.9 million of this contingency was required in 2020. The sum of €15 million has again been provided in 2021 and the situation concerning travel and tour operators will continue to be monitored.
The land transport programme, programme B, which is the largest programme by far in my Department's Vote, representing approximately 94% of our overall budget, will increase this year by €459 million to €3.339 billion. Most of that increase is a step up in investment in roads and mass transit services. The main components of the programme are in the longer submission I have supplied to Members.
The most significant current expenditure allocation is €674 million to public transport PSO funding. We will continue to support strongly the delivery of socially necessary but financially unviable services throughout the country. This constitutes €304 million in existing level of service funding for 2020 and €370 million in emergency funding. The €340 million was provided in the budget to provide additional support to PSO services. The outlook was uncertain at budget time and continues to be uncertain, with ongoing level 5 restrictions since Christmas meaning that public transport has been running at 25% of total capacity since then. The crisis also continues to have an impact on commercial bus services. A sum of €30 million has been provided to continue to support temporary PSO contracts entered into in late 2020.
Sustainable mobility investment continues apace. There is a significant ramping up of investment in active travel measures in order to meet the €360 million average investment agreed in the programme for Government. In 2021 funding is being provided to support 468 different cycling and walking projects.
In relation to the existing rail networks, €623 million will be invested in heavy rail, light rail and bus maintenance and development. Of this, €203 million will be invested in the infrastructure manager multi-annual contract, IMMAC, rail maintenance and renewal programme. Investment in 2021 will progress rail fleet renewal and expansion, in particular the transition away from a reliance on fossil fuels towards low-emission vehicles, LEVs.
Improvements in bus services also continue, with more than €130 million in funding provided for the transition away from diesel to hybrid and LEV fleets. The BusConnects programme in Dublin continues to progress and plans are being developed to progress BusConnects in regional cities.
We continue to target new and innovative ideas to help to decarbonise the transport sector. We have provided €36.5 million for the electric vehicle, EV, grant scheme as the EV market continues to grow steadily.
Approximately €1.413 billion is available for the roads improvement and maintenance programme. With this, we will continue to provide grant support for the national, regional and local road networks.
Road safety is of paramount importance and our support for the operations of the Road Safety Authority, RSA, and the Medical Bureau of Road Safety will continue. There are ongoing significant backlogs in driver theory testing and driver testing at the Road Safety Authority due to the public health measures in place. We are continuing to monitor the situation in conjunction with the RSA. The RSA is primarily self-financed and is continuing to meet its statutory obligations without Exchequer assistance.
Funding for the maritime programme in 2020 is at €108.15 million or 3% of the Vote. Most of that funding is directed to the Irish Coast Guard and the main cost here relates to the search and rescue helicopter contract. The programme also funds the Commissioners for Irish Lights, which operates buoys and lighthouses to keep seafarers and their cargoes safe while in Irish waters. We also cover various administrative costs associated with the Irish maritime administration. We will continue the Coast Guard building programme to ensure the volunteers have adequate facilities for their operations and equipment and we are investing in IT infrastructure to enable the teams to further enhance how they work together. The sum of €1 million has also been provided to Wexford County Council to assist in the cost of environmental remediation works in Rosslare Port as part of the transfer of the port to management by the local authority.
Programme A concerns the Department of the Environment, Climate and Communications. Overall, almost €248.5 million is being allocated to the communications programme in 2021. This consists of €14.98 million current and €233.5 million capital, including €15.247 million capital carried over from 2020. The biggest item of investment within this programme is the national broadband plan at €225 million including capital carry-over of €15.2 million. High-speed broadband has the capability of completely transforming how people live and work. I do not need to expand on that, as Members will be aware of it. The national broadband plan contract is the largest infrastructural project in rural Ireland since rural electrification.
The Estimate for Eircode postcodes is €1.5 million. Eircode postcode usage continues to grow and is used widely among the public, businesses and public sector. In March 2020, the daily lookup limit on the free Eircode postcode finder website was increased from 15 to 50 in response to the Covid-19 crisis for members of the public and businesses locating addresses. As a result, the ten-month total for March to December 2020 was 24.3 million lookups, a 46% increase on the same period in the previous year. The Estimate also includes €5.1 million operational funding for the National Cyber Security Centre and €3.5 million for the National Digital Research Centre. I will stop there. I am happy to take any questions.
I thank the Minister of State, Deputy Naughton, for the update. I wish to raise supports for taxi drivers with her. I will refer to a number of the measures taken. There was €150 for the suitability test. There was a one-year extension, not a rollover. If taxi drivers were at nine years last year, they got an extra year, but they are faced with a significant cost this year. Why was that not rolled over as opposed to reintroduced? Taxi drivers cannot avail of many of the Government supports that exist. They cannot get loans. The restart grant plus the €1,000 is gone since the end of October. These are front-line workers, who work very closely with people who do emergency work for the State in many cases and they transport people and products to and from hospitals. As I see it, the big intervention from the Department was a scheme directly related to EVs that has had a very poor uptake. The sum of €36.5 million was provided in the form of supports for EVs. When I compare that to other Departments where similar workers were badly affected, for example, in the live performance sector, €50 million was injected into the sector. The money went right to the front line. Some €45 million is in current spending and €5 million is in capital spending. Why was this approach taken? Will the Minister of State review the approach to ensure that the Department's effort is directed where the money is needed, as opposed to a scheme that while it is necessary might not be needed in this shape and form at this time?
Taxi drivers have said they are struggling to make ends meet. I am not saying this for dramatic effect; taxi drivers and their representatives are in regular contact with me. They are really struggling and the response from the Department does not come anywhere close to providing anything real and meaningful for them. I ask the Minister of State to address that. Will she take stock of and reflect on the take-up of these schemes? Will she review how the lump sums are being injected into the sector?
I thank the Deputy. I will refer that matter to the Minister.
On the Deputy's points on the uptake of electric vehicles, I agree that we need to make it more attractive for taxi drivers who are providing public transport services across the country and private car users. If we want to reduce emissions, electric vehicles will be a significant contributor to reaching our targets out to 2030. It is critical that we invest in them and encourage and put in place policies to support private car users and taxi drivers to be able to use electric vehicles, and put in place the supports around that.
I will pass on the Deputy's concerns about taxi drivers to the Minister. I will revert to him with a more detailed response.
I thank the Minister of State. We appreciate that funding is an issue, but my concern is how the limited budget available is directed. At this point in time I emphasise in the strongest terms that funding should be directed towards survival and recovery in the first instance.
A related issue is aviation sector workers, and cabin crew in particular. The Irish Aviation Students' Association, IASA, guidance issued in the past number of days reflected the WHO vaccine prioritisation list for transport workers and stated that they should be prioritised, recognising the work they do. When will cabin crew be vaccinated? I am conscious that we are all probably getting push notifications from media outlets telling us that the Irish vaccination priority list is to be reviewed and moved to an age-based roll-out after those aged over 70, vulnerable groups and those with underlying health conditions have been vaccinated.
Very many transport workers, including cabin crew, will not fit into those categories and will feel today that they are further away that ever from a vaccine. Can the Minister of State give any indication as to when cabin crew, in particular, and transport workers more generally will be vaccinated?
I thank the Deputy. We are all very conscious in the Department and in any agencies under our remit that everyone should be vaccinated as quickly as possible. It is important that we are led by public health advice and politicians do not make decisions about who get vaccinated but are instead guided by NPHET and the national immunisation advisory committee, NIAC.
We are all concerned about the speed of the roll-out of the vaccination process. We need to ensure that flows. We know that from April, May and June almost 1 million vaccines per month will come into the country. It is about accelerating that process. I will be guided by public health advice, as all of my ministerial colleagues at Cabinet have to be.
I would love to be able to give the Deputy a date, but from a Government point of view we want the most efficient vaccine roll-out over the next few weeks and months, targeting the most vulnerable and those aged over 70. I am getting into an area that is not my remit, but we all know we need to target the most vulnerable first, which includes those aged over 70 and those at high risk. The Taoiseach will speak about this later.
I have a follow-on question about another group of important transport workers, namely, private bus operators. Many of them are struggling to make ends meet and are dependent on the school bus transport scheme. Many operate outside of the State Bus Éireann scheme and are essentially unsupported, outside of the general schemes that are available in fairness to the Government. They are unsupported by the likes of the Bus Éireann subsidy and are struggling to make ends meet. They are in a precarious position because schools have been closed for so many weeks.
They have specifically asked that the scheme whereby they can remain in receipt of PUP and work and earn at the same time be extended to allow them to get their buses back on the road until such time as schools are fully reopened so that they can tax their buses and ensure they are in a roadworthy condition. Buses have been laid up and no income has been coming in. As soon as the schools return there will be demand for their services.
I am referring specifically to non-State, non-Bus Éireann services. I estimate that such services carry approximately 60,000 children to school on a daily basis. Is this something that the Minister of State is aware of? Will she consider addressing this situation?
I thank the Deputy. I am very aware that there are a lot of pressures in a lot of different sectors within the public sector. School transport comes under the Department of Education; it does not come under this Department.
I want to make a very clear point. I raised this with the senior Minister, in fairness, and he made the same point. Bus operators the length and breadth of the country asked me how he does not understand the difference in what we are saying.
The Department of Education, with Bus Éireann, operates the State school bus transport system. I am talking about school bus operators who operate outside of that system and carry in the region of 60,000 children a day to school. They are falling between the cracks. I know I am out of time, but I ask the Minister of State to take that information on board, bring it back to the Department and give it some real consideration.
I thank the Minister of State for being with us here today virtually. We appreciate her attendance.
Yesterday I was one of a number of Deputies and Senators in the mid-west who met the chambers of commerce from Shannon, Ennis and Limerick and the Irish Hotels Federation. They held a very informative meeting, including a lengthy PowerPoint presentation, on how they envisage a safe return to international flying. I want to put some points to Minister of State based on that meeting.
There is a commonality of purpose within the sectors and those of us who represent this part of the country politically. There is a real need for a multi-annual capital expenditure programme for regional airports. What happened last autumn was very welcome, in terms of support for Shannon, Cork and other airports, but it could take five or six years for there to be a recovery in aviation to 2019 levels. Has the Department examined further funding for 2021 and a continuation of that in terms of a multi-annual programme for the years that follow?
I thank the Deputy. We are constantly engaging with the aviation industry, which has a direct effect on the issue he mentioned, namely, the Irish Hotels Federation, international travel and the reliance on tourism in the mid-west region and across the country. He outlined the supports that have been, and will continue to be, provided by Government.
I reiterate that the Government has put in place supports worth more than €200 million for the aviation sector. There was a revised support package last year totalling €80 million to specifically target the sector and ensure our airports would be in a position to recover and rebound when the time is right.
That commitment remains and we are constantly watching and assessing the whole industry.
As the Deputy is aware, we have received state aid approval for €26 million and many of the airports have already put in their submissions to the Department regarding capital projects in which they wish to invest. That work is ongoing. It is important that I mention that I am meeting with industry. I am having a second meeting tomorrow of the Labour Employer Economic Forum, on which ICTU is represented. The Minister and I held a meeting of the National Civil Aviation Development Forum, which contains the CEOs of the main airlines and the airports. A subgroup of that forum is looking at a roadmap for what we need to do now and what we need to do over the next few weeks and months because we are coming out of this and there is hope and light at the end of the tunnel as vaccines are rolled out and we need a plan and roadmap in place. This is why I and my officials am engaging on a weekly basis with the aviation industry with regard to what this recovery will look like. It is very important that we are planning and engaging with ICTU and the airlines with regard to what this recovery will look like.
That is positive. It must be backed with funding and I am sure this will be forthcoming from Government. Another key issue is route development and retention. I know that across Europe, there was an easing of the rules that typically applied to the holding of landing slots at hub airports but from midsummer onwards, we need funds to attract new routes and retain existing ones. It is essential. We will need to see PSO routes out of airports like Shannon. It will be all the more essential now with Brexit. Shannon and the west of Ireland, and the Minister of State is from the west, are all the more peripheral geographically since the UK crashed out of the EU. We have the onslaught of Covid. It is a perfect storm and unless we have key connectivity into hubs guaranteed once international air travel gets under way again, we are kidding ourselves. I hope the Department will do everything it can in terms of route retention.
What has been well debated at our committee over the past 12 months is a real feeling that there is a need for a new policy for Irish aviation to rebalance what has become a very dominant position for Dublin Airport at the expense of others. Is the Department working on new proposals and has it looked at the joint chambers of commerce proposal in terms of divvying out that share of aviation more equally to the regions?
In respect of connectivity, the €26 million fund to which I referred earlier is compensation for businesses that have suffered damages due to Covid-19. This will enable airports to be able to work directly with airlines to attract them, to put route incentives in place, to charge rebates and work with the airlines on their needs because, obviously, they must respond to the market and market demand. What I wanted to do, as Minister of State with responsibility for this area, was to enable our airports because they are commercial entities and know their business very well. Covid-19 was not their fault. Many of them, Shannon included, were working very well in advance of this pandemic hitting. That is part of this process regarding that roadmap and enabling them.
Like many airports, Shannon Airport is going through a very difficult time. We have put in place €32.1 million for Shannon and Cork Airports. The European Commission has approved the €26 million. It is important to mention, and I know the Deputy has met with that group, that there is really strong stakeholder engagement with chambers of commerce in that region. There is a huge tourism stakeholder group there. I know marketing funds are available as well. It is stakeholder groups like the ones mentioned by the Deputy that can help to draw on marketing funds to attract airlines to the mid-west region. That is part of it as well. There will be a number of approaches relating to the recovery and that balance. We can certainly approach airlines to ask them to fly to Shannon and Cork Airports but, ultimately, it is a commercial decision for them. There are other avenues with regard to tourism marketing funds, which is what we do very well.
Time is of the essence. Everything the Minister of State said is very positive but it needs to happen at pace. A lead-in period is always needed for aviation to recover and airlines to schedule flights for their coming season.
I have one final question on post offices. I know a review is under way. It concerns me that the review may not perfectly align with the June deadline for those postmasters who might face closure. The answer to my next question is "Yes" or "No" and I hope the Minister of State answers "Yes". Approximately 14 or 15 post offices closed during the Covid period. They include Broadford in my constituency of Clare. We do not live in magic wand territory where the Minister of State can go around reopening every post office that closed over the past number of decades but I ask that in their engagement with An Post, the Minister of State and her Department would commit to retendering those that closed during the Covid period because many of them closed in stealth. Could she give that commitment?
The importance of the post office network is critical to the Government. It is in the programme for Government that we need to ensure we have a sustainable and viable post office network. Postmasters have a contract with An Post and this is a matter between postmasters and An Post. They are commercial decisions with An Post. That said, I have received Government approval to set up a high-level governmental group led by my Department but also involving the Department of Public Expenditure and Reform to work with other Departments with regard to identifying offline services. This work was done previously but this group must come back by the end of July. I hear what the Deputy said in respect of the June deadline and the concerns relating to the post office network across the country and I assure him that everything is being considered and that we want to work with An Post and my colleagues in Government to ensure the post office network has a long-term future in terms of providing more services and to look at what we can do in the interim.
That is a matter for An Post. These are decisions that An Post must make. An Post gave a commitment that there will be a post office in every community of more than 500 people and within 15 km of 95% of the rural population and 3 km of the urban population. For example, all island post offices are being retained. Where a post office in a Gaeltacht area closes, An Post will ensure that services through Irish are available at a neighbouring post office. An Post has put in place commitments around the sustainability of and access to the post office network throughout the country.
As the Minister of State knows, aviation is of critical importance to the mid-west and the western regions. I also attended the meeting yesterday with the chambers of commerce from Shannon, Limerick, Ennis and Galway along with the Irish Hotels Federation. They are looking for engagement with the Minister and Minister of State. I ask the Minister of State to give a commitment that she will sit down with this grouping to discuss the importance of the airport to the regions. They are articulating a view that is based on fact. We need supports for the airports not just now but in the future.
We will potentially need supports up to 2024 and possibly 2029. I welcome the fact that the Minister of State and the Minister, Deputy Eamon Ryan, have included Shannon in the capital expenditure programme. Operational moneys have been made available. Some €32.1 million has been made available to both Cork Airport and Shannon Airport. It is of great importance that Shannon be retained within that programme in future and that multi-annual expenditure be injected into Shannon. The airport is in competition with the airports in Kerry, Knock and Donegal. While these airports have always received that type of support, Shannon has not. We need a level playing field. I strongly agree with the stakeholder group that this needs to happen.
With regard to the €26 million connectivity fund agreed with Europe, how does the Minister of State intend for this money to be spent? Has a decision been made in that regard? Is it up to different airports to bid for it? Will Shannon Airport get a particular proportion of that €26 million fund?
I will deal with the Deputy's last question first. Some €6 million of the €26 million fund is allocated to the regional airports in Knock, Kerry and Donegal. The remaining €20 million is allocated to the other airports. It is up to the individual airports to assess their needs as regards required funding and to make applications to the Department. I understand that work is under way and that engagement has commenced. It is absolutely critical that we ensure our airports are protected, and I include Shannon Airport and the mid-west region in that. The Deputy can be assured of my commitment to ensuring that protection. That is why we have put in place significant funding for all of our airports, so that they can negotiate directly with airlines and ensure that their operational and capital costs are covered. They know best what their needs are. That is the way it should be. They are commercial entities and were thriving before the Covid-19 pandemic. It is important that we enable them to thrive again.
We are constantly reviewing the situation and we are in constant contact with the aviation sector. My officials in the Department are in contact with the sector every week. I met representatives of the chambers of commerce in the region and I share their concerns about tourism. We are very reliant on international travel and what happens internationally affects us greatly, in addition to what happens here domestically. That is why we are looking at what our European partners are doing with regard to the roll-out of the vaccine and the potential for digital certificates. We are also looking at what the UK is doing, which includes the roadmap to be published on 21 April.
I assure the Deputy that my door is always open. I am constantly working and engaging with the industry, including through my work with that national civil aviation forum and the labour-employer economic forum, LEEF. It is through that engagement and by working through a roadmap to recovery for the aviation sector that we will be able to come out of this safely. That is the key message. We are on the way out of the pandemic. I am optimistic about that in light of the roll-out of the vaccine programme over the coming months. There will be almost 1 million vaccinations a month in April, May and June. I hope we will be in that place and we have to plan for that now, which is what we are doing. Everything is under review. We want to support our aviation sector while we get through this.
That is welcome. I acknowledge that the Minister of State has said she is working on a recovery plan for aviation. That plan must involve the stakeholders I am asking her to meet and whom I expect she will meet, along with Shannon Airport. There were 40 flights a week from Shannon to London. When does the Minister of State expect that number of flights to return?
I would love to have a crystal ball in front of me so that I could answer the Deputy's question but unfortunately I do not. I would love for them to return tomorrow. As he will be aware, we are in putting in place mandatory hotel quarantine. The Taoiseach will announce the Cabinet decision as to the new level of restrictions within the country at 6 p.m.
With regard to engagement with the sector, the national civil aviation development forum includes the CEOs of the main airlines. I have met them. The CEO of Shannon Group is also a member and our airports are represented. This roadmap will be developed by those who work within the industry itself and who know how it works. They will be able to shape the exit plan. Of course, wider stakeholder engagement is absolutely critical. The Deputy should be assured of my engagement with that sector and of that of my Department. As regards the excellent work of this committee in respect of the task force, many of the recommendations the committee has made have been implemented by Government. We are coming into a new phase now and a number of measures are being implemented immediately, in the medium term and during the longer-term recovery to ensure that we can move passengers safely through our airports. An example of this is the digital green pass being considered at European level. Each member state will now have to consider that. The Government will have to do that and is doing so at the level of a senior officials group. That engagement with industry will be key. We cannot make decision on our own. We have to engage with stakeholders and with the aviation industry, which we are doing.
On the appointment of a chair of the board of Shannon Group, the Minister engaged with this committee a few weeks ago and said that he wanted to engage with Oireachtas Members in the region. I am also chairperson of the Shannon Airport Oireachtas group, which the Minister has agreed to meet. Will the Minister of State raise that matter with him and ask him to set up that appointment with the group and to have that engagement? He has agreed to do it. Will the Minister of State give a commitment today to ensure that happens? It is very important. It is a key appointment. We need to engage with the Minister on it.
The appointment of a chair to the board of Shannon Group is absolutely critical. It is a pivotal moment for the group and its direction post Covid-19. As the Deputy will know, the appointment of the chair is within the remit of the Minister. I know he is working on it at the moment so I am sure he will be happy to update the Deputy on his plans in that regard.
With regard to An Post, does the Minister of State support the public service obligation, PSO, approach? At this very late stage in the process, when a date is looming, it seems that would be the most practical way to safeguard the network of post offices up and down the country and to prevent a large number of them from closing. Does she support that initiative? Will she provide the necessary €17 million in annual funding to An Post to ensure the post office network is safeguarded?
The Government position is that it does not support PSOs. I have, however, done extensive work in setting up a high-level group to look at offline potential for An Post. There is a great deal of untapped potential for the post office network to take advantage of. That is one project on which the Government is working. We need to ensure An Post has a viable and sustainable future. That work is evolving. In the meantime, we are also considering what further measures we can put in place to support the network. There is a lot of work under way in that regard. Everything is being considered but no decisions have been made.
I cannot give a timeline in that regard as yet. All I can say is that a significant volume of work is being done on this issue. The importance of the post office network is a high priority for the Government and for me, as Minister of State with responsibility for this area. I want to have a sustainable and viable post office network that can have a long-term future. It has significant potential. An Post has done significant work in respect of providing e-services and financial services but there is far more potential and post offices can provide many more public services. We need to earmark that and work towards it, including by getting every Department that has a potential offline service to offer to examine how doing so through the post office network would work operationally.
I thank the Minister of State for coming before the committee. I welcome the commentary that everything that needs to be done in the context of post offices will be done. Obviously, it makes sense for as many offline services as possible to be operated through the post office network If that adds to their viability, it is sound business. I add my voice to the previous commentary that time is of the essence in the context of the transformation that will go out of commission at the end of June. There is serious worry in that regard, particularly in light of what the Irish Postmasters Union told the committee about 200 possible closures. Obviously, that would leave us with a network that is not fit for purpose and we cannot allow that to happen.
The national broadband plan, NBP, is the most significant work for the Department, particularly in the area of communications. Both the Tánaiste and the Minister for Transport have engaged in conversations with National Broadband Ireland, NBI, regarding a possible acceleration of the plan. There is an acceptance that there was a slight slowdown due to Covid-19 and at the end of the year which delayed progress slightly. I spoke to NBI officials, who brought up possible difficulties relating to planning permission in the context of dealing with Transport Infrastructure Ireland, TII, and the local authorities. I spoke to the Minister and his officials on this issue. Does the Minister of State have any update regarding possibilities for acceleration of the roll-out of the NBP? Beyond that, is she aware whether any of the difficulties in respect of planning permission and giving NBI the capacity to do business as quickly as possible have been dealt with? Is she aware of conversations the Minister or others have had with other vendors, that is, private operators, regarding possible short-term and interim solutions for people who may have to wait four, five or more years for the roll-out of the plan?
I thank the Deputy. I think all present are in agreement on the importance of the NBP. I have a vivid recollection of chairing a meeting of the Joint Committee on Communications, Climate Action and Environment not too long ago, at which I and others were trying to convince certain people of the importance of the plan. It is great that members of all parties and none are advocating for the plan and its acceleration. There has been significant engagement on it. It is at the forefront of all our minds now, with Covid-19 and many people working from home. There has been significant engagement with the Department, local authorities and the CEOs in respect of issues being resolved there and the urgency around that. It is important. If the Deputy is aware of particular issues, I ask him to please also raise them with the Minister. The Department is aware of the issues and we are working with the local authorities to try to unlock any of those challenges and do whatever we can to accelerate the roll-out. The Government and the Minister will be writing to NBI with regard to that acceleration process and will continuously applying pressure to ensure we get that delivery.
NBI expects that 60,000 premises will be passed in 2021, across 17 deployment areas, including premises in counties Cork, Galway, Cavan, Limerick, Kerry, Wexford, Wicklow, Monaghan, Roscommon, Carlow, Tipperary, Louth, Mayo and Sligo. All present are acutely aware of the need to accelerate this process but Covid has had an impact on it. Of course, that does not negate the fact that we need to ensure we do everything we can to unlock any challenges or blockages within local authorities and put in place whatever assistance is necessary.
I am very glad to hear that what needs to be done is being done with regard to facilitating the acceleration of the delivery. When the Minister gets further information regarding an updated distribution timeline, I ask for that information to be made available to the committee because it is vital. Does the Minster of State have any information regarding whether the Minister or the Tánaiste, in their conversations with private operators, have considered or discussed interim solutions that could get people who are in the intervention area through the gap, for want of a better term, in the sense that they may otherwise have to wait several years for the roll-out of the NBP?
I will revert to the Deputy on that issue, if that is okay. I am sure all present are acutely aware of the importance of the acceleration process. We all wish to hear any updates in that regard. I have just received confirmation that discussions are ongoing with NBI regarding other operators trying to fill in the gap.
That is very important. It is the holistic solution. Some people will need a short-term solution which, obviously, we should endeavour to provide.
In fairness to Deputy O'Rourke, he referred to some of the supports that are necessary, whether that is for taxi drivers, driving instructors or others. Sinn Féin dealt with the issue of driving instructors not too long ago. Some of these support-type projects do not necessarily relate to the Department but it is a conversation that needs to be followed up. Sinn Féin sent in a submission regarding driving instructors. Many of them are falling between the gaps in the context of supports, as are taxi drivers and certain others. That conversation needs to be had with the Tánaiste and his Department. Obviously, the Department of Transport should add its weight on the matter.
I welcome the fact that the Minister of State and the Department are consistently and constantly reviewing supports for airlines. Will supports being considered by the Government include supports for workers and ensure that workers' rights and employment are maintained where necessary? We wish to keep the whole system going. It is about supports for families and all the workforce such that we maintain society through Covid and have something that is fit for operation both in terms of society overall and these parts of our economy.
On the issue of my engagement on the aviation sector, there are two processes going on. One is with the national civil aviation development forum, which I referenced earlier. The CEOs of the airlines and the airports are represented on that body. The second group is the LEEF, which I chair and which is attended by delegations from ICTU and IBEC. Several issues were raised at the LEEF regarding employees. Departmental officials also attend those meetings. There is also engagement between the Departments of Social Protection and Enterprise, Trade and Employment on the matter. The Deputy can rest assured that there is ongoing engagement on several levels from the point of view of employees as well as the airlines.
I am aware that I am over time. It might be possible to get the answer to my next question in writing. I am seeking an update with regard to the issues the committee dealt with previously in respect of Brexit and some of the difficulties that existed for hauliers, etc., in dealing with Revenue, the interoperability of systems and so on and accepting that a significant issue was caused by many British firms not having prepared for Brexit.
I will get more detail for the Deputy on that issue. Briefly, there is significant engagement with Revenue. What we were trying to do before 1 January was to send the message to businesses, including exporters and importers, that they should engage with Revenue. Those that do so will get assistance and be held by the hand and brought through the online system for getting their goods through customs, HSE checks or whatever the issues were. Those services and offers are still available.
I will get the Deputy an update on how that is going. I commend the officials in all the Departments. It was not easy and we never said it was. Brexit was always going to be difficult, deal or no deal, and I commend the work that is happening behind the scenes. I know it has not been plain sailing for many companies but there has been considerable work done and preparation put in place on this matter. It could have been a bigger issue. I am not saying it is over because it is never over but the supports and help are there for businesses that engage.
I want to look at the spending programmes under the administrative heading "office premises expenses". That amount appears to have gone up by two and a half times. It has increased by €738,000 from €507,000 to €1.245 million while the numbers of staff have dropped by 20% from 2,187 to 1,753. Why is that the case?
Will the Chairman tell me again which programme he is referring to? I will just get the specific programme because I do not have it to hand. The Chairman might wish to ask another question while I am getting those documents.
Under the heading of "key outputs in public service activities" in the financial and human resources inputs, one of the subheadings refers to Ireland's national cybersecurity strategy 2019 to 2024, which is an area that interests the committee. There are no target outputs for either 2020 or 2021. The main point I am trying to make is that within such a fast-moving area, the Department does not appear to have any plans to publish. This is a national cybersecurity strategy that is now two years old and we have not seen it. It was supposed to apply from 2019 to 2024. Where does that strategy stand? If the Minister of State does not have an update on those issues at the moment-----
That is no problem. A route support scheme for aviation between Cork and Shannon is worth €20 million. We understand that, at the end of February, the scheme got approval from Europe because state aid rules did not apply. Has the Minister of State received any applications from Shannon Airport as yet in terms of those specific routes and getting access to that fund? What is the process by which the airport will be able to get access to the fund?
My understanding is that the airports have submitted applications for funding under the supports provided by the Government. They are working with Department officials on that matter. There will be ongoing engagement between the airports and officials within the Department about their needs. That also informs us as to the sustainability of the airports and suggests what further supports may be required. As I said to colleagues earlier, this ongoing engagement with Department officials is critical and has always been done. We are into a new phase of Covid-19 now and there will be a prolonged recovery within the aviation sector, as we are all aware. Every analyst is saying that.
I am happy with that. Aer Lingus is due to get financial support from the State. I am a representative of Limerick city and we, in the mid-west region, believe that support must be conditional on providing connectivity outside of Dublin. Aer Lingus's Heathrow and transatlantic connections are hugely important to us in the mid-west and right along the western seaboard, up to Galway and down to Kerry. Is that issue the subject of discussion?
Any discussions between the Ireland Strategic Investment Fund, ISIF, and the airlines would be confidential. I can say that ISIF funding is available to all airports and airlines. That is open to them to avail of. The Chairman is correct about the transatlantic connectivity. It is critical that we maintain that as we recover. We all know the benefits for Shannon and Dublin-----
I want to put it on the record that any funding that comes via the State must be about a balanced regional aspect and include connectivity. The Minister of State might take that on board. If Aer Lingus, or any airline, is getting significant State supports, there has to be a commitment to the regions. That is the key point.
A review of Shannon Airport and Shannon Group was to be carried out by the Department. Where does that stand at the moment? I know it was being looked at within the Department. Where does it stand?
There is work there around Shannon Heritage. I have engaged with different stakeholders in the region. That work is ongoing. I know Shannon Group is having its own local engagement around the future of Shannon Heritage and how best to support that critical piece for the mid-west region, including King John's Castle, Bunratty Castle and how we best preserve and protect those historic monuments.
The work is about finding the best place for Shannon Heritage and ensuring that we maintain those critical historic monuments, that we preserve and conserve them, and that the right expertise in technical matters and preservation is brought in to ensure we can assess the costs around it.
The OPW will be reporting back to the Department on the matter because we need to ensure these monuments are maintained and preserved. The OPW has the technical expertise and is best placed to do that.
That is brilliant. We have held public hearings about the driving test and a couple of issues came up on which I would like to get the Minister of State's view.
Essential workers who have not been able to complete their 12 hours of approved driving instruction are unable to sit the driving test, yet some test centres are not using all the driving testers available. Will the Minister of State consider ensuring that, under the current round, these essential workers can complete their 12 hours of approved driving instruction? Second, will she ensure those whose jobs are not deemed essential but who require a car for work and who have completed the required 12 hours of approved driving instruction can apply for a test at the driving test centres that have spare capacity? Can the RSA be assisted to allow it to expedite the rolling out of online driver theory tests? Will the Minister of State give me her perspective on that? We will be writing to the RSA and Department about it. What does the Minister of State envisage enfolding over the coming short period?
I thank the Chairman. The RSA is examining ways of increasing the number of tests within the current health constraints, and it is working in close consultation with my Department on the matter. It needs to be understood, however, that there are no easy solutions, unfortunately. I have been trying to find easy solutions but, unfortunately, it is just not possible with the restrictions. The RSA is looking at increasing the number of tests per day to seven, and it is in discussions with testers on this. It will be possible only if the safety of testers and candidates can be ensured. The RSA is also considering longer opening hours, additional time on weekdays, Saturday openings and an increase in the number of testers. As the Chairman will probably know, I gave sanction to hire 40 additional driving testers along with the 36 approved for retention-----
In the short time I have, may I draw attention to the two key points? There appears to be spare capacity in some test centres because an insufficient number of essential workers have completed the 12 hours of instruction. Therefore, could there be latitude to allow the approved driving instructors to work so essential workers can complete the required number of hours? Second, where there is spare capacity in a test centre and there is not the requisite number of essential workers in a position to apply for the driving test, could others who have completed 12 hours of approved driver instruction apply for a driving test? Could this be examined? Will the Minister of State consider that? When does she expect a decision will be made on driving tests?
That has to be a decision of the Government. The issue at the moment is the level 5 restrictions. I realise it is very frustrating that essential workers cannot do a test because they have not done all 12 lessons.
I cannot say because we are dealing with health restrictions at the moment. It is only essential workers who are permitted. I hear the frustration regarding those who do not have the 12 lessons done but, unfortunately, we must adhere to our public health advice. The matter will remain under consideration, however. I hope as things ease, we can consider issues like that. On the online driver theory test, the RSA is considering extending it to all types of testing at the end of the year.
I thank the Minister of State for her attendance today. To reiterate what the Chairman has said, we have all received queries from constituents about driver licence applications and the associated difficulties. I have spoken to the Minister, Deputy Ryan, about this. I spoke to the Chairman about it in the convention centre last week, as he will remember.
I am aware the Department is doing all it can within the public health guidelines and that the Minister of State and Minister are both aware there are those who do need driving tests and driver licences. I am sure they are doing everything possible to try to reduce the delay and accommodate the people affected.
On the funding the Minister of State announced recently, I very much welcome the funding for Safe Routes to School and cycling infrastructure for schools. It is important. Much of the congestion in our towns in the mornings is associated with the school run. It is generally created because there are no safe cycling and walking routes to school. Parents, including me, are very apprehensive about letting a child out on a bicycle to cycle the last kilometre or 1,500 m to the school gate because the route is so congested with traffic. The funding is critical and much needed.
Let me also refer to the funding announced this week for infrastructure in rural parts. We cannot have a divide whereby we are focusing on urban infrastructure and not rural infrastructure. We will have to play our part in this. Rural towns and villages also suffer from congestion in the morning. Safety issues arise when so many cars try to crowd into spaces. When I get an opportunity to walk my children to school in the morning, I see children and parents on scooters and bicycles. They are all on the footpath. All the space is given over to cars parked along the roadside. We need to flip the focus so it is on the more vulnerable people, not the people sitting in the metal boxes. The funding is really important. I hope it will be rolled out over the next couple of years. I hope there is a repeat roll-out of the funding because where people see examples of it working, they will ask why they cannot have it for their town. Surety of funding and of its being rolled out affords an opportunity to show the arrangement works. That is very welcome. I thank the Minister of State for the funding.
Yesterday, the Minister for Rural and Community Development launched a rural strategy. Part of it involves a focus on and an increase for the Local Link rural buses. Rural buses will be critical to rural towns and villages. Those who live in them should have an opportunity to leave the car behind and to have a reliable, frequent bus service. At a meeting of the Joint Committee on Climate Action last week, one of the witnesses, a UK consultant, stated the UK considered both the possibility of rural towns with a population under a certain size having an hourly bus service and the cost. It was really costly but it is the type of ambition we need to have. There cannot just be a bus service every three or four hours. A service has to be practical so people can use it to go to and come home from work and to access recreation and education. We really need to have a high ambition for rural bus services. What is the Minister of State's view on this? What is her position on rural bus links and their importance in reducing carbon emissions, which is our primary objective, but also in providing the connectivity needed in rural areas so people can live in them?
I thank the Deputy. He raised several really good programmes. I am delighted he did because it is important that I get a chance to discuss them. A lot of the funding is for rural areas. Just yesterday, the €72 million active travel budget for rural towns and villages was announced. When people hear of walking and cycling strategies and active travel, they immediately think of urban centres. It is critical to service rural areas. The Government is committed to ensuring we roll out safe cycling and walking infrastructure, and it is committed to spending almost €1 million per day on it. Our rural towns and villages are key to that. Part of the process involves what the Deputy mentioned, namely the Safe Routes to School programme. That can work with the wider active travel program, filling in the gaps in the footpath to the town or village and perhaps connecting it with the local greenway. The infrastructure is not just for schoolchildren; it will be used by entire communities. It is a matter of determining how to keep the school gateway safe and working with the schools.
What we are asking through the Safe Routes to School programme, and this is an important message to get out, is that the schools lead on this. That is why the Minister for Education and I wrote to every secondary and primary school in the country asking them to go online and fill out a form expressing their interest in working with An Taisce Green-Schools on solutions for them. Just because one is in a rural area does not mean there are no solutions; there are. It is by being innovative and working with the local authority, through An Taisce Green-Schools, that we could have what I would like to see after the first round of funding for Safe Routes to School.
The Deputy asked if this would be provided every year. That is what we want, namely, a rolling fund for this every year. In this context, I want to see examples of rural, suburban and city centre schools and to have models we can replicate throughout the country. Perhaps a school where the authorities believe they could not do anything in this respect as the school is in a difficult area in terms of dealing with traffic issues would see another leader, example or model where it worked well. This will be the start of an exciting roll-out of walking and cycling infrastructure throughout the country.
Regarding Local Link, it is tapped into that whole rural agenda around which the Minister, Deputy Humphreys, launched a new rural strategy yesterday. It is absolutely critical. The NTA is also planning a two-phrased approach to consultation on connecting Ireland, of which the members may have heard. The consultation is with stakeholder engagement. The first is local and regional authorities. It started in October 2020 on the main concepts of connecting Ireland. The NTA has identified a requirement to undertake a study of public transport services in non-urban markets - this links in to what the Deputy said about rural Ireland - to inform its approach to rolling out improved public transport across the country, ultimately enabling the NTA to present its vision for a countrywide-connected, low-carbon, public transport network. This is an important and exciting programme that taps into what the Deputy said. It is important all of us and our local councillors engage with the local authorities. We are providing the funding and the resources to do it, but the big challenge will be the implementation and the roll-out of all these projects.
I have one final point. I note the continued funding for the Road Safety Authority. When its representatives appeared before the committee, we raised the issue that parking on footpaths blocks them and creates difficulties for people with mobility issues, children or people pushing buggies etc. Another safety issue I would like the Road Safety Authority to address is the idling of cars outside schools - I am pleased there is funding for the authority. That may allow the authority to pursue an education campaign on this and the difficulty it creates in air quality and particulate matter, especially for the vulnerable young lungs of our children as they go into school. It would be an education campaign to let motorists know of the danger created when car engines are left idling outside a school.
Briefly, to respond to the Chairman's question relating to the 2019-2024 national cybersecurity strategy, it has outputs and timelines and they are included in the actions for 2020 onwards. That is set out in the strategy.