Seanad debates

Tuesday, 22 November 2022

Nithe i dtosach suíonna - Commencement Matters (Resumed)

Road Tolls

2:30 pm

Photo of Robbie GallagherRobbie Gallagher (Fianna Fail)
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I welcome the Minister of State to the House to discuss the issue of the proposal by Transport Infrastructure Ireland, TII, to increase toll charges on many of our national routes. There are currently ten toll roads on the national road network, eight of which are operated under a public-private partnership, PPP, model and two of which are operated directly on behalf of TII, namely, the M50 and the Dublin Port Tunnel. TII recently announced that it plans to increase toll charges on nine of these roads in line with inflation from 1 January 2023. The only exception to this will be the Dublin Port Runnel which will be the only toll road not to face an increase. Charges relate to those driving cars with charges higher again for those driving vans, buses and heavy goods vehicles, HGVs. The Government needs to step in to ensure this does not happen.

As the Minister of State will be aware, we are in the middle of a cost-of-living crisis and the Government's emphasis to date - and rightly so - has been on measures to reduce the cost of public services for many hard-pressed families and businesses. The decision of TII flies in the face of Government policy. These private companies are already making millions of euro. It begs the question, how can TII justify increasing toll charges to the maximum permitted value at this point in time?Just last month, for example, the M3 toll operator reported €11 million in profit for the previous financial year. Many commuters are totally dependent on the private car. In places like County Monaghan, where I come from, there is no reliable public service transport available to people, so they have no option but to use their car and hit the road. Increasing these charges at this point in time will have the effect of people avoiding these toll charges and taking roads through small villages and towns; that is not what we are looking to see happen. It is clear that the Government needs to call a halt to this. Common sense needs to prevail. I look forward to the Minister of State's response; I hope it will indicate that process is under way.

Photo of Ossian SmythOssian Smyth (Dún Laoghaire, Green Party)
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The Minister for Transport has the responsibility for overall policy and Exchequer funding in relation to the national roads programme. Once funding arrangements have been put in place with Transport Infrastructure Ireland, TII, under the Roads Acts 1993 to 2015 and in line with the national development plan, the operation and management of individual national roads is a matter for TII in conjunction with the local authorities concerned. Matters relating to day-to-day operations regarding national roads, including toll roads and the establishment of a system of tolls, are a statutory function of TII. More specifically, the statutory power to levy tolls, make toll bye-laws and enter into agreements with private investors are vested in TII under Part V of the Roads Act 1993, as amended. The Act does not provide for a consultative function with the Minister regarding specific toll increases.

There are 11 toll roads in the State and of these, ten are on the national road network. Of the ten tolls on the national road network, two are essentially public tolls, namely, the M50 and the Dublin tunnel. Revenue from these tolls is collected directly for TII by operating companies under contract to TII. These revenues are invested by TII in the operation and maintenance of the national road network. The other eight roads are public private partnership, PPP, roads which were constructed and are now operated and maintained under long-term contracts with TII. Revenue generated by these roads is collected by the PPP company and is then used to repay loans arising from the construction of the road and to fund ongoing operations and maintenance activities. Tolls on the eight PPP roads and the M50 were increased at the start of this year, which was the first increase in toll rates for motor cars since 2013.

The setting of tolls is a statutory function of Transport Infrastructure Ireland. In line with that statutory function, the TII board agreed to a toll increase in 2023 on the M50. TII has also reviewed and agreed with the toll increases submitted by the PPP companies for the eight PPP routes. There will be no changes to toll rates for the Dublin tunnel. Tolls are due to increase because of the consumer price index, CPI, calculations carried out for each year. The CPI increased by 8.6% between August 2021 and August 2022; this has resulted in increased tolls on all eight PPP schemes and on the M50. The bye-laws for each individual toll scheme set out the basis for calculating the maximum toll for each year. On the M50, a deferral of the toll increase would require funding to be allocated from other national roads projects and would reduce funding for asset management and renewal activities across the rest of the network. This toll revenue plays a key role in protecting and maintaining our national road network and it safeguards the investments which have taken place in the network over recent decades. As required by the legislation, TII will shortly publish details of the proposals in the national media prior to their introduction.

Photo of Robbie GallagherRobbie Gallagher (Fianna Fail)
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I thank the Minister of State for his response. If one were to go by speculation and comment from our political leaders in recent days, it would seem that this matter is now being reconsidered. I welcome that. I do not need to tell the Minister of State how difficult times are for many families, workers and businesses. The Government has intervened in the cost of public services; that is to be welcomed and it is good to see. This is another area where Government can intervene and I would welcome it were it to do so. Apart from the additional financial burden that would be placed on people, it will also result in people using alternative routes to avoid motorways, thereby resulting in our villages and towns being clogged up, which is the last thing we need.I hope common sense will prevail. I look forward to an outcometo which we can all sign up.

Photo of Ossian SmythOssian Smyth (Dún Laoghaire, Green Party)
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I thank the Senator. I appreciate his point that if the toll is set too high, it could lead to traffic entering city centres. Unfortunately, I was not at the Cabinet meeting today to know whether a decision was taken or whether there was a discussion on this, but I will update the Senator on the matter later today. The Government has identified transport as an area to target for cost-of-living mitigation measures. There was a reduction in public transport fares, both a 20% reduction for everybody and a 50% reduction for young people. Actions were taken like the licensed haulage emergency support scheme and there were reductions in the excise duty of 20 cent on petrol per litre and 50 cent on diesel per litre. Regarding tolls, as I outlined, it is a statutory function of TII and it is under contract with the operator; that does not mean nothing can be done, but it is the TII's statutory area. I think the Senator understands that. What the State will do in response, we will have to wait and see. I will apprise the Senator as soon as I have more information.

Photo of Mark DalyMark Daly (Fianna Fail)
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I welcome Councillor Shelly Herterich Quinn from Galway County Council. She is welcome today to see the two Chambers in operation. I thank her for coming in and for the questions, queries, advice and support she has given us. We appreciate it. The Commencement matter will be taken by the Minister of State at the Department of Agriculture, Food and the Marine, Senator Hackett. I call Senator Boyhan.

Photo of Victor BoyhanVictor Boyhan (Independent)
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I join the Cathaoirleach in welcoming the women that are in today, particularly sitting councillors from the women's caucus. They are welcome to Leinster House. It is great to see them; we do not see enough of them. As I said earlier in the dining room, I look forward to many of them competing in the next elections, be they Dáil or Seanad elections. We can have the women's caucus and other groups but it is important that we bring them into the centre of politics and into elections.

I asked the Minister to make a statement on the inclusion of genetically-modified, GM, ingredients used in animal feedstuff used for sheep, cattle and poultry and if the Department of Agriculture, Food and the Marine would confirm the level of GM foodstuffs in the agricultural sector. That was somewhat modified by the Commencement Matterbefore us. Genetically-modified food is a big issue; it is a controversial one for some. It was initially brought to my attention by the Irish Rural Association. I will read a post from its Facebook page because it is the kernel of the issue, "So now we are asking for a bit of help from you all out there who may use animal feedstuff in bags for cattle, sheep, hens, etc. Have you actually read the label?" On close examination, many of the feeds have a label that states, "Produced from genetically-modified soya beans... Does that bother anyone?" It raises the questions, should we know more about it? Is the labelling clear enough, is it big enough? Are people aware of it? It goes on to state, "As for GM foods and crops, the hypocrisy on the part of both Ireland and EU is stunning. While we pat ourselves on the back for banning the growing of GM crops, we import GM corn and soya by the millions of tonnes".How do Bord Bia, Teagasc and the Department of Agriculture, Food and the Marine square the circle in terms of the export of Irish beef when on average the contents of a bag of winter feed for beef consists of 94% of genetically modified, GM, corn, soya and alfalfa. That is the kernel of the issue and we need more education about it. It is not banned but we need greater labelling. I am more interested to know how the Department quantifies the amount. Does it keep a record of the amount because that is really important? What is going on in terms of Teagasc, the Department of Agriculture, Food and the Marine and Bord Bia on the monitoring of GM food and GM foodstuffs?

Photo of Pippa HackettPippa Hackett (Green Party)
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I thank Senator Boyhan for raising this matter. In Ireland more than 80% of animal feed for ruminants is provided by grass, hay and silage, complemented where appropriate by compound feeds. From an animal feed perspective, the pig, poultry and dairy sectors in particular rely on high-protein feed rations that are primarily made up of soya bean and maize by-products. Ireland has a limited capacity to grow certain protein crops and is therefore more dependent on feed imports relative to other EU member states. Climatic conditions in Ireland are traditionally not suited to the cultivation of soya bean although improvements in crop breeding and the availability of new varieties may change that. Therefore we are particularly dependent on the global market for supplies of high-quality vegetable protein.

Total annual feed production in 2021 was 5.4 million tonnes, an increase of 6% on the previous year, of which 1.3 million tonnes was home-grown, mainly cereals. In 2021 4.1 million tonnes of feed material was imported which was a reduction of 3% compared to 2020. Of the 4.1 million tonnes imported, approximately 75% is sourced from third countries, mainly Argentina, the USA, the UK, Canada, Brazil and, historically, Ukraine. Significant quantities of maize and oilseed rape meal are also imported from EU member states.

Some 2.3 million tonnes of imported feed from third countries was genetically modified, representing 42% of the total animal feed production. The main genetically modified feeds imported are maize and maize by-products, soya bean meal and soya hulls. More than 1 million tonnes of this imported genetically modified feed was maize or maize by-products, distillers dry grains and maize gluten feed. Approximately 800,000 tonnes was soya bean and soya meal.

These consignments are imported from genetically modified, GM, producing regions especially in the USA, Argentina, Brazil, and Canada. It is important to the Irish agriculture industry, especially the sectors requiring rations with high-protein content, that there is a consistent supply of quality feed that is not subject to delays as there is limited scope for alternative protein substitution from home or from EU-grown high-protein crops.

In terms of the use of genetically modified organisms, GMOs, in feed, the reality is that the feed materials containing GM make up the bulk of the market and provide the lowest cost source of proteins for feed manufacturers to use in their products. It should be borne in mind that there is a significant additional cost of approximately €60 to €100 per tonne for non-GM feed which can leave livestock production in Ireland at a competitive disadvantage compared to other countries that have the capacity to produce soya and other protein crops. This price differential would have a trickle-down effect on the overall feed prices which have already seen significant rises since the outbreak of the war in Ukraine.

The EU has a legislative framework in place for the authorisation of feed products consisting of, or containing, genetically modified ingredients on the markets of member states. Only GM feed that has been authorised by the EU can be placed on that market. All applications for authorisation by the EU to place feed products consisting of, or containing, genetically modified ingredients on the markets of member states are considered individually.

Government policy is positive but precautionary on biotechnology and a common voting position is adopted by Ireland for food and feed on the basis of a favourable opinion from the European Food Safety Authority and the Food Safety Authority of Ireland. Advance notification of feed imports is a legal requirement and imports containing GM are notified accordingly. My Department carries out risk-based analysis and testing for the presence of authorised and non-authorised GM in feed imports.

Photo of Victor BoyhanVictor Boyhan (Independent)
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The real substance is in the last two lines, that is, that the Irish policy is cautious and that random tests are carried out. I thank the Minister of State for her comprehensive reply. The three important things from that are that the Government needs to demonstrate its caution, that we need to see more statistics in terms of the testing and that is something I can take up with the agriculture committee, of which I am a member, and that many people are not aware of GM feedstuffs in animals. We talk at great length about not growing GM produce in this country but we are feeding our animals - sheep, poultry and cattle for beef - with this modified food.There is a little bit of misunderstanding but we need bigger labelling and more education and to be upfront and open, honest and transparent with the fact that we are using GM foods to feed animals in this country. I thank the Minister of State.

Photo of Pippa HackettPippa Hackett (Green Party)
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I thank Senator Boyhan and I take his points on board. We have limited capacity to grow our own and more growing of our own is something that the Department has tried to support in the past year, as we cannot grow GM food in Ireland. In this regard the Minister, Deputy McConalogue, recently announced a second tillage incentive scheme which has as its focus the purpose of increasing the amount of grain and forage that will be essentially home-grown, as in grown here in Ireland with the aim of converting grassland to tillage use. It is widely acknowledged that the first tillage incentive scheme contributed approximately a 6% increase in tillage area or an additional 20,000 ha in 2022. In addition to this the protein aid scheme which is a payment to farmers for growing other protein crops such as beans, peas and lupins also works to increase domestic production of protein crops. These crops, which are also nitrogen fixing, provide important environmental benefits as a co-benefit. We need to grow more of our own and we are aspiring to do so.