Topical Issue Debate

Schools Building Projects Status

I thank the Ceann Comhairle for agreeing to my request to discuss St. Mary’s girls' national school, Lucan, tonight in Dáil Éireann. I also thank the Minister for Education and Science, Deputy Jan O'Sullivan, for attending.

I have been living in Lucan for approximately 30 years, and in very close proximity to one of the finest schools in Ireland, namely, St. Mary's girls' national school, also known as Scoil Mhuire, which is in the process of being denied its promised and long overdue building refurbishment works that have been progressing through all the stages of the procedure for many years. When the school was finally included in the schools stimulus package 2013, there appeared to be some glimmer of light, and for a number of years St. Mary's navigated its way through the protracted planning process. When I met the school principal, Mrs. Mary McIvor, before Christmas, she was pleased to confirm to me that building was scheduled to begin in February 2016, just a few short weeks away, and to conclude in late autumn 2016.

Last Thursday the entire project and all of the works undertaken, such as the inclusion in the schools stimulus package and the steady progress through the planning process, was thrown up in the air. The principal was told by officials in the Department that it has emerged that there is a competition for resources between one school and another or others and that the promised funding may not now be forthcoming. That is nothing short of disgraceful. We have told the people that things are better and that we have the fastest growing economy in Europe, yet we deny our children the basics in this school. The children have been advised through their parents to wear warm clothes because much of the heating system is no longer working. The building is in an unacceptable level of maintenance. In addition to the heating system not working, prefabs are still in place, windows are leaking and new and more acceptable bathroom facilities are required with drying facilities. The new build will solve all those ills and bring an end to the altogether unacceptable working environment for the children and staff alike. The school has never even benefited from additional and necessary works. In spite of that and the best efforts of departmental officials to cause confusion if not deny the vital capital works, Scoil Mhuire, St. Mary's girls' national school in Lucan, continues to provide a wonderful educational experience for its 680 children.

When the school principal could not contain this alarming news and felt duty bound to advise the board of management and the parents’ association, many of them contacted me last Thursday evening. I was inundated with e-mails, text messages and phone calls from concerned and, understandably in some cases, angry parents because a departmental official cast doubt over the building project and conveyed the message that funding for the proposed development may not now be available. At this very late stage of the proceedings and in the simplest terms, that is unacceptable. As the local Deputy I am at one with the principal, the board of management, the teaching staff, the parents’ association, the parents and the children - our future - in their anger and upset at setting at nought all of what the Government has said previously.

Tonight in Dáil Éireann, I ask the Minister to provide clarity and certainty on St. Mary's girls' national school, Scoil Mhuire, Lucan, to confirm that the funding is in fact in place for the long outstanding and, by now, very necessary works, and to say when the works on St. Mary’s school will commence. I also thank the Minister for Justice and Equality, Deputy Frances Fitzgerald, for coming into the Dáil to support my representations and speech this evening.

I thank Deputy Keating for raising the matter as it provides me with the opportunity to clarify the current position on the major school building project for Scoil Mhuire girls' national school in Lucan.

The Deputy will be aware of the demographic challenge facing the education system in the coming years. Primary enrolments, which have already risen substantially in recent years, are projected to rise by an additional 25,000 pupils by 2017 and they are set to continue to rise, with a likely peak in 2019. To meet the needs of our growing population of school-going children, the Department must establish new schools as well as extending or replacing a number of existing schools in areas where demographic growth has been identified. The delivery of the new schools, together with extension projects to meet future demand, will be the main focus of the Department's budget for the coming years.

The Deputy will also be aware that significant capital funding will be invested in the education system through the Government's capital programme announced on 29 September last.

Over the next six years, €3 billion in direct funding will be invested in the schools capital programme.

The building project at Scoil Mhuire was one of a number of projects included in the investing in infrastructure and jobs stimulus package which, as the Deputy has just said, was announced in June 2013. As part of this announcement, my Department committed to advancing these school projects, including Scoil Mhuire, to completion. The project will provide an extra three classrooms to enhance the school to a 24-classroom facility. Additionally, it will provide major refurbishment to the existing school. This refurbishment element of the project represents a significant and increased investment by the Department and will provide state-of-the-art facilities for close to 700 pupils. The project encountered a number of delays in the course of architectural planning. Scoil Mhuire and St. Joseph's college share the same site which, at 6.18 acres, is very tight. This resulted in the need for additional feasibility studies on the utilisation of the site ahead of the project. In addition, the project also endured the loss of a member of the design team who left the project, adding further delay. Notwithstanding these difficulties, the project was authorised to proceed through the tender process in the course of 2015. The design team's supplementary tender report was submitted to the Department in December 2015 and has been considered by my Department.

I became aware of the issues Deputy Keating refers to. I had a phone call from the Minister for Justice and Equality, Deputy Fitzgerald, and contact from Deputy Joanna Tuffy at the weekend. Deputy Keating was also in touch with my office. I am aware of the concerns in the local community. As the Deputy may be aware, in the management of a capital programme, it is necessary to review periodically the scheduling of construction projects within the overall programme. This is a standard procedure, especially at the beginning of the year of the programme. In this context, my Department is conducting an expenditure profiling exercise to determine when projects can advance to site. When the expenditure profiling is complete, the Department will be in contact with Scoil Mhuire on the further progression of the project. I want to alleviate any fear that there is some kind of competition going on between schools - that is not the case. This is a procedure with regard to expenditure profiling and as soon as it is done - it will not take long - we will be in contact with the school.

I thank the Minister sincerely. The issue of schools within the capital programme competing on building was something that was conveyed to me. I have tremendous respect for the Minister. I had tremendous respect and an equally satisfactory working relationship with former Minister for Education and Skills, Deputy Ruairí Quinn. Anything I say is not personal. This is an extremely sensitive issue and, with the greatest of respect, I am unhappy with the Minister's reply. This had been included for the capital expenditure and many parents will now rightfully ask why, if money was allocated for this building, the money is not there. In recent days I have been chasing around a number of officials for precise information and details on this doubt. One senior official in the Minister's Department, knowing I had been trying to contact him in recent days so I could give information and some clarity to the school, told me in an e-mail very early this morning that he was out of the office on Department business with only limited access to email. He had sent me that e-mail from his phone. This is ridiculous and I see it as an exercise in fobbing off an elected Member.

Leaving that aside, I will ask two questions in the time I have remaining. When will this uncertainty be removed? Given the particular circumstances I have outlined, which the Minister and her Department are aware of because of the history associated with Scoil Mhuire, St Mary's girls' national school in Lucan, what measures will the Department take to ensure priority is given to the school in order that clarity and certainty can be given for these works to begin?

We are absolutely committed to ensuring the project goes ahead. I assure Deputy Keating - I think he is aware of how the capital programmes work in education - that when something is announced, it is announced on the basis that the capital is provided. That was the case for schools announced in 2013 and it is the case for the schools I announced towards the end of 2015 for the next capital programme. We have a capital allocation for each year of that capital programme and nothing is announced unless the money is there for it. I want to make it quite clear that the money is there for the school. We do not announce unless the money is there. This is not just about one school. There is a profiling exercise carried out in the Department which applies to all schools designated for proceeding in 2016. Those schools will be told as soon as we carry out this exercise and they will be engaged with. We have not gone past the deadline for this particular school. The proposal is that it will go ahead. It is not that it should have gone ahead by now but rather it is to go ahead in the near future. We will be in touch with the school in the near future.

The building was scheduled to start in February 2016, which is in a few weeks time. That was the point.

Special Educational Needs Service Provision

The issue that I raise is one that is close to the Minister's heart. I will focus on the Cork region. I have said to the Minister before that there is a chronic lack of spaces for students with autism in ASD special classes attached to mainstream post-primary schools in the Cork area. At present, there are five mainstream post-primary schools that provide special classes. Nagle community college has two classes catering for 12 students; Deerpark has six classes catering for 36 students, which will be reduced this year to four classes catering for only 24 students; North Monastery on the north side has three classes catering for 18 students; St. Vincent's has three classes catering for 18 students; and Ursuline secondary school has one class catering for six students. Unfortunately, as the Minister is aware, a place in each of these special classes only becomes available when an existing student graduates. This is inadequate to meet the current demand for available places. For example, Nagle community college's ASD programme steering committee will very shortly meet to decide upon their enrolment next year. It can only pick four students because only four of its students will graduate. Only four places will become available, yet it has a list of 15 students - 12 boys and three girls. This means 11 students who were in special classrooms at primary level will not be able to avail of that at post-primary level.

The sad thing is that the girls might possibly get a place in St. Vincent's or Ursuline's but for the 12 boys there is no other option because the remaining schools with ASD special classrooms at post-primary level will not enrol anyone next year. Deerpark and North Monastery will not take any students into their special classes next year. In 2016, there will only be four places in special classrooms and ASD classrooms in the whole of Cork city offered to boys with special needs. In 2017 - we know these figures - there will be no places available. In 2018, there will only be one place available. In the past, to try to address this, the local special educational needs officers, SENOs, have asked each of the post-primary schools to look at establishing a special ASD classroom.

To date, only one school in the Cork region, namely, Ursuline secondary school, has taken up that request. No other school has taken up the recommendations from the local special educational needs organisers, SENOs.

There are 15 autism spectrum disorder-specific classes in Cork city but as I stated, two of them will cease this year, thereby reducing the number to 13. If one considers the number of students attending primary school who hope to graduate into post-primary education, there are 66 classes at primary level, which contain 396 students in total, but yet in the entire Cork region there are only 34 classes that cater for 204 places. As 396 students will never go into 204 places, there always will be a chronic shortfall.

I thank the Deputy and I share his interest in this area. As he has just noted, the SENOs engage with schools and work with them to provide the necessary places. I first will outline the position with regard to children with autism. The Deputy is aware the Government is committed to ensuring that all children with special educational needs, including those with autism, can have access to an education appropriate to their needs, preferably in school settings through the primary and post-primary school network. Such placements facilitate access to individualised education programmes, which may draw from a range of appropriate educational interventions delivered by fully-qualified professional teachers with the support of special needs assistants and the appropriate school curriculum. Children with autism spectrum disorder, ASD, who cannot be accommodated in mainstream education may be enrolled in special classes or special schools where more intensive and supportive interventions are provided. The Deputy also will be aware that the National Council for Special Education, NCSE, is responsible through its network of local SENOs for allocating resource teachers and special needs assistants to schools to support students with special educational needs, including autism. It also is the role of the NCSE to make appropriate arrangements to establish special classes in schools in communities where the need for such classes has been identified. SENOs engage with schools annually to plan for and to open new special classes each year to ensure there are sufficient special class placements available at primary and post-primary school level to meet demand in a given area. Special classes within mainstream schools are intended for children who, by virtue of their level of special educational needs, cannot reasonably be educated in a mainstream class setting but who can still attend their local school in a special class with a lower pupil-teacher ratio of 6:1.5 at post-primary level and with SNA support. I believe all Members are agreed this is a good option for them. Progress in developing this network has been significant and in addition to the special school placements, there are more than 1,000 special classes nationwide at primary and post-primary level, of which 762 are for children with autism. A total of 194 of these classes for children with autism are at post-primary level, which represents an increase of 27% on the previous school year. However, I acknowledge the issue raised by the Deputy pertains specifically to the post-primary area and to Cork. Nevertheless, progress has been made and the SENOs and the NCSE are engaging with schools on a regular basis to try to increase the willingness of schools to take on such special classes.

As for the requirement for post-primary school places for children with autism, the NCSE, through its network of local SENOs, will engage with schools for the 2016-17 school year to plan for and to open new special classes to ensure there are sufficient placements available to meet demand in an area. The NCSE also will allocate staffing resources to special schools to provide for the number of pupils enrolling for that year, while taking into account the disability categorisation of those pupils and in accordance with the criteria set out in my Department's Circular 0042/2011. Details of all of the special classes for children with special educational needs that are attached to mainstream schools are published each year on the NCSE website. I acknowledge there is a tight timeframe in respect of the forthcoming school year and that the Deputy is specifically raising the issue of post-primary provision in the Cork area. The SENOs are engaging regularly with schools and I recognise the Deputy is raising a fairly urgent issue.

I thank the Minister. I recognise there has been a statewide increase of 27% in the provision of places but unfortunately quoting that figure does not reflect the reality on the ground in certain geographic areas and I have provided the Minister with the example of Cork. At present, the closure of two classes in the Cork region is anticipated although I have been unable to confirm why it is proposed to close those classes, which cater for 12 students. Incidentally, that is the exact number of students who will be left without a place in post-primary special classes. While I have been given reasons off the record, I have been unable to confirm them and it would not be right to put them on the record here. Perhaps the Minister can check this out with the school itself, namely, Deerpark Christian Brothers School in Cork city.

The other issue is while I would be first to state the SENOs are active in engaging with the post-primary schools in the Cork area in trying to convince them to open special classes, unfortunately, as I stated in my opening remarks, only one school in Cork city has actually done this, namely, Ursuline secondary school. There appears to be an opt-out clause or position schools can take and despite the evidence stating additional classes are needed, schools are not taking that on board. I do not know the reasons behind this but surely, as Minister for Education and Skills, the Minister can speak to the schools or can make some form of directive. Alternatively, if this is a funding issue, perhaps the Minister can revert and tell me this is why schools are not giving consideration to additional special classes. However, one cannot have a situation whereby in the entire county of Cork, 396 sixth class students are finishing primary school and seek to get into special classes at post-primary level but only 204 places are available. Moreover, this is not to mention the students who may be in special schools at present but who, with the additional help at post-primary level, may be able to transition from special schools into special classes in a mainstream setting. This surely also should be the goal and it should not simply be about trying to maintain the status quo. I acknowledge the timeframe is short but I ask the Minister specifically to look into the reason two classes are being lost at Deerpark Christian Brothers School.

In response to the Deputy, I do not believe it is a funding issue. While I certainly can clarify that, I do not believe it is a funding issue because funding is not an obstacle that is put in the way of providing such special classes. I certainly can revert to the NCSE and check on the specific details of the school raised by the Deputy. The Department and I encourage schools but cannot force them. We probably can use more leverage when new schools are being established in respect of the criteria and how the Department engages with the proposed patrons. However, the Department certainly can and does encourage schools. I also will take up this matter with the NCSE.

Road Projects Status

The next matter has been raised by Deputy Kelleher.

I should note I am taking this matter on behalf of the Minister, Deputy Donohoe. He had intended to be present but unfortunately something has come up.

I note that were the north ring road and the M20 to be built, the Minister and I could meet a lot quicker to address other concerns.

At the outset, I raise this issue because it is a national priority and more importantly, in the context of the development of Cork, progress must be seen in respect of the north ring road itself, which will link the M8 to the proposed M20. When one considers Cork, its layout and its traffic infrastructure on the eastern side of the city, it is completely dependent on the tunnel in respect of traffic going from north to south. Were anything to happen to that tunnel, there would be no access across the River Lee for the volumes of traffic currently passing through the tunnel on a daily basis. It is proposed to spend sums of money in upgrading the Dunkettle roundabout to make it into a cloverleaf type of junction system, which is welcome. However, the north ring road itself also should be prioritised as that would address Cork's current absolute dependence on the tunnel for its infrastructure and traffic movement. This project should not be shelved when the north side of the city is both underdeveloped and poorly developed in respect of infrastructure and what it supports in attracting further industry and opening up areas for development.

As the Minister is aware, Apple is located on the north side of the city. It is a huge employer and an international flagship company. We want to be able to capitalise on that type of company locating in the heart of the north side of the city but the only way we can advance industry and commerce in the area is by developing a proper traffic route. This requires the building of the north ring road from Killydonoghue on the eastern side to Poulavone in Ballincollig. Anything short of that undermines the capacity of the city to develop on the north side. There is an unequal balance between the two sides of the city in terms of investment. This is patently obvious any day of the week; one needs only drive across the city. There is an awful lot more development on the southern side than there is on the northern side in terms of both local authority investment and, as important, private investment. The obligation on the Government is to ensure this road is constructed and developed.

Linking our two great cities is the next piece of the jigsaw. We must put the M20 back firmly on the map. The north ring road in Cork and the M20 between Cork and Limerick are critical infrastructural developments. These two great cities could create a counter-weight. They would be two great cities coming together. We do it regularly in rugby and we could also do it in many other areas. We would have a corridor from Galway, south to Limerick and on to Cork. These are three university cities which have an exceptional quality of life and are linked by rail and road. There are deep water ports in Cork and Foynes and international airports in Shannon and Cork. There is a huge opportunity for counter-balance and to develop the west and south west, which is important. I do not want to be too parochial about it but we believe that there will be a retarding effect on growth and investment in the region if this infrastructure is not developed in the next number of years.

This infrastructure would open up the whole of the south west and west to investment opportunity in areas such as pharmaceuticals, as in Cork. As one moves up along that length of the country towards Galway, where the medical device industry is to be found, there is huge potential for symbiotic development and cross-fertilisation of capacities in the various cities.

The immediate step to be taken is the construction and development of the north ring road in order to ensure we are not dependent on the tunnel alone. Then the M20 needs to be put firmly back on track.

While I share an interest in the Cork-Limerick road, I will confine my answer to the north ring road. As I said, I am taking this Topical Issue on behalf of the Minister for Transport, Tourism and Sport, Deputy Paschal Donohoe, who has responsibility for overall policy and funding for the national roads programme. The planning, design and implementation of individual national road projects is a matter for Transport Infrastructure Ireland, formerly known as the NRA, under the Roads Acts 1993 to 2015 in conjunction with the local authorities concerned.

Within its capital budget, the assessment and prioritisation of individual projects such as the Cork north ring road is a matter in the first instance for Transport Infrastructure Ireland, in accordance with section 19 of the Roads Act. Ireland has just under 100,000 km of road in its network and the maintenance and improvement of national, regional and local roads places a substantial financial burden on local authorities and on the Exchequer. Given the national financial position, there have been large reductions in Exchequer funding available for roads expenditure over the past number of years. For this reason the focus has had to be on maintenance and renewal rather than major new improvement schemes. The northern ring road was one of a range of proposed road development projects which had to be deferred.

Thankfully, the economy is now recovering and the pressures we are now facing relate to renewed economic growth. The Government's capital plan reflects the need to maintain a prudent approach to expenditure, the balancing of investment needs and the long-term sustainability of the national finances. The transport element of the plan was framed by the conclusions reached in the Department's Strategic Investment Framework for Land Transport. This report highlighted the importance of maintenance and renewal of transport infrastructure together with targeted investments to address, in particular, bottlenecks and critical safety issues. The capital plan provides €6 billion for investment in the roads network in the period to 2022, with €4.4 billion earmarked for the maintenance and strengthening of the existing extensive network throughout the country and €1.6 billion for new projects.

While it will not be possible to address all the demands for improvement schemes over the next plan period, the plan does provide for the gradual build-up in capital funding for the road network towards the levels needed to support maintenance and improvement works. In this context a number of important projects in Cork are included in the plan, including the upgrade of the Dunkettle roundabout and the N22 road between Ballyvourney and Macroom. In addition, the plan also provides that the N28 upgrade scheme will also commence subject to planning permission.

The Minister's honesty in the reply disappoints, given the object of my raising this particular issue. We have to emphasise that this is not a regional or local issue. It is a strategic issue in terms of the development of the second city. We talk about access to the port, which it is proposed to move further down the harbour in Ringaskiddy, the opening up of the north side of the city for investment and development and ensuring that the city and the critical infrastructure around it is not fully dependent on the tunnel. I can instance a few cases. For example, we have a massive pharmaceutical base in the lower harbour and the intermediary harbour area. We also have an airport in the south side of the city but most of its hinterland would be from the northern and eastern parts of the country. The dependence on the tunnel, in the event of anything happening, would mean the economic life of the Cork region could come to a standstill for a period of time were the tunnel closed for whatever reason, be it an accident, damage to the tunnel or some other event taking place.

If we had the north ring road linking the south link on the eastern side and moving across the north ridge to Killydonoghue on the M8, all these problems would be alleviated. It would also alleviate the difficulty we will have in the next couple of years in the context of the Dunkettle interchange upgrade. We will be piling more and more traffic into a system that simply cannot take it. Our south ring road is like a parking lot at certain times. If we had the north ring road, it would address all the challenges facing the city in terms of traffic movement and attracting investment and other commercial life and tourism into the city. I urge the Minister to reflect on and convey to the Minister, Deputy Donohoe, my deep concerns about the fact that this has fallen off the priority list. The land is there. All we need is the will and the commitment.

As a former Minister of State, Deputy Kelleher will well know that governments have to plan their expenditure on the basis of the money available. We had a collapsed economy following the last Government's tenure. We have had to be prudent in terms of the economic recovery which has only just begun thanks to the efforts we have made in recent years. We cannot spend what we have not got. We have a capital budget which is prudent and will gradually improve as the economy recovers. We have done what we can. The Minister, Deputy Donohoe, and other Ministers have done what we can with the capital available to us. I will convey the Deputy's concerns but he has to accept the economic reality in which we find ourselves, the need to be prudent and the need to ensure we maintain the recovery and do not place it in jeopardy.

Garda Síochána Ombudsman Commission

Deputy Wallace and I are very glad that the issue of surveillance and intrusion into the lives of citizens is finally being addressed and a topic of conversation. We have consistently tried to raise it in this House but to the complete lack of interest of the media and political establishment. There is a certain double standard in the outcry over GSOC accessing of journalist phone records and the response has been entirely disproportionate.

Citizens have had their telephone conversations from prison with their solicitors tapped into and intercepted. Gardaí have been involved in some activity which has also been largely unmonitored. It is important to say the information GSOC was seeking was part of a criminal investigation into alleged Garda criminal activity. We know that there has been a huge problem with gardaí giving information to the press, which is often not in the public interest and breaches the privacy of citizens. It is very common and there is no action or accountability when it happens. The Garda has to be accountable to somebody and, in this instance, GSOC is the body responsible. Its powers which are now in the public spotlight are powers which the Garda and other organisations also have. It is really important that we seize the opportunity, now that this information is coming into the public domain and somehow striking a chord in a way it never did before, to look at this issue because the right to privacy and other fundamental human rights are important. The Minister says she is to have a review, but it seems she is only reviewing the 2011 Act with regard to information on journalists. We need a review of the 2009 Surveillance Act and the Interception of Postal Packets and Telecommunications Messages (Regulation) Act 1993. That review must be conducted in the interests of all citizens, not just journalists, because citizens' rights have been abused. I did not see too many journalists who were concerned about the issue up to now.

In December 2014 the Minister for Justice and Equality, Deputy Frances Fitzgerald, stated there was no question of mass surveillance being carried out in Ireland. She went on to say, when I raised the matter in the House, that the implications of the reports were that it was happening within the jurisdiction of the United Kingdom. However, she also said:

It is very clear that every country makes its own legal arrangements for lawful interception. I would expect [that any] such measures, if they were ever in operation, would have a proper legal basis and [that] the level of interference [would] be proportionate to the aims sought to be achieved, in any given country's legal approach.

In February 2015 the investigatory powers tribunal in the United Kingdom ruled that the large-scale interception and collection of the public's personal communications data by Government Communications Headquarters, GCHQ, in the United Kingdom and the National Security Agency, NSA, in the United States was illegal. Furthermore, it was illegal prior to Mr. Snowden's disclosure of the vast GCHQ and NSA mass surveillance programme. The two spying programmes under investigation were Prism and Upstream. Under the Upstream programme data were accessed in bulk using fibre-optic communications cables, including all major undersea cables carrying almost all communications between ordinary citizens in Ireland.

I asked the Minister multiple questions about this issue in January and June 2015 and she repeatedly gave the same answer, suggesting these were just media reports and that nothing unlawful was going on. She said the Minister for Foreign Affairs and Trade, Deputy Charles Flanagan, had received assurances from the United Kingdom that nothing was going on, even after GCHQ's oversight body had found it had been in breach of the law.

I, too, think that before GSOC can look at anyone's phone, it should have to go before a court. However, as we have argued before in this Chamber with the Minister and her predecessor, Deputy Alan Shatter, so too should the Garda. The idea that a garda can actually go to a superintendent or someone higher to obtain permission to interfere with someone's communications facilities is madness. It just does not work and the people of Ireland do not want it to happen. Journalists do not want it to happen and neither do citizens. We do not want our phones to be tapped and do not want to give anybody, including the Garda, the power to tap them without having to go before a court first. If there is criminal activity, it should be able to obtain a permit through the courts. The idea of a yearly review and rubber-stamping everything that went on is nonsense for everybody, including GSOC and the Garda.

I am sure all in this House will share my view that a free press plays an essential role in a democratic society in fostering full, free and informed debate on all issues of public concern. It is, therefore, of fundamental importance that journalists be able to carry out their legitimate work unhindered.

Concerns have been expressed in recent days on the question of access to the telephone records of journalists in the context of a criminal investigation being carried out by the Garda Síochána Ombudsman Commission, GSOC. Access to communications data is governed by the Communications (Data Retention) Act 2011. I must emphasise that I do not have any role, nor does my Department, in the process of requesting or authorising access to telephone records or logs under the 2011 Act; nor do I receive information on specific requests made in the course of those investigations. We have had many calls for strong, independent monitoring in various arenas and that is what we set up in GSOC. It would not be appropriate, in the context of the independent functions of bodies such as GSOC, for me to have that kind of information. It is an independent body which acts independently.

As the House will be aware, genuine concerns have, however, been raised about the balance in the current law between the important freedom journalists should rightly have to pursue legitimate matters of public interest and the basic right of persons not to have their personal information improperly disclosed. This raises very complex issues. We are talking about the various balances between, for example, criminal investigation, the public interest, protecting sources and the rights of victims. These are fundamental issues for any society and democracy to manage in the best possible way.

I went to the Government today and it agreed to my proposal to establish an independent review of the law in respect of access to the telephone records of journalists. The review will cover all bodies that can have access to records under the Data Retention Act, including GSOC, An Garda Síochána, the Revenue Commissioners and the Defence Forces. The 2011 Act which was introduced by the former Minister Mr. Dermot Ahern in 2011 provides all of these bodies with that authority. I am pleased that the distinguished former Chief Justice, Mr. Justice John Murray, who is also a former member of the European Court of Justice, has agreed to carry out the review. I express my appreciation for his immediate agreement to conduct the review, which I expect and anticipate will be completed in three months. It is about looking at the issue and getting a speedy report on the legislation.

Mr. Justice Murray will be examining whether further safeguards are necessary. I have also asked him to look at the international situation. The draft terms of reference for the review are to examine the legislative framework in respect of access by statutory bodies to communications data of journalists held by communications service providers, taking into account the principle of protection of journalistic sources, the need for statutory bodies with investigative or prosecution powers to have access to data in order to prevent and detect serious crime, and current best international practice in this area. There must be clear criteria for accessing these records. It must be in respect of a serious offence which is punishable by a term of imprisonment of up to five years.

With regard to GSOC, in particular, while fully respecting the independence of the Ombudsman Commission, I was glad to meet this morning its chairperson, Ms Justice Mary Ellen Ring, who was appointed by the Government some months ago and is a judge of the High Court. She has assured me of the clear and strict procedures in place in GSOC in this area and that it is operating fully within the law. She emphasised to me that GSOC requests for access to telephone records were decided at the level of the chairperson. As the Deputies said, within An Garda Síochána there is a request from a superintendent which is decided at chief superintendent level.

I have assured Ms Justice Ring - I emphasise this point to the House - that there is no question whatsoever of the review of the law in this area reflecting any lack of confidence in GSOC. The review arises not from the facts of any particular case but from the genuine concerns raised about the overall balance of the law in this area. While I am sure Deputies share my view that statutory bodies investigating offences need to have the appropriate statutory powers available to them to carry out their duties which are very important, we need to examine the balance in respect of entirely legitimate journalistic activity being carried out in the public interest. That is what I envisage being done in the review.

I have to say the Minister's response is completely inadequate and off the mark. The review of the 2011 Act in regard to journalists is not enough. All citizens deserve to have their privacy and human rights protected, and the rightful outcry in regard to journalists' phones being intercepted should be shared in regard to other citizens' rights. The Criminal Justice (Surveillance) Act 2009 allows the Garda to break into somebody's house, to plant devices, to carry out secret recordings and to put a tracking device on a person's car. Some of these activities can be done on the say-so of a superior officer without any oversight or scrutiny, or any definitive figures being produced afterwards. This is not good enough. Privacy and human rights are deserved by all. I appeal to the Minister to look at the situation regarding all of the surveillance legislation which is on our books, the use of that and the powers that rest with the Garda, the Revenue Commissioners, the Defence Forces and other State bodies which are not open to proper scrutiny or freedom of information requests. It is not just a matter for GSOC. If the Minister was serious about freedom of the press and citizens' humans rights, those aspects would be examined as well.

I too have serious concerns about surveillance in Ireland. We have not had much assurance in the past couple of years. We do not measure up to international best practice and this is an excellent opportunity to address many of the issues and concerns people now have in this area.

I found it interesting that the Association of Garda Sergeants and Inspectors was so eager to jump all over GSOC again, and it is laughable how it reacts sometimes. I read a very good letter in The Irish Times this morning by Ray Leonard. He stated:

I would suggest that any journalist aggrieved by GSOC’s actions should make a complaint under section 109 of the 2005 Act and seek a review of those actions by a High Court judge. I would be surprised if such a review found GSOC to have acted excessively but in the event that it did, then the public, the Garda Síochána (and the journalists) have a right to know and to ensure that such actions are corrected. This would also serve to assist GSOC in testing its processes and providing needed external quality control.

He has brought a bit of balance to the debate. I would again reinforce the need to protect the communication facilities of all citizens, not just journalists.

As that letter pointed out, under the current legislation, a report is done every year by a judge who, I am satisfied, has access to all of the records he needs. In this instance, the most recent report was published in November 2015 by Judge Paul McDermott. As Deputy Wallace rightly points out, there is an opportunity, if one has a complaint, to take it up, and there is an identified judge, Judge Hanna of the Circuit Court, who deals with complaints which are made in regard to any such access to records, if an individual has a complaint in regard to it.

To take up Deputy Daly's point, the various bodies which are named in the 2011 Act will also be considered, as I have made very clear. This is not just about GSOC but also about the access that An Garda Síochána, the Revenue Commissioners and the Defence Forces have in regard to these powers. This is included in the term of reference.

It is important to again put on the record of the House that the purpose of the Communications (Retention of Data) Act 2011 is not to pry into the communications or privacy of individuals but to support the work of statutory agencies which are carrying out important work in investigating what have to be serious criminal offences - that is the criterion. This clearly is a key factor in determining whether the decision is agreed to give access to those records. I think most fair-minded people in this House would agree these powers are necessary; the question is what are the appropriate checks and balances. That is precisely what I have asked the judge to review because, of course, we must have the strongest checks and balances possible in view of the importance of these issues. There are balances, and I have mentioned the balance between privacy and criminal investigation, defending the public interest, the rights of victims and, of course, the rights of journalists to protect their sources. These are the issues that will be taken into account.

When we are considering the rights of journalists, I would make the point that we must also take into account the very legitimate rights of a person or their family not to have personal information put in the public arena. We have to realise how very distressing it can be for individuals and families when information is leaked.

As I said, this review will be carried out by the former Chief Justice, Mr. Justice Murray. I believe this is a measured and responsible response to the issues raised, rather than rushing headlong into a legislative amendment. We need to consider these very complex issues.