Saincheisteanna Tráthúla - Topical Issue Debate

Greyhound Industry

I welcome the opportunity to raise this Topical Issue. I submitted it over the weekend on foot of Bord na gCon's threat to move a feature greyhound race from Mullingar greyhound stadium to Galway greyhound stadium. The Irish Cesarewitch, a premier 600 yd classic, has been held successfully in Mullingar for the past 18 years and it appears that the threat to move it to Galway has since been rescinded. I compliment the members of the board of the greyhound track, the breeders who use the track and my constituency colleague who in recent days have been highlighting the regrettable proposal that emanated last week. I thank the Minister for taking a call over the weekend. I wonder why the decision to move the race to Galway was not formally notified to the board of Mullingar greyhound stadium. While it is most welcome that Bord na gCon has changed its mind in advance of tomorrow evening's meeting, at which the decision was due to be ratified, it raises questions about the governance of Bord na gCon. Did someone in Galway put pressure on Bord na gCon to move the race in the first instance? Did the decision to rescind the proposal to move the race to Galway result from the pressure exerted in recent days by the directors, the political representatives and the breeders?

We were told that it was proposed to move the Cesarewitch to Galway because of capacity issues at Mullingar. I consider this to be a very lame excuse because the capacity issues with the fire escape were definitely present last year and may have been present for the past two years when there was no proposal to move the race. All of this shows Bord na gCon's clear lack of support for Mullingar greyhound stadium. We know that Bord na gCon has invested in greyhound stadiums in regional locations such as Thurles, Clonmel, Galway and Tralee and wonder why Mullingar is not on that list. In February 2017 Bord na gCon received Government approval to dispose of Harold's Cross greyhound stadium. Part of the reason for that decision was the need to clear the substantial debts Bord na gCon had built up in the preceding years. It was also intended that some of the money raised from the sale of the Harold's Cross facility would be used to invest in other stadiums. We cannot interfere in the fire officer's decision and should not seek to do so because health and safety are paramount.

However, the board's lack of support for the directors of the Mullingar stadium making the necessary physical improvements is hampering the dog track's ability to reach its full potential. Consequently, the stadium is losing revenue weekly. The track is turning down highly profitable benefit nights and is no longer available to the sports clubs from surrounding counties that once travelled to use it. I understand that Bord na gCon turned down a recent request for funding to replace the advertising board at the centre of the track, a further indication of its lack of support for the stadium.

Bord na gCon is responsible for presenting a business case to the Government and the latter has representatives on the board. When will funding be made available to carry out the essential capital works that will enable the stadium to generate its own revenue and put it on a sustainable footing?

I thank Deputy Troy for raising this issue. Ironically, I will be introducing the Greyhound Racing Bill 2018 in the Seanad at 3 p.m., with Committee Stage scheduled for next week, all going well. I hope that the Bill will modernise the greyhound industry by underpinning it with legislation that is fit for purpose in the 21st century. The Deputy mentioned a colleague. I presume he meant Deputy Burke, who has also been in touch and made representations on this matter, including to the track's board directly.

Bord na gCon is a commercial semi-State body established in 1958 under that year's Greyhound Industry Act, chiefly to control greyhound racing and improve and develop the greyhound industry. It is a body corporate and separate legal entity to the Department of Agriculture, Food and the Marine.

I have made inquiries with Bord na gCon and have been informed that, due to issues around attendance capacity at the Mullingar greyhound stadium owing to fire safety restrictions, the 2019 Irish Cesarewitch is proposed to be run in Galway over 575 yd. The intention behind this proposal is to move the event to Galway temporarily.

Approval of any significant capital project at individual stadia is subject to the completion of a systematic review of the industry footprint, as proposed in the IGB Strategic Plan 2018-2022. I have been advised that the procurement process for appointment of an independent consultant to undertake this study will commence shortly, and it is anticipated that a final report will be completed by next March.

Bord na gCon has informed me that, in the interim, it has engaged consultant architects to prepare a proposal to address the deficiencies at Mullingar and that this proposal will shortly be put forward for planning approval. On receipt of same, it will be necessary to obtain fire safety and disability access certificates regarding the proposed works. A sum of €100,000 has been assigned for works under the board's business plan regarding the use of some of the surplus proceeds from the Harold's Cross sale.

The capacity of the restaurant is limited to 126 people on the upper floor and 130 on the ground floor. The suggested proposal involves the demolition of the existing fire exit at the southern end of the building and the construction of a new, larger fire exit staircase. Subject to fire authority approval, this solution would increase capacity on the upper floor to 240, with ground floor capacity remaining unchanged, representing a net increase of 114 patrons.

Bord na gCon has informed me that, at the national greyhound consultative forum meeting held on 26 September, it indicated that a review of the fixtures and events calendar was under way and submissions were invited in respect of that calendar. The necessity to review the calendar was based on the changes in the industry in general and to provide for an optimum racing calendar throughout the year. A number of detailed submissions were received. These were considered by a sub-committee established to make recommendations to the board. The sub-committee met on three occasions and gave detailed consideration to a range of factors which have an impact on the events calendar. A draft calendar was formulated and put forward for consultation on 11 October. Submissions were invited on it by 16 October so that the matter could be considered at the board meeting scheduled for 18 October, which is tomorrow. Bord na gCon has informed me that, at this point, no decisions have been made regarding the fixtures and events calendar for 2019.

The Minister of State has outlined a number of welcome developments. He is right in that plenty of submissions were made in advance of yesterday's deadline. I made one, as did my colleague, the directors and breeders, but we have been told, including via feedback to me from the board, that the decision has been taken not to advance with this move next year, albeit temporarily. Will the Minister of State confirm whether a decision has been taken or must we wait until tomorrow evening for it to be made? Local newspapers claim that the decision has been rescinded already, but how could it have been made in advance of the board meeting? That raises questions about the board's governance and structure. Perhaps the Minister of State will clarify. We want it stated explicitly that the decision is being rescinded.

The much-needed structural investment in the stadium is welcome, but we must ask why we have been waiting so long for it. The fire officer's decision on closure was made in November 2016. When Harold's Cross was sold in February 2017 for €23 million or €24 million, there was a promise that additional funding would be provided to stadia around the country. I named a number that have benefited from such funding, so why has Mullingar lost out for two years? Will the Minister of State engage with the board to ensure that the necessary works are accelerated so that there are no capacity issues and the track can meet its full potential?

A number of points have been raised. I stand to be corrected, but I believe that the final transfer of moneys happened much more recently than February 2017. That was the time of the valuation, but the process took quite a while. It is also the case that the strategic plan was only presented this summer. I cannot answer the Deputy's questions concerning the works at other stadia, but I assume that they were ongoing works and were not part of the strategic plan, as none of them could have been up and running any sooner.

The proposal was to move the Cesarewitch and the qualifying heats temporarily to Galway next year. If there has been a recommendation to rescind that proposal, that decision will have to be formally approved through the board. I cannot tell the Deputy that it has been rescinded. If the board is to be functional, it must be the body making these decisions. On foot of submissions received from 11 to 16 October, it may opt to stick to its decision, but we will have to wait until tomorrow to know. I cannot pre-empt what will be decided at the board meeting.

DEIS Status

I placed this matter on the agenda for debate because it is an important issue for schools in my and the Leas-Cheann Comhairle's county of Donegal and one with which the Minister for Education and Skills is familiar. It was the first opportunity for the Minister, Deputy McHugh, to address the house in his ministerial capacity, and I must say that I am disappointed that he has not shown up. I am more disappointed for the schools that we will reference in this debate that he has not shown up for them.

There are many challenges in the education sector in Donegal, for example, the three school campus projects and the schools building projects for Gaelscoil na gCeithre Máistrí in Donegal town and St. Mary's in Stranorlar, to name but a few. There are many other challenges in terms of the pay and conditions of the staff who work within our school environments.

However, today I want to revisit an issue the Leas-Cheann Comhairle and I have jointly addressed in the House numerous times, namely, the issue of DEIS schools and the failure to afford DEIS status to a number of schools in Donegal. Last year, we raised the issue of four schools in particular, Pobalscoil Ghaoth Dobhair, of which I was a pupil many years ago, Scoil Náisiúnta Ghort an Choirce, Scoil Náisiúnta Rann na Feirste, and Scoil Náisiúnta Mhín Tine Dé. Despite the fact that an additional 79 schools were added to the DEIS scheme last year, these four schools were not part of the complement awarded DEIS status.

I will address with the Minister of State the issue of some of those schools. It is of note that all the national schools in the parish of Gaoth Dobhair have DEIS status. When children advance to second level in Pobalscoil Ghaoth Dobhair, however, they lose the advantage of attending a school with DEIS status. The reason that is the case is due to the educational attainment of the students as a result of the professionalism of the staff in that school who have supported students to achieve their best. They are being punished because of their success in that respect. Notwithstanding that, the pupils who enter that school every morning at a few minutes past nine come from a disadvantaged area. The 2016 census indicates the area is now more disadvantaged that it was in 2011.

Gort an Choirce national school has not secured disadvantaged status, despite the fact that the secondary school in the area, Pobalscoil Chloich Cheannfhaola, has disadvantaged status. The area of Gort an Choirce is disadvantaged. The index score from the 2016 census shows that levels of disadvantage in the area increased dramatically between 2011 and 2016. The school in Rann na Feirste is in a similar position, as is the school in Mín Tine Dé.

When we raised this issue last year - I raised it again earlier this year - we were told by the Minister that a review of all schools would be completed by the end of the first quarter of 2018. We were also told it would take account of the updated census data, which I have just cited showing that the areas in which these schools are located have become more disadvantaged than they were previously. Account was to be taken of the new data and we were told a decision would be made as soon as possible.

Children have been back in school since September and their schools still do not have the supports that should be in place for children attending schools in disadvantaged areas. Such supports include additional resources, school meals programmes and additional teaching capacity to make sure that all the challenges the children face are addressed in a meaningful way.

If the Minister for Education and Skills, Deputy Joe McHugh, had shown the decency to turn up in the Chamber, I would have taken the opportunity to congratulate him, his family and our county on his elevation to the position of Minister. However, that also involves turning up and delivering. I have a question for the new Minister. When will these four schools be awarded DEIS status? It is blindingly obvious that they are entitled to and should be awarded DEIS status and ridiculous we have had to wait this long. Children are not meeting their full potential because of the degree of red tape within the Department of Education of Skills.

I thank the Deputy for raising this matter, which I am taking on behalf of the Minister for Education and Skills, Deputy McHugh. I am delighted he has been appointed to that office. I take this opportunity in Dáil Éireann to wish him the very best.

I was a school principal for 31 years and I understand what Deputy Pearse Doherty is saying. I have taught thousands of children and in my ministerial role I always put the child at the epicentre of any agenda I have. Therefore, I hear what he is saying.

As the Deputy will be aware, Delivering Equality of Opportunity in Schools is the main policy initiative of the Government to address educational disadvantage at school level. The DEIS plan 2017 sets out the vision for future interventions in the critical area of educational disadvantage policy and builds on what has already been achieved by schools which have benefited from the additional supports available under the initial DEIS programme introduced in 2005. The DEIS plan 2017 is based on the findings of an extensive review of the DEIS programme, which involved consultations with all relevant stakeholders.

There are two key elements to the 2017 pIan. The first is the development of a new identification process for the assessment of schools in terms of the socio-economic background of their pupil cohort using centrally held data, including the Department of Education and Skills primary and post-primary online databases and the Central Statistics Office, CSO, small area of population statistics from the national census of population 2011, as represented by the Pobal HP deprivation index. The second is the updating of the DEIS school programme, which represents the overall package of supports available to schools participating in the programme to improve educational outcomes for pupils at greatest risk of not reaching their full potential by virtue of their socio-economic circumstances.

As of September 2017 following the application of the new identification process, 79 additional schools were designated as DEIS and 30 urban post-primary schools were upgraded from DEIS band 2 to DEIS band 1. These were schools that were identified as having the highest levels of concentrated disadvantage.

The DEIS plan 2017 states that the improved data on the socio-demographic of schools resulting from the new identification model will have an impact not only on the assessment of schools for inclusion in the programme, but also on the scaling of resources to allow for more graduated levels of support. This is turn allows for the ultimate objective of allocating resources to best meet the identified need of individual schools.

Work is continuing on the implementation of the various actions under the DEIS plan 2017, with a focus on targeting extra resources as closely as possible at those students with the greatest level of need. Work has also commenced on identifying such interventions that are having the greatest impact on tackling educational disadvantage. This will involve testing new approaches in groups of schools and working closely with schools in school self-evaluation and planning improvements.

We need to ensure the current identification model is as accurate as possible and this requires the use of Eircode to ensure correct inputting of addresses. Further analysis is also required to examine other variables known to be strong predictors of educational disadvantage in the context of resource allocation. To ensure the quality of the address data and conduct further analysis, the Department has decided to conduct additional quality assurance on the model before extending these envisaged uses of the model. It is not intended to extend the DEIS programme to any further schools until this work is complete.

This is new information, which the House has not been given previously. We were told something very different, namely, that there would be an update of all schools using the 2016 census data. The Department is still using the 2011 census data, which is already seven years out of date. As I said, all of these areas have become more disadvantaged, according to the HP deprivation index. The schools, which are in disadvantaged areas, should have been awarded DEIS status in the first instance. They have since become more disadvantaged. It appears the Department has been reviewing the programme it is running to categorise whether a school should be in the scheme or not for the past year. In the meantime, students and teachers have to wait and potential outcomes will not be reached. The Minister of State is shaking her head.

We were told last year that an update of the associated HP index was recently published and that the timeline for the process of assessment to be completed was the end of the first quarter of 2018. We are now in the third quarter and about to enter the fourth quarter of 2018 and the process is still not complete. Now the Minister of State, on behalf of the new Minister for Education and Skills, Deputy Joe McHugh, is telling me and telling the students of Pobalscoil Ghaoth Dobhair, Scoil Náisiúnta Ghort an Choirce, Scoil Náisiúnta Rann na Feirste and Scoil Náisiúnta Mhín Tine Dé, as well as the other schools that should be afforded DEIS status, that it is not intended to extend the scheme to any further schools until quality assurance work on the model is complete. When did this start? Last year we were told that work would be done on this and a full year has passed. When will these students get certainty? When will the Department recognise that their areas have fallen into more disadvantage and therefore their schools, and through their schools the students themselves, need to be supported in the way that many other hundreds of schools have been supported through the DEIS programme. That is the key question that parents, pupils and teachers are asking. The Minister of State has a background as an educator and will understand that the teachers concerned at both primary and secondary level are tearing their hair out because they recognise where their pupils are coming from, understand they are from disadvantaged areas and cannot understand the red tape exercise that has been going on in the Department for over a year that is preventing them and their pupils from getting what they should have been given in the first place.

I thank the Deputy and hear him clearly but I point out that the 2019 budget saw the largest Vote ever for education of €10.8 billion. To be fair, we must target our resources and that is what we are doing. We have to make sure that the children in most need get the resources they require. As I said earlier, the underlying principle for inclusion in the DEIS school programme is evidenced by the need to make provision of key supports to schools catering for very concentrated levels of disadvantaged pupils. Schools which were not included in the DEIS programme in 2017 are those which were not identified as having the highest levels of concentrated disadvantage among their pupil cohort.

That is not true.

It was the educational attainment of the pupils that ruled them out.

Please allow the Minister without interruption.

DEIS plan 2017 provides that if we are to have the maximum possible impact on providing opportunities for students most at risk of disadvantage, then our extra resources must be targeted as closely as possible at those students with the greatest level of need. It also provides for the development of a resource allocation model which aims to move away from the quite rigid and inflexible system for the identification of schools and resource allocation that has operated previously. In future, the intention is that the range and level of supports provided to schools will better match the identified educational need within their pupil cohorts. As someone with 31 years experience in education, I believe this is the right approach.

Domiciliary Care Allowance

I thank the Minister of State, Deputy Finian McGrath, for taking this issue. I note that the Minister for Employment Affairs and Social Protection, Deputy Regina Doherty, has other commitments and is unavailable today and I thank her office for contacting me to inform me of that.

The Minister of State will be aware that the domiciliary care allowance is a monthly payment to the carer of a child with a disability so severe that the child requires care, attention and supervision substantially in excess of that needed by another child of the same age who does not have a disability. This care and attention must be provided to allow the child to get on with the activities of daily living. The allowance is a great help to parents and enables them to help their child and pay for some of the additional costs incurred due to the child's disability.

In response to the parliamentary question that I submitted last week, the Minister stated that for domiciliary care allowance to be payable, a child must be resident with the qualified person for at least five days per week and that there is no provision under the legislation to support the splitting of the domiciliary care allowance between two parents. I appreciate that, as with every scheme, there are objective guidelines for determining eligibility. Until two weeks ago, however, I was not aware of an issue that baffles me, quite honestly. To refuse this payment to the carers of a child with disabilities because he or she spends half of the week with one parent and the second half with the other parent is discriminatory. There are many such cases in this country because marriages break down for many reasons and it is not for us to ask why. Having a child with disabilities has massive financial implications for any household. There are cases where a judge rules that parents be given joint custody of a child or children. In those cases, one or other of the parents gets the domiciliary care allowance but it should be split between both parents.

Under the domiciliary allowance scheme, payment is not payable if the child is resident full time in an institution. However, if the child comes home for not less than two days and for more than four days in any one week, a half-rate payment can be made to the qualified person. Given that, it is not beyond the bounds of possibility to split the allowance between two parents in cases of separation, which would be of major help to both.

I would also like to take this opportunity to reiterate Fianna Fáil's call for medical cards to be provided for all children in receipt of domiciliary care allowance. More than 33,000 parents are in receipt of this allowance on behalf of their children but currently there are approximately 10,000 children whose parents are in receipt of the allowance who do not have a full medical card. Their parents are paying for medical care that is not covered by this scheme. Extending the medical card to these children would remove a significant financial burden on their parents, particularly those children with disabilities and serious conditions. It is imperative that we ensure that those experiencing financial hardship due to very serious illnesses receive a discretionary medical card and it is regrettable that this has not happened to date.

I thank Deputy Scanlon for raising this very important issue. I accept that he has made some very valid points. I will give the Deputy the detailed response from the Department and will answer any further questions he may have then.

Domiciliary care allowance, DCA, is a payment made in respect of a child with a disability who requires care and attention substantially in excess of another child of the same age without a disability. Eligibility for the allowance is not based on the child’s disability but on the resultant additional care needs. No disability excludes a child from qualifying but neither does a particular disability automatically qualify a child.

DCA is currently paid to over 38,000 parents or guardians in respect of over 42,000 children at a cost in excess of €213 million per annum, when the cost of the associated carer's support grant is included. DCA was first introduced by the Minister for Health in 1973. The payment was specifically designed to help parents or guardians of severely disabled children between two and 16 years of age who were being cared for at home. To qualify, the child had to have a severe disability requiring constant care and attention substantially in excess of that needed by a child of the same age, which was likely to last for at least 12 months. In 2000, the scheme was reformed and was extended to include children under two years of age. The scheme transferred to the Department of Social Protection in 2009. The scheme is not means tested and is paid at the rate of €309.50 per month. The carer’s support grant of €1,700, is also automatically payable to all DCA recipients in June each year. Some 60% of DCA recipients are also in receipt of the carer's allowance. Claim volumes have been increasing over recent years. In 2017 over 8,000 applications were received, 763 more than in 2016 and 1,012 more than 2015. Following the full application process, that is, the initial application, the provision of further medical information by the applicant, revised decisions and appeals, over 80% of applications are allowed.

Applications are normally decided within ten weeks. Children who qualify for the allowance also qualify automatically for a medical card. Domiciliary care allowance is payable to whoever is considered to be the qualified person to receive the allowance. Section 186D of the Social Welfare Consolidation Act 2005 defines a qualified person as the person with whom the child normally resides and who cares for him or her. In order for domiciliary care allowance to be payable, a child must be resident with the qualified person for at least five days per week as per section 140C of SI 162 of 2009. The rationale for this condition - this touches on the point raised by the Deputy - is to ensure the payment is made to the person who is the main carer of the child and with whom he or she is considered to reside. There is no provision under the legislation to support the splitting of the domiciliary care allowance payment between two parents.

Domiciliary care allowance is a payment made in respect of the care of a child and can be taken into account when parents are agreeing maintenance or other arrangements for the care of the child. While it remains payable to one parent only, the amount paid can be considered as part of the overall care package for the support of the child. Therein lies part of the solution.

I hope this clarifies the matter for the Deputy, but I am listening on the broader issue because I take the points made by the Deputy in his introductory speech.

There are major financial implications in having a child with severe disabilities in a household. One person who contacted me recently about a completely unrelated matter mentioned this issue as an afterthought, perhaps because she did not think anything could be done about it and I do not whether it can. I told her that I would raise the matter at the first opportunity in the Dáil. I understand she has requested an oral hearing on her claim for a domiciliary care allowance payment. In cases in which judges have decided joint custody is best for the child, nobody receives the domiciliary care allowance because the child spends half of the week with one parent and the other half with the other. This issue should be considered because hardship is being caused hardship. The child spends three and ha half days per week with each parent, neither of whom receives anything. The Minister of State might see if the issue can be dealt with.

I thank the Deputy for raising this important issue. Of course, we have to ensure parents and carers of children with disabilities receive support. The Independent Alliance dealt with this issue very strongly in the budget for next year. The domiciliary care allowance is €309.50 per month. The carer's support grant which the Independent Alliance had restored within six months of going into government is €1,700. It is paid to 101,000 families in the State. There are 38,000 parents directly affected by the issue raised by the Deputy. That is another reason we pushed in the Estimates debate for an increase in the weekly rate of carer's allowance, carer's benefit, blind pension, disability allowance and invalidity pension because we accept the argument - the Deputy's argument - that the parents of children with disabilities need more support.

On the broader debate, the legislation in place requires a child to be resident with one parent for five days per week in order to qualify for the domiciliary care allowance. It is important to note that under the legislation, where parents insist on a child residing fewer than five days per week with one or other parent, the allowance is not payable. Is there a possibility that such families, as part of the separation agreement, could negotiate a settlement in that regard? If a child is resident full time in an institution such as a hospital, the domiciliary care allowance is not payable. If, however, the child goes home for not fewer than two days or not more than four in any one week, half of the allowance is paid to the qualified person, that is, the person with whom the child is considered to be normally residing, if not in the institution.

The Deputy has raised a very important issue which I will follow up with the Minister for Employment Affairs and Social Protection because the argument he has made has a certain validity. We must ensure that if there are two parents providing care on a 50:50 basis, there will be some scheme in place. In the meantime, while we are having the debate about legislation or changing the system, I encourage parents who are making settlements and if they are responsible and care about their children, to sit down and hammer out a deal to go 50:50 on the allowance.