Saincheisteanna Tráthúla - Topical Issue Debate

Middle East

First, I send our condolences and solidarity to Saeb Erekat, who was an international spokesperson for the Palestinian Authority and who passed away a number of days ago. Our solidarity is with Mr. Erekat's family.

I wish to quote from a statement made last week by the Minister, Deputy Coveney, a colleague of the Minister of State's, Deputy Byrne, on the demolitions of a Bedouin town in the West Bank. I will not quote it in full but I will quote extensive parts of it. The Minister stated:

I am deeply dismayed to learn of the demolition by Israeli authorities on 3 November of more than 70 structures, belonging to 11 Palestinian families in the community of Humsa Al Bqai'a in the northern Jordan Valley. These demolitions include residential, livelihood and sanitation facilities.

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The eviction of families and demolition of their homes is a brutal and violent act. These most vulnerable of people should be protected by the occupation authorities, not subject to further injustice.

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This week's destruction of the ... [village] is a further acceleration of confiscations and demolitions this year, despite previous commitments from Israeli authorities...

The Minister further stated, in response to a question Deputy Costello asked about demolitions that were ongoing in the West Bank, and again it is quite a long answer so I will read out only a slight part of it: "The only possible conclusion we can draw from the systematic nature of these policies, especially in areas where illegal...settlements have already been constructed, is that they are aimed at forcing Palestinians off their land." It is quite an extraordinary statement by the Minister.

The photo I am holding shows some of the evidence of the bulldozing last week of the Bedouin village, with 80 Palestinians being left homeless. If one looks at this picture very carefully, it says, "Humanitarian Support to Palestinians at risk of forcible transfer in the West Bank." It can be seen that the structure is completely destroyed. If one looks very carefully, one will see the logos of agencies of a number of countries that have donated these materials to the most vulnerable people in Palestine. One of the countries is Ireland; the logo of Irish Aid can be seen.

There is no depth of cruelty that Israel will not go to in displacing people, which is an international crime by any standards. There is a pattern here because this has been going on for decades. Israel has been clearing people from particularly around the Jordan Valley, buildings in East Jerusalem and the West Bank and so forth. More Palestinians in the West Bank and East Jerusalem have lost their homes in the first ten months of this year alone than in any full year since 2016. As I said, this is a forcible transfer of people who are vulnerable and now homeless, and Covid-19 hangs over these people as well. It is quite incredible to think that these materials that were funded by the European Union are literally bulldozed over and that there are no consequences for the state of Israel. Most people would say there has to be a consequence for a state doing this to taxpayers' money and government money, but there does not seem to be any consequences. I know the Government has issued a statement on moneys that it will want to be compensated by the state of Israel, €625,000 between compensation from previous demolitions and compensation arising from confiscations by the Israeli authorities.

There is lip service and platitudes regarding Israel. It is treated very differently from any other state. First, what is the Minister of State going to do? Second, has he called the Israeli ambassador in on this issue?

Gabhaim buíochas leis an Teachta Kenny as an ábhar tábhachtach seo a ardú inniu. Tá sé an-tábhachtach go bhfuil sé á phlé againn inniu agus go bhfuilimid ag cáineadh go crua an rud atá déanta ag Iosrael le chéile.

I, too, take this opportunity to address the sad passing, as Deputy Kenny mentioned, of Dr. Saeb Erekat, the Secretary General of the Palestine Liberation Organisation, PLO, and the Palestinian chief negotiator. The Minister for Foreign Affairs, Deputy Coveney, apologies that he cannot be here in person. He met Dr. Erekat on many occasions during his visits to the region and in Dublin when he accompanied President Abbas on his visit in 2018. On behalf of the Government, I extend our sympathies to his family and friends at this difficult time and, indeed, to the Palestinian community in Ireland who will mourn the loss.

I am aware of the specific case the Deputy mentioned. The Minister for Foreign Affairs made a statement on it last week and it was raised with me during statements on the European Council a number of weeks ago. It is worth reiterating what we have said carefully and clearly. The demolition by Israeli authorities of private property, including in the Humsa Al Bqai'a community on 3 November, is of grave concern. Demolition and confiscation of humanitarian assets, including education infrastructure, is contrary to Israel's obligations under international humanitarian law and, in particular, contrary to the Fourth Geneva Convention. As the occupying power, Israel has clear obligations towards the members of this community, including the 41 children impacted disgracefully by the demolitions.

Ireland's representative office in Ramallah visited the site of the demolitions on 6 November along with other diplomatic representatives. We have, therefore, a keen eye on this and we are looking closely at the situation. Ireland, the EU and the wider humanitarian community are ready to support those impacted. I reiterate the call on Israel to cease this practice immediately and to live up to its sacred responsibilities to protect local communities rather than demolish them.

The destruction of the Humsa Al Bqai'a community is part of a significant acceleration of confiscations and demolitions in 2020, despite commitments from Israeli authorities not to target Palestinian residential structures during the pandemic. The only conclusion we can draw from the systematic nature of these policies, especially in areas where illegal Israeli settlements have already been constructed, is that they are aimed at forcing Palestinians off their land. The demolition of Palestinian homes and the demolition or seizure of related structures such as water tanks, wells, solar panels, schools and animal housing are cruel and unjust actions. These practices also cause suffering to ordinary Palestinians and impinge on the right of children to an education.

In answer to the Deputy's question, Ireland regularly conveys its views to the Israeli authorities both directly and through the European Union. In his statement on the 16 October, the Minister called on Israel to halt the demolition and allow for legal construction for Palestinian residents. The Minister and others, including my colleague, the Minister of State, Deputy Niall Collins, who visited Israel some years ago, have raised these and other issues regularly.

Irish officials continue to follow the issue closely on the ground. Ireland's ambassador in Tel Aviv has raised the issue with the Israeli authorities in recent weeks along with a group of EU and non-EU colleagues. Our representative office in Ramallah has visited a number of sensitive sites in recent weeks, including the Ras al-Teen school. The Irish Government and people in Ireland are committed to reducing the vulnerability of Palestinian communities living in area C of the West Bank. Ireland is a member of the West Bank Protection Consortium which plays a leading role in supporting threatened communities and co-ordinating the provision of essential services to them, including material assistance and legal aid.

I will address some of the other issues related to money in a moment.

I do not doubt the bona fides of the Government with regard to the plight of the Palestinian people. We have a good record in this country. Our history is one of being colonised and brutalised and we always have a historical context for supporting the Palestinians. That is great but we must go beyond that. What are the consequences for Israel? The first consequence should, at a minimum, be the recovery of the €625,000 sought by the UN and Ireland to compensate for the destruction of some of the buildings. The second is that the Israeli ambassador should be called in and asked why his army is doing this to people in Palestine. These are simple things.

My more substantial question is on the occupied territories Bill. The Government has failed to send out the right signal to the international community that brutality and occupation are wrong. Ireland should stand up for the Palestinian people, not with platitudes or by paying lip service, but with real deeds, namely, calling in the Israeli ambassador, recovering the moneys owed and passing the occupied territories Bill.

It is important to remember that Ireland has a proud record of supporting Palestinian communities. This year marks 40 years since Brian Lenihan Snr., as Minister for Foreign Affairs, declared support, in what I believe was the first time in the western world, for an independent Palestinian state. That support is developed, enhanced and put into action by the likes of Irish Aid, which the Deputy mentioned, and our people on the ground.

The Deputy is right that it is of significant concern that the structures being demolished are donor-funded by Ireland in particular. It is extremely important that recompense for humanitarian relief be pursued. The European Council is due to discuss Israel and the Mediterranean neighbourhood in December. It is important that we pursue this issue consistently through the West Bank Protection Consortium. We are doing that. It is the practice of the consortium to raise the issue directly with the Israeli authorities. To date, we have seen €625,000 recovered in respect of demolished assets. That continues; it has not ended.

The Government fully supports the right of both Israelis and Palestinians to live in freedom, prosperity and security under governments of their choosing in states of their own and at peace with each other. We continue to work with our EU and international partners to support the realisation of this goal. Ireland will continue to engage on this issue and we will be tough. I will pass Deputy Kenny's comments on to the Minister but it is the case that the Irish authorities are in regular contact on this matter with the Israeli authorities at the highest level. We will support political efforts to encourage a resumption of direct negotiations, which are the only way to achieve peace and the two-state solution.

Our support also includes action on the ground on human rights and justice issues affecting Palestinians under occupation, including civilian deaths. The longer these continue, the more they progressively endanger the prospects of an agreement. Ireland provides financial support to NGOs which are active in bringing to light and combating human rights abuses in the area. Our missions work closely with NGOs, including through regular reporting and monitoring visits. I thank the Deputy for raising this matter. The Government is absolutely committed to raising these issues.

Will the Minister of State call in the Israeli ambassador? Will he show him this photo? It is a war crime.

Nursing Staff

I thank the Minister of State for the opportunity to raise this issue today. I appreciate it relates to the Department of Further and Higher Education, Research, Innovation and Science and possibly the Department of Health. The issue is with supernumerary student nurses in first, second and third year for whom 50% of the course is based on clinical placements. In general, but particularly during the Covid-19 period, these nurses are under extraordinary financial pressure to take up placements, which often mean substantial travel, accommodation, additional laundry costs, living away and, indeed, having to stay away during the Covid-19 period. As matters stand, if they must travel to their placement, which many do, they are given just €50 per week to cover these costs. That is simply not practical. If one takes my constituency of Sligo-Leitrim in the north west and counties Donegal and Roscommon, for example, placements might be 100 miles away. These nurses have to find accommodation, feed themselves and make sure their uniforms are laundered regularly, particularly during Covid.

An allowance of €50 per week does not come anywhere near meeting those costs.

This situation is being experienced by student nurses all over the country. There are difficulties for everybody during the Covid pandemic but that is particularly the case for student nurses in their first, second and third year of training. Some of them are doing weekend work as healthcare assistants but the reality is that they may, as a result, miss out on a clinical placement because the relevant authorities in those placements do not want the increased risk from a Covid perspective that taking those student nurses on would bring. The solution to this, at a minimum, is the introduction of a bursary for bachelor of nursing students in their first, second and third year to assist them at this time and cover the significant expenses they are being forced to endure during this period.

I received a response on 30 September to a question I tabled in respect of payments to student nurses in the first-year to third-year cohort. The response states:

Supernumerary clinical practice placements were temporarily suspended during the initial Covid-19 pandemic response and a temporary scheme was put in place whereby these students were offered employment by the HSE as healthcare assistants. These supernumerary clinical practice placements will resume as expected, based on the requirement for undergraduate nursing and midwifery programmes.

Based on a trawl through the figures that were provided to me, more than 554 people are affected by this issue among the first-year to third-year cohort.

I reiterate the call from the Irish Medical Organisation, INMO, for a scheme to be put in place, similar to the one that was previously in operation, under which student nurses were paid healthcare assistant salaries. That was done in recognition of the fact that many student nurses are working well beyond their experience. We know there are serious capacity issues within the system. According to the INMO, the reality of current service provision is that "inadequate registered nursing staffing levels are requiring students throughout their clinical placements to undertake work over and above that expected of their undergraduate status". The INMO states that the failure to remunerate them "amounts to exploitation". We all accept the bona fides of the organisation in this matter. We are merely calling on the Government to recognise that student nurses are workers and that they should be paid for their work.

I thank the Deputies for raising this important issue. I am conscious of the difficulties being experienced by students and their families as a result of the Covid-19 pandemic and the importance of the student grant scheme and related supports such as the student assistance fund and the fund for students with disabilities. These supports have a fundamental role in assisting students and parents who are putting their children through further and higher education. I will outline in my reply the various supports available through my Department to assist higher education students, including student nurses. They encompass a range of additional supports that have been put in place for students as part of budget 2021 and under the Government's Covid response earlier this year.

The principal support provided by the Department in financial terms is the student grant scheme. Under the terms of the scheme, grant assistance is awarded to students attending an approved course in an approved institution if they meet the prescribed conditions of funding, including those relating to nationality, residency, previous academic attainment and means. The decision on eligibility for a student grant is a matter, in the first instance, for the awarding authority, which is Student Universal Support Ireland, SUSI. For the 2020-21 academic year, grant applications will be based on gross income from all sources for the year from 1 January to 31 December 2019. However, if a student has experienced a change in circumstances since then, that can be notified and flagged to SUSI and will be taken into account. In such cases, applicants may qualify for a revised grant. Details of this process are available on the SUSI website, susi.ie. All students in third level institutions who are experiencing exceptional financial need can apply for support under the student assistance fund. This fund assists students, in a sensitive and compassionate manner, who might otherwise be unable to continue their third level studies due to financial circumstances.

In 2020, my Department will spend approximately €450 million on access measures for further and higher education. This includes €400 million on student grants and related activities, which is expected to benefit 74,000 further and higher education students. As part of budget 2021, the Minister, Deputy Harris, and I secured an additional €20 million to provide for additional applicants to SUSI, €6 million to expand supports to postgraduate students and an additional €1.5 million to support the most disadvantaged students through the 1916 bursary scheme. We have also secured a €50 million fund to support full-time third level students this year.

A range of additional supports have also been provided to reflect the particular circumstances of learners affected by the pandemic. We have doubled the level of funding available under the student assistance fund from €8 million to €16 million. We have increased the level of funding for the 1916 bursary bund to €5 million per annum, which will provide an additional 200 bursaries and bring the total for 2021 to 1,000 bursaries for the most disadvantaged students in the country. As I outlined, we have secured an additional €20 million for SUSI, allocated €6 million to enhance SUSI supports for postgraduate students and provided a €50 million third-level support fund. We have also introduced a €15 million scheme to assist students in purchasing laptops. Finally, we have put in place a €3 million well-being and mental health fund.

Many students undertake placements as part of the process of attaining their qualification. They include a wide range of health professionals undertaking placements in the HSE and the wider health service. Bursaries, stipends, payments and other forms of remuneration are entirely a matter for the health service rather than the course provider or my Department. I very much appreciate the points raised by the Deputies regarding the situation of student nurses. I have set out the relevant supports available to students, including student nurses, within the remit of my Department. I have no doubt that the Deputies may wish to pursue the matter further with the Department of Health.

I thank the Minister of State for his response. I appreciate and welcome all the supports that are available to the wider student body. However, we need a targeted bursary for student nurses, who have additional incidental costs that would not ordinarily apply to other students. It is not a case of one or the other. The supports that are in place are, of course, welcome and necessary, but we should always be open to adjusting or increasing them. This is one such instance in which we must accept and embrace the fact that student nurses in first, second and third year have additional costs and that existing supports do not cover them. These students will become the medical professionals we need in the future. While they are attaining their clinical experience and expertise as part of their studies, we cannot expect them, on €50 per week, to meet the travel and associated expenses arising out of the requirements of their placement.

The Minister of State suggested that we might bring this matter to the attention of the Department of Health but I ask him to explore, on an interdepartmental basis with the Department of Health, the introduction of a bursary in the interests of all the student nurses nationwide in their first, second and third year of training.

I appreciate that the Minister of State is coming at this issue from a higher education point of view. I acknowledge his indication that there is the possibility of taking it up with the HSE, the Department of Health and the relevant line Minister. The fact of the matter is that nurses are productive from the minute they go onto a ward or into an acute hospital setting. That is the point we are making. Student nurses are taking up the slack due to the lack of capacity at this time. There is a precedent in the fact that, at the start of the pandemic in March, a payment was made to student nurses akin to the healthcare assistant payment. I call on the Government to revisit that payment scheme. It could go a long way towards staving off the possibility that some of these student nurses will be lost from the system. If people get good pay and conditions at an early stage in their career, the chances are better that they can be retained within the service instead of being lost to Australia, Dubai or the UK.

We must be more lateral in our thinking in respect of the day-to-day supports that nurses should have because we need to retain them.

I thank both Deputies. I recognise the validity of the case and the argument they are making. There is absolute merit it what they are saying. This is an issue I will flag to the Minister for Health, Deputy Stephen Donnelly, his Department and the HSE. I am also cognisant of the point relating to the IMO has stated on the record in respect of this matter.

I note the point made by Deputy MacSharry regarding a targeted bursary for student nurses. I will certainly communicate with the Minister in that regard also.

There is an opportunity for the stakeholders and all who have an interest in this issue to raise and pursue it through the upcoming social partnership talks relating to the next round of the national wage agreement. That negotiating process is possibly a forum by means of which matters could be fleshed out further.

I want to flag that when a student in a third level institution makes an application to the student assistance fund, which is there to assist students who are in need, final decisions on awards from the fund are decided by a small group appointed by each higher education institution, the membership of which may include the registrar of the particular college, the access officer, the student welfare officer, the students union representative, the head of student services, the head of lifelong and flexible learning or the finance officer. The student assistance fund is available to help with a range of costs, including those relating to books and class materials, rent and other utilities, food, essential travel, childcare, medical issues and connectivity. That gives the Deputies a flavour of the criteria of the fund, the allocation for which amounts to €16 million. Obviously, many of the criteria meet the demands and needs which were articulated by the two Deputies.

Vaccination Programme

The issue I want to raise relates to the flu vaccine, particularly in the context of its availability to GPs and pharmacies throughout the country. I am sure all Deputies have been contacted about this matter. I have been talking to my local pharmacist in Tramore and he stated that he is fully up to date in terms of his returns for the vaccine. He has a waiting list of 200 people. He has already identified those he wants to prioritise in terms of underlying health conditions but he is in a position where he cannot order any additional vaccine. As far as he is concerned, this is the first time in his career that he has been unable to make an order to have vaccine in stock in his pharmacy.

There are a number of issues which arise. The first of these relates to the release of the final 50,000 doses of the flu vaccine. I understand that 1.35 million doses were ordered this year. There is the unresolved issue of 600,000 doses, the returns of which may not have been kept up to date. In the context of the latter, it must be acknowledged that pharmacists and GPs are extremely busy. We should not leave them shoulder any of the blame for perhaps not submitting the administrative work in time in order to release the additional 50,000 doses. Those final 50,000 doses have to be released as a matter of urgency.

There is also the issue of making more doses available. Having Covid and the flu at the same time is health threatening. Is there availability within the international market for us to get our hands on additional doses so that we can facilitate the release of the 50,000 doses that are still in the country and deal with the increased demand for the flu vaccine this year?

I thank the Minister of State, Deputy Byrne, for stepping up and taking this matter. Obviously, it would make more sense if someone from the Department of Health could have been present. If he does not have the answers, I ask the Minister of State to ensure that we get them directly from the Minister for Health. Hopefully, the Minister of State has them.

We all understand that, due to the Covid pandemic, a determination was made to ensure that we would have sufficient supplies of the flu vaccine, particularly for people at risk. That was the cohort of people who would be older and also those who working in front-line healthcare situations, etc. I would like clarity on the figures. We have heard that approximately 1.4 million doses of flu vaccine were bought but the number could be closer to 1.35 million. Seven hundred thousand applications have been made for reimbursement through the primary care reimbursement service. There was a communication problem whereby we believed 600,000 doses had been lost but we now are led to believe that they were delivered and either have not been administered or the applications for reimbursement have not been made. We still have the question of the 50,000 doses that are left.

We have all heard about the difficulties of pharmacies and doctors getting stocks of vaccine. I have heard it in my town of Dundalk. We need to ensure that this is not a difficulty. Doctors and pharmacies, I am led to believe, have been given guidelines to ensure that only at-risk patients or those who would be at risk will get the flu vaccine. How are we ensuring that these guidelines are adhered to?

We need to look at the means by which we could buy more vaccine. What has become clear is that we have insufficient stocks, particularly in view of the circumstances in which we find ourselves. We need to identify a solution as possible.

I thank both Deputies for raising this issue. I, too, am aware of it. I am certainly glad that they have raised the matter because it gives the Government an opportunity to set out what has been done in what has been a massive operation to administer the flu vaccine this year. In fact, what has been done is completely unprecedented.

Of the 1.35 million doses of the flu vaccine available this winter, 1.3 million have already been distributed to GPs, pharmacists and other vaccination sites since early October. The Minister apologises for not being here, but he has informed me - to answer Deputy Ó Murchú's point - that all of those deliveries were properly recorded. In addition, 420,000 doses of the live attenuated influenza vaccine for administration to children between two and 12 years were also distributed. As we are now nearing the end of the supply, the HSE wrote this week to GPs and pharmacists to indicate that the final 50,000 doses would be held back until greater clarity could be achieved on how the doses already distributed have been used.

GPs and pharmacists, as the Deputies have acknowledged, have been incredibly busy this year and have done tremendous work. I thank them for increasing the number of vaccines administered in very difficult circumstances. Already, GPs and pharmacists have submitted almost 80% more claims than in the same period last year, including 35% more in respect of those over 65. That is very positive. Nonetheless, given the particular circumstances prevailing, it is important that the HSE has as clear a picture as possible before allocating the final 50,000 doses available for use in order to ensure that they can be targeted where they will have the biggest impact in line with the priorities as set out by the WHO for this year's vaccination campaign. That picture depends on claims from GPs and pharmacists but also on information from hospitals, nursing homes and other relevant locations. The distribution of the final 50,000 doses will start at the end of this month.

This year's flu vaccination campaign will see significantly more people receive the vaccine in Ireland than ever before. Assuming that the current trends carry through, at least 350,000 more individuals in at-risk groups will receive the vaccine this winter than last. In addition, over 100,000 children have already received the vaccine that has been provided without charge for the first time. This will increase significantly in the coming weeks.

Deliveries of the vaccine from the manufacturer were not as quick as we would have liked due to the challenging international market and the unprecedented times in which we are living. It is also true that the demand is there. People are answering the call to get vaccinated. The level of demand is unprecedented. This is the case everywhere, in Europe and beyond. In that context, it is unlikely, the HSE and the Minister believe, that additional supply will become available. This reinforces the message that in view of the finite supply of the vaccine, it is important that even the increased quantities which we have this year are targeted where they will have the greatest impact, benefiting the individuals concerned and helping to reduce the pressure on the health system.

I am disappointed we are going to be unable to source extra vaccines. This is perhaps approaching the issue slightly tangentially but perhaps we need to leverage what we do have in a better way. The Minister of State made reference to the children's vaccine which is still available. It is free at the point of use and I am advised that there is plenty of it available. Perhaps the Government needs to think about an awareness-raising campaign on this. The flu often finds a reservoir among our younger population, which Covid thankfully does not. Let us leverage what we have and communicate better that this is available and free at the point of contact. This will hopefully allow us to break the chain of transmission and maybe help protect some of the older and more vulnerable people within our communities by stopping the spread in transmission of the virus. That might be something we can think about going forward.

I agree that it is somewhat worrying that we might not be able to source a greater level of flu vaccine, particularly if that leads to a situation in which we cannot ensure all those at risk can actually get the vaccine. We need to ensure, once again, that doctors and pharmacies are operating to the guidelines of giving it only to those at risk. We also need to do anything possible to ensure we can get any stocks that do become available. We welcome the fact that a task force on the Covid-19 vaccine has been set up under Mr. Brian MacCraith. We have also had the very good news that the Pfizer-BioNTech vaccine is 90% effective. We need to ensure we learn from any mistakes we have made on this, that we carry out all the due diligence and that we ensure we can administer to everyone on the basis of need. We also need to ensure there is an all-Ireland response, particularly given the conditions of living on this island.

I thank the Deputies. It is a crucially important issue and I am glad to see people talking positively about vaccines because there are, quite frankly, a lot of cranks out there on the Internet who are just rubbishing anything at all to do with vaccines without looking at the science and indeed, in the case of the Covid vaccine, without waiting for the clinical trials to be completed, which has not happened yet.

Both Deputies raised the issue of ordering more flu vaccine. The Minister asked me to advise Members that vaccines are ordered well in advance. This year the HSE placed its order in February. The HSE order for 2020-21 season was 20% greater than it that for the previous year and 35% greater than the uptake for winter 2019-20. These figures do not include the additional 600,000 doses for children, which would bring the additional number of doses of vaccine available this year to almost 75%. The numbers we are getting vaccinated are thus unprecedented. However, given the demand on the international market for the influenza vaccine, the Minister feels it is not realistically possible to procure more doses at this point. Steps are being taken at the moment by the HSE to ensure vaccinations are delivered to those most in need and where they will have the greatest impact, in light of the international market conditions and of the fact we have unprecedented numbers getting the vaccine. The full amount, up to 1.35 million, will have gone out by the end of this month.

On the two to 12 years of age category, the programme is ongoing and I use this opportunity really to encourage parents who have not yet done so to contact their GP or pharmacist to arrange a vaccination. The last thing parents want is a child who could have been vaccinated against flu coming home with flu-like symptoms and the whole family having to isolate for a couple of weeks as a precaution. The vaccination is there, it is available and children under 12 years should get it. I again thank the Deputies for raising the issue.

Driver Test

I raise the waiting times for driving test. While it is an issue nationally, the number is particularly bad in my constituency of Carlow-Kilkenny. Of the two counties, County Carlow is unfortunately faring worse with 1,119 currently waiting on a driving test. In a county like Carlow, where access to public transport is extremely limited where it is available at all, there is a huge amount of people who are unable to access employment or are unable to get to their jobs. This is really being exacerbated by the Covid situation because we do not really have access to public transport in our constituency, which is very limited. Where public transport exists it is down to 25% capacity. People are also being encouraged not to take public transport due to Covid but what should a person do if he or she is in rural town or village in County Carlow and cannot get to a job or cannot apply for certain jobs? Many jobs now require a person to have a full licence. I often get contacted by people who have maybe been offered a job on the condition that they have their full licence, are getting it or where the expectation of a job is there if they can fulfil that requirement. It is extremely difficult if there are 1,119 people waiting for a test. The waiting list in County Kilkenny is quite bad as well at 888 people but it is particularly acute in County Carlow.

What solutions are being looked at and what exactly is being done to address this problem? Unfortunately, rural Ireland has, to a large extent, been forgotten about. Since this Government has come into office we have heard a lot about electric cars, cycle lanes, walking and cycling. That is all great and fantastic but is not any good if a person is 20 to 25 miles away from his or her employment. It is not realistic if a person does not have access to a bus or a train, so we need to be realistic about that sort of stuff as well. What exactly is being done to clear the waiting list so people can actually get to work and apply for jobs? I imagine a huge amount of young people fall into this category as well; it is another situation where they are being disadvantaged.

I thank Deputy Funchion for raising this really important matter. The driver test service and the driver theory test are the statutory responsibility of the Road Safety Authority, RSA. The Department has been in constant contact with the RSA since the start of the pandemic regarding all of its services, the impact of Covid-19 on those services and how they can best be maintained in the current circumstances. As the Deputy is aware car driving tests were temporarily suspended due to Covid-19 in March 2020. Since the resumption of operations in mid July there has inevitably been an increased level of demand due to the consequent backlog. Unfortunately, due to social distancing and other public health and hygiene requirements, service capacity has had to be considerably reduced. This means that customers are experiencing longer waiting times than was the case before the service was suspended. Level 5 restrictions, which took effect for six weeks on 22 October, mean that driving tests are now only available to those who are involved in essential services, including essential retail work. While I regret the inconvenience caused, public safety must remain of paramount importance. The Road Safety Authority is currently examining ways of increasing the number of tests, within health constraints, when driver testing resumes after level 5 and is working in close consultation with the Department on this matter. This includes increasing the number of testing staff to help reduce, and over time to eliminate, the backlog. The Department has recently approved the retention by the RSA of 18 temporary driving testers whose contracts were due to expire in October and November. The RSA has also re-hired a further 18 temporary testers whose contracts expired in May. This will help to increase testing capacity when services resume. In the longer term, the Department is considering proposals by the RSA for further measures to address the backlog.

The driver theory test had not been deemed as an essential service under level 5. As a consequence the services closed effective from midnight on Wednesday, 21 October for the duration of level 5 restrictions. All appointments during that time have been rescheduled to the next available appointment date. As I am sure the Deputy is aware that theory test service was temporarily suspended in March 2020 due to the Covid-19 emergency. When the service resumed in June there was an increased level of demand and a significant backlog developed. This was coupled with the need to reduce significantly normal daily capacity to comply with occupational and public health requirements.

When the driver theory test service closed on 21 October due to the latest restrictions, the majority of testing centres had almost full bookings up to the end of December, and some into January, as they worked their way through the initial backlog. The decision was taken by the service provider that those whose appointments were cancelled due to the latest restrictions would be rescheduled to the next available appointment date. The Road Safety Authority has advised my office it is engaging with the service provider to examine ways of increasing the number of tests within the current health constraints for when services are resumed. This will help reduce and, over time, eliminate the backlog. The Department has requested that the Road Safety Authority, as the body legally responsible for the driver theory test, examine whether theory tests can be taken online remotely and what is required to do so. I understand the authority is developing proposals in this regard but this planning is at a very early stage and it is not expected to come on stream in the immediate future.

I thank the Minister of State. As a point of clarification, and if the Minister of State does not have the information to hand perhaps she will forward it to me, if there are 18 temporary driver testers and a further 18 will be hired, does this mean there will be 36 in total? Will they all be kept on in a full-time capacity?

I was going to mention the theory test. There is an issue with the backlog of driver tests, and we will probably see this issue continue for a long time, and there is also a backlog with the theory test. The only way to tackle all of this is to have testers in a full-time capacity. There should be consultation with the testers, the driving instructors and their representative groups because I am sure they all have ideas on how to deal with this. Everybody wants to see this matter resolved.

The Minister of State is from a rural constituency and she understands that a car is not a luxury in rural communities. People have to have one. It is a basic requirement for getting children to school and for people getting to their jobs. It is particularly disappointing to see young people not being able to apply for certain jobs or not being able to take up jobs because they cannot get a driver licence. There are also other issues with regard to the cost of car insurance for young people, which is a major problem. I appreciate what the Minister of State has said about doing the theory tests online and it seems like something that surely could be done.

I thank the Deputy. My understanding is that the 36 figure refers to the number of extra driver testers who will be in place. I know how concerned many constituents are about this and while the service is limited during level 5 restrictions, the Road Safety Authority is examining ways of increasing the number of tests within the health constraints, with an eye on resuming the wider testing level after level 5. It is working in close consultation with the Department on the matter. This includes increasing the number of testing staff to help reduce the backlog over time.

To clarify, the Department has given approval to the Road Safety Authority to retain the 18 driver testers on temporary contracts due to expire in October and November and to rehire the further 18 temporary testers whose contracts expired in May. They will be additional. This will help to increase the testing capacity. However, it is important to stress there are many issues impacting on the delivery of the service, which relate to throughput in the centres in light of the restrictions rather than the availability of staff alone. There are a number of health protocols that need to be adhered to with regard to the testing system.

The Road Safety Authority is also looking at a number of other measures, including whether the number of tests a driver tester can perform each day can be increased within the current health constraints. Due to the additional hygiene and sanitation procedures that are now absolutely necessary, each testing slot takes a lot longer to complete. As a result, the number of tests a tester can safely conduct per day was reduced from eight to five when the service reopened. Following its experience of managing the tests under Covid restrictions, this was increased to six in mid-September. At present, the Road Safety Authority is prioritising driver testing for essential workers and has set up a dedicated email which may be of assistance. The email address is urgentdrivingtest@rsa.ie and applicants can request to be given priority and supply supporting documentation. These requests are prioritised during the scheduling process, with cancellation slots being offered where possible.