Saincheisteanna Tráthúla - Topical Issue Debate

Home Care Packages

I wish to raise a very sensitive and emotive issue relating to the delivery of home care support services. Changes to the disability home support packages are causing immense distress and anxiety to many families who avail of these services. A constituent of mine contacted me last week regarding her daughter, Fran. Fran is 31 years old and profoundly intellectually disabled. She has refractory epilepsy. When unwell, she can have a seizure every five to ten minutes. She also has epidermal nevus syndrome, a rare skin disorder. She experiences rapid mood changes and sensory overload when changes to her environment or routine occur. Fran is normally good-humoured and happy. She can verbalise with loud shouting sounds when stressed or anxious, but is otherwise unable to express herself or communicate. Covid has caused Fran's personal routine to go out the window. This has resulted in her lashing out and a major regression in her personality and mood which, in turn, makes life very difficult for the family.

Fran's parents are her full-time carers. Her mother, Paula, was awarded carer of the year last year. I was present at the award ceremony. In the same week Paula received the award, she was diagnosed with kidney cancer. She is currently undergoing treatment and has been further diagnosed with chronic obstructive pulmonary disease, COPD, cardiac issues and osteoarthritis. This family was in turmoil and already had its hands full when this cancer-suffering mother received a phone call from the HSE to inform her that Fran's carer of some ten years would be replaced within 48 hours by the HSE without any prior warning. The call to tell her that a new carer would take over on Friday came on Wednesday. It is unbelievably upsetting. I know the personal circumstances of the family. I might as well tell the Minister of State that similar calls came in rapidly from my constituents as the week evolved.

I was contacted by the family of a woman named Mary. She is 68 years old and has Parkinson's disease and intellectual disabilities. Mary likes and needs routine. Her world has been turned upside down already this year with the arrival of Covid, resulting in her not being able to attend her beloved centre every day. This has affected Mary deeply. She cannot understand this monumental change in her life. Mary lives in a predominantly male environment with her 88 year old father, so her carer has been a pivotal part of her life for the past 12 years. The family just cannot understand how the HSE can expect Mary and the rest of the family to accept such a massive upheaval and have a complete stranger come into their home and lives. Such a change would be difficult at any time, but it is particularly challenging in the midst of Covid.

I will not mention the other cases. This situation is too upsetting to bear. It is happening as a result of the HSE realigning home care support services to two sections, namely, disability services and older persons services. I do not believe that it is as simple as that in terms of the delivery of home support services. I ask the Minister of State to fully explain the current changes in the south east community healthcare home support packages within disability services. As I have outlined, the changes are having a grave impact.

I thank Deputy Murphy for raising this issue. If she had not raised it, I would not have been aware of it. I thank her for bringing my attention to the issue, which means my focus and that of my office are on the matter. She referred to two families that have been directly impacted but it has had a significant impact on many families. For Fran and Mary and their families listening to these proceedings, I am taking on board what has been said about their situation. I acknowledge that it is not acceptable or good enough to ring a person on Wednesday to tell them that after ten years their carer will be changed on Friday.

I will read out my prepared response. We had to go out and find a little bit of information in order that I could answer the question. I know the Deputy has been a strong advocate for people with disabilities. This is not the first time she has raised such issues with me. It is not unusual for her to do so.

As the Deputy knows, responsibility for disabilities is moving from the Department of Health to the reconfigured Department of Children, Equality, Disability, Integration and Youth. My hope is that this will ensure a greater focus on disabilities, rather than it being swamped by other issues in the Department of Health. The move will allow for clearer pathways to be developed and ensure progress is made. The Oireachtas is well aware that reform of disability services is ultimately based on the value for money and policy review of disability services in Ireland, published in 2012. It created the strategies that my Department and the HSE are adhering to in the roll-out of these reforms. This has already ensured that more effective services can be delivered to more people and resources can be better targeted to give better quality of care to the people most in need. That does not mean we cannot deliver this in a constructive, empathetic, understanding and informative way. From the cases the Deputy has presented, that does not appear to have happened.

I have been informed by the HSE that following the review of the way in which it delivers home support services in south east community healthcare, a recommendation was made that all home support staff should be aligned to disability services or older persons services, as the Deputy mentioned. This decision is to ensure the services have clear governance, management and communication and are in line with best practice and national guidelines. I believe the HSE has already been in contact with the Deputy regarding a representation she raised in respect of a service user who is affected by the change.

I understand her concerns about this person and the three others with profound disabilities, and their families, who are seeing this long-standing personal assistant, PA, change. The HSE has confirmed that it has contacted by telephone and letter each of the affected people and their families. Each affected person will continue to have the same level of service and there will be a transition period which will involve a shadowing of work for the new PA alongside the existing PA. That has been progress, as opposed to the call they might have got on the Wednesday about a change on a Friday. I see the Deputy shake her head, so obviously she will tell me that might not have changed.

We also keen to minimise disruption during this time. However, the HSE has been advised that if the families of the people concerned or the Deputy wish to review the situation, they can contact the head of disability services for the area. The HSE is committed to working closely with service users and their families, and this relationship helps work towards further enhancing service delivery for the benefit of the people. It is regrettable that it did not contact the families first before it entered into this process. To think that we are having a discussion after rolling out the process and bringing about such change at this level is very upsetting and traumatic for people who have been through such a frustrating time.

I thank the Minister of State for her empathy. She can only feel as I do. There was all of what the Minister of State described to me, but it took a week and I made further inroads. I will not mention the HSE official's name, but I found somebody who was empathetic, who took charge of the situation and who said it would not happen again. However, the letters the Minister of State referred to were particularly cold and callous, and I would never like to see them again. In that regard, I hope I will not be referring back to the Minister of State with anything that was put before me last week.

While I was researching this, some significant matters were raised with me by individuals who have great experience. Some of them are retired. They are particularly concerned that the HSE is not communicating the skills that are required to those delivering the education. For example, the education and training boards, ETBs, and other organisations are delivering carer courses, but when a job is advertised by the HSE for a carer there is no correlation between the qualification received from the ETB or some of the other organisations and the HSE requirements. It is no wonder that there is a shortage of carers. I can understand why it is the case. What must happen is that the stakeholders must get together and the HSE should make its requirements very clear. That is what the Irish Road Haulage Association, IRHA, did when it needed drivers. A driver training programme with the ETB was set up by the IRHA. The HSE needs to write its own carer's course and have it qualified by Quality and Qualifications Ireland.

These are the issues causing the problems and they do not come to the fore in what we do every day. I ask the Minister of State to take that on board for the families. They are our most vulnerable people.

I fail to see the Minister of State's personal empathy appearing in the response that the HSE has drafted.

The Ceann Comhairle is right.

More significantly, no explanation is given as to why the carers who were providing satisfactory care were withdrawn. Is it possible to explain that?

I thank the Ceann Comhairle for his input and observation on that matter. He could see that while I read the response, I had to bring heart and empathy to it, for the simple reason that they are lacking. There is no explanation as to why it has changed, other than it is looking at a report and a strategy from 2012. In fact, we are in the middle of a pandemic and many of these families have had their services withdrawn during it. That is particularly so with regard to Mary, who would have been used to attending, possibly, her adult day services. Perhaps it was the same with Fran. That service was withdrawn, and then it was decided to change their carers. We are re-aligning services in the middle of a pandemic as opposed to supporting families. I will revert to the HSE to get a clear answer and, with the Ceann Comhairle's permission, I will come to the House and correct the record as to why.

I thank the Minister of State. That is very helpful.

Suicide Incidence

Last year, I stood here to appeal for help from the then Minister of State with responsibility for mental health and for an immediate reply in the wake of a series of harrowing suicides which shook the community of Ballyfermot to its core. Since 2015, Ballyfermot had already experienced over three times the average national suicide rate, but in the summer of last year there was a surge of deaths of a number of young women in very tragic circumstances. It demanded action and I appealed then for an all-hands-on-deck approach. The report the HSE has released confirmed what many of us then suspected, which is that many of the suicides in the area and in neighbouring areas such as Clondalkin and Tallaght were related to deprivation, domestic abuse, substance misuse, alcohol, social media, low school completion rates and fear that their children would be put into care by Tusla.

The report, Rapid Assessment and Community Response to suicide and suspected suicide in Dublin South, contains a number of recommendations and the challenge now is implementation. I was calling for a co-ordinated response, the beginning of which I believe we are starting to see. Ballyfermot Star is leading the suicide prevention and community engagement group in Ballyfermot and Cherry Orchard. Its job is to identify clusters of suicide, identify the underlying issues, to start to tackle it and to act. In some ways, the easier part is done. We have done the talking, now there must be action. We have seen many reports and we have definitely seen too many tragic deaths. It is time to act, to maintain the momentum and to deliver on this report. I ask the Minister of State to tell us how the report will be implemented in order that the situation in Ballyfermot last year will not be repeated.

I thank the Minister of State for taking the time to respond today on the very serious issue of clusters of suicides among young women in Ballyfermot, Clondalkin and Tallaght last year. The fact that the HSE investigation has linked these deaths to the housing crisis, domestic violence, poverty and recreational drug use is a clear message that the Government must act. Parts of Ballyfermot, Clondalkin and Tallaght are traditionally disadvantaged areas with high levels of poverty. Poverty underpins all the issues I just raised. As somebody who talks each day to people affected by the housing crisis, I am not surprised to see that this is one of the leading issues in the tragic deaths of these young women.

Government policies over the years have had detrimental impacts on people's well-being. Having a safe and secure place to call home is one of the basic needs of human beings. The HSE produced the report, Rapid Assessment and Community Response to suicide and suspected suicide in Dublin South. Since 2015, the female suicide rate in these areas is three times the national average, but it took the deaths of eight young women in their 20s and early 30s in a ten-week period to prompt this report. The Government must have a proactive response to the report and put in place supports, services and policies that will stop clusters of suicides occurring.

My constituency of Dublin Mid-West has experienced spates of suicides over the years. In fact, as I mentioned on previous occasions, it was the first area to have a Pieta House and it is the area where Jigsaw started. That was directly to meet the demand in the area. However, the Minister of State should be mindful that while both organisations provide very good services, they have gone from being community services to being national services. They are not the same services that the people went out onto the streets to demand. The Minister of State should bear that in mind. As Deputy Ó Snodaigh said, the report contains a number of recommendations. How and when will they be implemented?

I thank both Deputies for raising this important issue. Any loss to suicide is a tragedy and I send my deepest condolences to the families, friends and communities affected. Each suicide affects the entire community and it is important that strong supports are in place to help the families, friends and the community. Last year, there were 421 deaths by suicide in Ireland; 317 were male and 104 were female.

The devastation that causes to each and every family cannot be even put into words. Tackling suicide is a Government priority.

Connecting for Life, CfL, the national strategy to reduce suicide, takes a whole-of-government approach. A cross-sectoral steering group, comprising Departments, agencies and NGOs, supports the HSE National Office for Suicide Prevention, NOSP, in implementing the strategy. Work is under way to extend the strategy for a further four years, from 2020 to 2024. A memo will go to the Government in the next week in that regard.

NOSP co-ordinates suicide prevention efforts throughout the country and implements Connecting for Life. NOSP funding has increased from €3.7 million in 2010 to the current €13 million. This funds activities including suicide prevention resource officers, local response plans, Connecting for Life actions, suicide prevention training and counselling provided through the HSE and partner agencies.

Under Connecting for Life, 17 local CfL plans have been launched, including the Connecting for Life Dublin South Suicide Prevention Action Plan 2018-2020. Community healthcare organisation, CHO, Dublin south, Kildare and west Wicklow works with local communities to respond to suspected suicides. Responses include supports to families in the aftermath of suicide and needs at community level. Throughout Dublin south, services promote positive mental health and address people's mental health needs. These include adult, child and adolescent specialist mental health services, suicide prevention supports and primary care services, including counselling in primary care.

In addition, the HSE funds Dublin south partner agencies to provide support and build resilience. These include: Candle Community Trust, Aware, Belong To, Mental Health Ireland, Pieta, the Samaritans, and Suicide or Survive. The three local resource officers for suicide prevention in Dublin south, Kildare and west Wicklow are involved with local mental health promotion and training. In 2018 to 2019, nearly 4,000 people in the Dublin south area were trained to enhance the community's capacity to respond to suicide and self-harm.

In February 2020, NOSP commissioned a rapid assessment of suicides among young women in south and west Dublin in 2019. Both Deputies referred to it. The report noted many contributory factors to suicide, including low income, unemployment, housing, domestic violence, social media, substance misuse and underlying trauma. In response to this report, an interagency group has been formed to develop a work plan to carry out its recommendations.

I was really shocked when I learned recently that two thirds of the 421 people who died due to suicide last year were not availing of any mental health supports. For some reason those people felt they could not reach out for the supports, the supports may not have been made available to them, or they might have fallen between the cracks. That is something that I am very conscious of.

In direct response to the question, €15,000 has been given by HSE mental health for a training programme to support young women's resilience and mental health. This will be tendered and run as an initial pilot in 2021. In addition, a community leadership programme in Ballyfermot will train local residents to recognise and support community members who may be experiencing suicidal ideation. This approach has proved successful in Jobstown, with a significant reduction in suicide. I again thank the Deputies for giving me the opportunity to speak on this issue. I will respond further to their questions.

I acknowledge that work is being done and the small amount of €15,000 that has been given for the training programme. Anything is welcome. It is a pilot programme and I wish it every success. Some of the recommendations cannot be addressed by the suicide prevention and community engagement team, SPACE, programme in Ballyfermot, which was set up specifically to address this report because some of the underlying issues are bigger and deeper and, as the Minister of State outlined, some people did not reach out to the mental health services. In other cases they did, and the problems persisted. Housing is one of the key issues. I am a Deputy for 18 years and in recent years I have seen more adult women and men break down in front of me in floods of tears because of the housing crisis in their lives. Unless that is addressed we will struggle to address the problem of suicide. I hope we will never see what I saw last year, which was the fear and anxiety in a community that had seen a number of women die in very harrowing and public circumstances. That affected entire communities.

There is one long-term recommendation in the report. The report states that there is a higher risk of suicide and suicidal behaviour in areas of high socioeconomic deprivation such as Clondalkin, Ballyfermot and Tallaght. It also states that there are higher than average rates of self-harm with myriad challenges faced by young women in particular, in addition to the lack of adult mental health staff in the area. The recommendation is that the HSE and the National Office of Suicide Protection should take steps to ensure the participation of both St. James's Hospital and Tallaght Hospital in the national clinical programme. I urge that this not be a long-term goal. It is something that should be implemented very quickly. These areas are crying out for 24-7 access to emergency mental health supports. These women would like to have help when and where they need it. I know I keep saying that. The Minister of State mentioned figures about people who were not linked into mental health agencies, but many of those people would have turned up to an accident and emergency department and not had their needs met. They were turned away. The statistics do not always capture everything.

I join the Minister of State in extending my heartfelt condolences to all the families of these women who have passed away by suicide and to anybody who has been affected by suicide as well.

This is a very emotive issues. There is no doubt that we need to continue to build resilience and strengthen all communities to reduce the incidence of suicide. It is also important to ensure that, where such a tragedy occurs, we have sufficient supports in place to help those who need it. The Deputies are right to say that we need to have the supports in place before a tragedy occurs.

Deputy Ó Snodaigh referred to SPACE in Ballyfermot. It includes representatives from the HSE resource office, HSE adult mental health services and HSE addiction services. The rest of the members are drawn from Tusla, the local authority and local area partnership and community services in Ballyfermot, so we do have the whole community coming together.

The Deputy touched on the point that the purpose of the new Sharing the Vision policy is that it is cross-departmental. Mental health does not stop with the Department of Health. A person's mental health can be affected if he or she has issues with housing, employment or earnings and whether that person has enough money to pay the mortgage. For that reason, it is so important that Sharing the Vision is cross departmental. I recently asked Mr. John Saunders of the Mental Health Commission to chair the national implementation and monitoring committee. I am delighted to say that all the various Departments with responsibility for housing, transport and social protection will be members of the committee. It is very important that we do have a cross-departmental approach.

I referred to the €15,000 that has been given by HSE mental health to develop a training programme to support young women's resilience and mental health. It will be tendered and run as an initial pilot in 2021. A significant recommendation in the research is to communicate the work of SPACE to Ballyfermot residents and to develop a community leadership programme within the Ballyfermot area. I know the community has been devastated by the suicides and I am happy to work with both Deputies on the issue.

Commission for Regulation of Utilities

Both Deputy Pádraig O'Sullivan and I are delighted that you allowed us to raise this hugely important issue, a Cheann Comhairle. The Commission for Regulation of Utilities granted a 66% increase to the gas installers of Ireland and a 20% increase in their registration fees. We saw the regulator taking to the airwaves to advise on the safety issues concerning gas, and all of the media outlets highlight and bring to the public concerns about gas.

In 2015 the Joint Committee on Transport and Communications made clear recommendations to Government to ensure there was proper regulation and that there was no black market in gas installation. We have seen the very powerful television advertisements on it. Now the Commission for Regulation of Utilities, CRU, is granting a 20% increase on the annual registration fees, as well as the 66% increase in the cost of certificates. It is completely wrong both on a health and safety front and in the context of the advice during the Covid pandemic about people not entering houses, meaning that people are reluctant to have anybody at all come into their houses. The Commission for Regulation of Utilities should review this. It granted the increase with immediate effect; normally there is a run-in period. It shows little regard for the concerns of the gas installers or for health and safety.

Deputy Michael Moynihan has covered most of the basics on the issue. I am sure we are all familiar with the television advertisement featuring Daniel O'Donnell warning us to use only registered installers. While it is a funny advertisement, it has the important message encouraging people to use registered gas installers and not to get untrained or unregistered tradesmen to do these important jobs. In this House in recent weeks, we have seen the dangers of leaks, but nothing is more serious than a leaky or deficient boiler.

As Deputy Moynihan said, in 2015 the Joint Committee on Transport and Communications report asked for pricing arrangements or subscriptions to the Register of Gas Installers of Ireland, RGI Ireland, to be reviewed. It was also recommended that the cost of the certificates issued for servicing appliances be reviewed to ensure they were equitable. Five years later, RGI Ireland is now increasing the cost of membership of RGI Ireland by 20% and the cost of certificates by 66%. If a plumber were to issue 50 certificates in a week, which I am told is a conservative estimate, that is an additional cost of €100 a week or €400 a month to that plumber, which is a significant price hike.

I fear that an increasing number of tradesmen may ignore the certification process leading to more unlicensed providers servicing boilers with the Daniel O'Donnell sketch becoming a reality. RGI Ireland estimates that approximately 15,000 unlicensed boiler or leak repair jobs are done every year. The decision by the Commission for Regulation of Utilities to increase membership and certification costs to this extent will have the adverse effect of driving increasing numbers of people to unlicensed individuals. While the Minister may have no role in overturning this decision, some other method of funding needs to be considered to avert this problem.

On behalf of the Minister for the Environment, Climate and Communications, Deputy Eamon Ryan, I thank the Deputies for providing the opportunity to discuss the important topic of gas safety. Both of them articulated how important gas safety is from a health and safety perspective. We all know the television advertisements, which are very effective.

The Commission for Regulation of Utilities is Ireland's independent energy regulator and has statutory responsibility for the regulation of gas installers with respect to safety. The Minister for the Environment, Climate and Communications does not have any role or function in the regulation of gas installers or the setting of associated fees.

The process whereby the Commission for Regulation of Utilities addresses this important aspect of its safety remit is under section 9 of the Electricity Regulation Act 1999, as amended. This sets out that the Commission for Regulation of Utilities has responsibility to regulate the activities of gas undertakings and gas installers with respect to safety.

In 2015, having carried out both a consultation process and a public procurement process, the Commission for Regulation of Utilities appointed the Register of Gas Installers of Ireland, known as the RGII, as the safety supervisory body to carry out this function on its behalf for the seven-year period from 2016 to 2022. Any person wishing to carry out gas works, as defined under SI 225 of 2009 and SI 299 of 2011 is required by law to register as a registered gas installer with RGII. It is an offence under the Act for an individual or company to portray itself as a registered gas installer unless they are registered under this scheme. I take Deputy O'Sullivan's point that unlicensed people are still apparently carrying out this role.

The Commission for Regulation of Utilities recently approved an increase of €1.20 for the price of registered gas installer certificate No. 3, effective from 1 October 2020. This increases the price from €1.80 to €3. This is the first certificate price rise since the start of the registered gas installer scheme in 2009 and it affects certification No. 3 only. As I have stated, the Minister for the Environment, Climate and Communications does not have any function in this matter which is solely a matter for the Commission for Regulation of Utilities.

What consultation did the Commission for the Regulation of Utilities carry out with the industry in coming up with this increase? It is important for the Minister of State to highlight to the Minister, Deputy Eamon Ryan, that a number of Deputies have raised this issue in the House. It is causing serious concern.

Following the consultation in 2015, why are the recommendations of the joint committee not being implemented? Does the Minister accept that making a decision on 9 October and backdating it to 1 October for certificates coming into the winter period, a time when people would be looking for these certificates, is completely unacceptable? There should have been proper consultation. I believe the Minister should write to the Commission for the Regulation of Utilities and ask it to reverse this charge. I believe it will cause undue hardship and lead to black market activity.

I support what Deputy Michael Moynihan has said. I encourage the Minister of State to relay back to the Minister, Deputy Eamon Ryan, that he should contact the regulator in this regard. An increase from €1.80 to €3 does not sound significant, but to a plumber who might be doing 50 jobs a week, which is a conservative estimate and many plumbers could possibly be doing up to 100, it is a significant cost. The plumber will either have to bear the cost himself or pass it on to the consumer. Given the climate we are in, Government policy is about encouraging people to have their houses retrofitted and improving the building energy rating, BER, of their homes, getting boilers fixed is a positive step. While the carbon tax we are introducing it is unpalatable for many, much of take from that tax will be accrued and directed specifically at those types of projects, which is to be welcomed. However, this levy on plumbers, insignificant as it may seem to some, further compounds the increase in carbon tax. In that respect it runs contrary to what Government policy is trying to achieve and moves people towards the unregistered installers that we are trying to prevent.

RGI Ireland takes in €1 million a year in membership costs alone from all the plumbers in the country and approximately €600,000 from the certification process. There is a role for Government, whether through a public service obligation or some other route, whereby it should be possible to fund this shortfall.

I again thank Deputies Pádraig O’Sullivan and Michael Moynihan for giving me the opportunity to respond on behalf of the Minister. I reiterate that the Minister has no function in the appointment of the Register of Gas Installers Ireland as the safety supervisory body for gas. That being said, the Minister is, of course, concerned with anything that could potentially lead to increased costs being passed on to consumers. However, it is important to ensure consumer protection and safety.

The scheme is required to operate on a not-for-profit basis and a self-funding model. The CRU receives no Exchequer funding and is financed through the levy on industry we just discussed. As I am sure the Deputies are aware, the Commission for Regulation of Utilities is accountable to a joint committee of the Oireachtas which provides an appropriate forum for all Deputies to raise concerns such as this one directly with the regulator.

I will also raise the points made by both Deputies with the Minister and ask him whether it comes within his remit to write to the commission about this issue.

Search and Rescue Service Provision

I thank the Ceann Comhairle for choosing this Topical Issue matter and the Minister of State, Deputy Brophy, for taking the place of the Minister for Defence.

Our search and rescue operators are the people who go out in all weathers, conditions and days of the year to bring us safely home. They are there when boats go missing, swimmers get lost, climbers fall, walkers go astray and when people on the edge take their own lives. I pay my respects to the men and women of the State who have lost their lives in the service of search and rescue. Their names are etched in our national heart and all of them are greatly loved and missed.

Our Air Corps is an integral part of that service and we are very lucky to have it. We look up and see the Air Corps top cover in the sky, and we know that help is on the way to someone in danger. We depend on that cover, just as we value the officers who provide it. When Air Corps worries were personally relayed to the Tánaiste, Deputy Varadkar, he said he could not deal with them due to ethics. Then he went and leaked a confidential Government document to a personal friend, illustrating Fine Gael's commitment to private service for the few and not public service for all. That is how the public reads this.

In contrast, the Air Corps is there for everyone and it works for everyone. Apart from their expertise, these exemplary public servants put their lives on the line to give hope and confidence when all seems lost. Now it looks like we could lose them further and lose their service, because the Government is putting the search and rescue service contract out for tender again.

It is another controversial contract, which is worth more than €60 million a year for ten years, to provide four helicopters and an aircraft. That amounts to more than €0.5 billion of Irish taxpayers' money, when our Air Corps, for all intents and purposes, could do it for half the sum. Six private companies are expected to bid, including two, at last count, from abroad. Therefore, a private foreign company paid by Irish public money could base its search and rescue aircraft not here, where we are paying for it, but in Britain. Equally, that British private company, paid by Irish public money, could be the very company reported in the Irish media as carrying out clandestine operations for the British Ministry of Defence.

This tendering of the contract for our search and rescue services could have a serious impacts in the following ways: first, privatising yet another public service and using public money to do it; second, ignoring the worries of Air Corps officers about Irish military intelligence and the lack of control and oversight of data and what happens in British airfields; and third, downgrading the Air Corps, which is a vital part of our long-neglected and undervalued Defence Forces to the point that it could disappear over the Government's privatisation horizon. To add insult to injury, this is a flagrant breach of the commitments made in the programme for Government.

We need to know vastly more about the plans for this tendering process and why the Minister for Defence is content to further undermine our Defence Forces. Why not recognise the expertise that is still in our Air Corps? Why not invest in our Air Corps and stop further privatisation? Why would the Minister for Defence even consider a private company, which has been reported in the media as being involved in clandestine operations for the British Ministry of Defence, and why would he do this over the heads of our own outstanding Irish Air Corps and despite the intelligence concerns of its officers? These are the questions I am being met with in Kildare, and I am interested in the response of the Minister of State.

I wish to take the opportunity to reply on behalf of the Minister for Defence, who is unfortunately unable to be present in the Chamber due to previous commitments. He has asked me to respond to this matter and to highlight the important role played by the Defence Forces, including the Air Corps, in supporting a wide range of public-facing services. I thank the Deputy for raising the issue which is important. I will park and put aside for one moment the cheap political shots and the usual snide Sinn Féin remarks made in respect of people. I will park also my own amusement at a party like Sinn Féin going on about undermining our Defence Forces, when it had such an involvement in doing so for so long with some colleagues.

The defence organisation provides a broad range of services in accordance with its primary defence and security role which it also undertakes as a diverse range of non-security related tasks. The Defence Forces continue to carry out the roles assigned by Government, including providing critical supports to An Garda Síochána. The Defence Forces also carry out aid to the civil authority supports to other Departments and agencies. In particular, the Defence Forces are playing an active and important role in the Covid-19 response through providing a broad range of supports to the HSE.

Since 2004 the Irish Coast Guard has had overall responsibility for the provision of search and rescue services within the Irish search and rescue domain. The Irish Coast Guard falls under the remit of the Minister for Transport. From within the defence organisation, both the Naval Service and the Air Corps provide support to the Irish Coast Guard in maritime search and rescue operations on an "as available" basis. A service level agreement is in place with the Irish Coast Guard, setting out agreed roles and responsibilities in this regard.

As the Deputy is aware and has alluded to, there is currently work ongoing, under the remit of the Department of Transport, to progress a new marine search and rescue aviation contract for future service provision. The current contract for the search and rescue helicopter service is between the Minister of Transport and a civil helicopter operator, CHC Ireland. The contract commenced on 1 July 2012 for a period of ten years, with an option to extend for a further three years. The existing contract was extended earlier this year, for one year to 2023, to facilitate the lengthy procurement process and ensure compliance with the public spending code.

A next generation search and rescue aviation steering group has been set up under the auspices of the Department of Transport and led by the Irish Coast Guard to manage the procurement of the next search and rescue aviation service. Personnel from the Department of Defence and members of the Air Corps are key stakeholders and members of the steering group progressing this contract, and have played an active role in the group’s discussions since its inception a number of months ago.

Given the significant level of investment involved and the wider benefits to be achieved from this investment, a whole-of-government approach is being adopted to the procurement process. This approach will seek to optimise the potential benefits in meeting existing and anticipated needs for search and rescue in the first instance, and then identify how value for money can be achieved for other ancillary state aviation needs within financial and regulatory parameters.

I would like to confirm that the defence organisation is supportive of the Department of Transport’s programme to put in place the next generation search and rescue contract. A strategic assessment and preliminary appraisal document in line with the public service code was agreed by the steering group and brought to Government for information in July. The preliminary appraisal included an appraisal of various service delivery options, including where the State assumed full responsibility for the service, either through the Air Corps or a dedicated Irish Coast Guard aviation branch. Both were ruled out for a variety of reasons, but notably, the risks to the State and questions around potential affordability and deliverability.

In terms of the procurement process a prior information notice has been published on eTenders by the Department of Transport to alert the market to the upcoming competition, and engagement with the market is currently taking place. The next step will be to bring a detailed business case to Government, with an appraisal of the remaining viable options with a recommendation on the way forward to delivering this service and the procurement strategy to achieve it. Subject to Government approval, it is intended that a request for tender will be published in quarter one of 2021, and the new contract awarded by the end 2021 or early 2022.

Unlike the Minister of State, I will ignore the snide remarks.

The Government must listen to the experts in our Defence Forces. These are the people whose first loyalty is to the State and its people - it is not to fund managers, bankers and brokers. The Air Corps does not want to see any further privatisation of our Defence Forces. The issue is not just the fact that the State is paying for aircraft that could be based in the UK, or the dismissal of our own loyal Air Corps, its officers and their concerns about military intelligence, in favour of a private company that is loyal to the markets. I do not understand why the Minister of State cannot see this. It is the relentless move, by Fine Gael primarily, to privatise a public service, and one that is so important to an Island nation, and to use public funds to enrich a private company and investors.

None of what is happening is going down well with personnel in the Air Corps. It is in breach of the programme for Government, which is still fresh off the block, and it is a perfect example of Fine Gael saying one thing and delivering something else. I hope the Minister of State will impress on the Minister the need to rethink this matter and provide more clarity. Unfortunately, I did not even receive a copy of the Minister of State's reply. The other Ministers of State who came to the Chamber to take Topical Issue matters had the manners to ensure that a copy of their reply was given to the Deputy who raised the matter in question. The Minister needs to listen to the experts on this issue. I hope the Minister of State will convey to him my dissatisfaction with the reply I have been given.

We will arrange for a copy of the reply to be given to the Deputy.

I will ensure that she receives a copy.

It is important to listen to what people are saying, as the Deputy pointed out. I will reiterate a couple of the points I made in my reply, as she may not have taken them on board the first time. Personnel from the Department of Defence and members of the Air Corps are key stakeholders in the steering group that is progressing this contract. Contrary to what the Deputy said, it is absolutely the case that members of the Defence Forces and the Air Corps are being listened to in this matter. The Government is working at all costs to ensure there is a proper procurement process and to deliver a proper service with value for money. A large amount of taxpayers' money is at stake in any contract of this size and we must ensure the process is done correctly. I will, of course, bring the Deputy's comments to the attention of the Minister, Deputy Coveney.