Saincheisteanna Tráthúla - Topical Issue Debate

Social and Affordable Housing

I thank the Minister of State for taking this matter. I am sure he is aware of what has happened in the Marianella luxury housing development in the Dublin suburb of Rathgar. The social housing residents living there under Part V of the Planning and Development Act 2005 have complained publicly about not being able to access many of the apartment complex facilities or to keep pets, despite this not being the case for any of the development's other private residents. Neither of us can say with any certainty that what is happening at this development is an isolated incident or an example of similar inequalities existing across the country. During the programme for Government negotiations, it was agreed to establish a commission on housing to examine such matters in detail. This story proves there is an urgent need for the Government to have much more information, facts and figures on housing, especially with respect to rights, tenure, standards, sustainability and quality of life matters so they can be addressed before they have a negative impact on people's lives.

What action can the Department take to ensure that this injustice and others like it that may exist can be rectified so that cases like this are not repeated? Will the Minister of State provide an update on the programme for Government commitment to establish the housing commission please?

The use of the Part V mechanism to allow local authorities to acquire units in a private development, which are then allocated to social housing tenants, is important for a number of reasons. It makes a crucial contribution to supply of the overall stock available for social housing purposes and it supports the objective of social integration. As a matter of policy, it has been directed that the priority option that should be pursued by local authorities for Part V obligations is the acquisition of social housing on the development site by means of transfer of ownership to the local authority or to an approved housing body, AHB.

It is recognised that there may be specific cases where none of the units on a development site may be suited to the needs of the local authority. In those cases, sometimes the local authority will elect to require the provision of units off site. In some areas, although the need for social integration in the area may tip the balance towards acquisition, this is assessed on a case-by-case basis as no two situations are exactly the same. In each case, value for money has to be considered as one of the factors in the decision-making process.

Where an AHB acquires units for social housing under Part V, the tenancy relationship is between the tenant and the AHB that manages the properties. The local authority has responsibility for ensuring the AHB is providing social housing to the appropriate standards set out in the Housing (Standards for Rented Houses) Regulations 2019. The AHB has responsibility for ensuring that all such tenancies are registered with the Residential Tenancies Board and that the protections provided for in the Residential Tenancies Acts are provided as appropriate. Tenants have recourse to the dispute resolution processes provided for in the Residential Tenancies Acts.

Where it is proposed that a social housing applicant will be allocated a unit with an AHB, a tenancy interview takes place where the applicant is advised of all relevant information for the proposed tenancy and pre-tenancy training taking place before the tenancy commences. Tenants are typically made aware of all facilities available to them, as well as their rights and obligations, and matters such as the keeping of pets are covered. Access to ancillary facilities located on the same campus are not generally covered by a social housing tenancy. Access to services and facilities outside the social housing tenancy is not a matter for my Department.

I note the comments of the Deputy on the commission for housing and I will raise them with the Minister, Deputy Darragh O'Brien, in the context of the commitment contained in the programme for Government.

I hear what the Minister of State is saying but there is still a sense of segregation within developments and there is the matter of welfare. I will come back to the Minister of State.

During the negotiations to form the Government, all parties agreed to the Green Party's policy to legislate for tenancies of indefinite duration. This was in response not only to Covid-19 but the changing nature of the Irish rental market. There is now a need for the Government to support renters by improving housing standards, security and affordability of renting in the State. Will the Minister of State outline the status of the proposed legislation agreed in the context of the programme for Government. When will the Bill outlining support for tenancies of indefinite duration come before the House?

I thank the Deputy. AHB tenancies are registered with the Residential Tenancies Board and governed by residential tenancies legislation. AHBs are currently subject to a voluntary regulation code and they will shortly come under the remit of the new approved housing bodies regulatory authority, which is in the process of being established. The Housing (Regulation of Approved Housing Bodies) Act 2019 addresses AHB governance, financial management, financial reporting, property and asset management and tenancy management, as well as the need for standards in these areas. The new regulatory authority for AHBs will, as part of its remit, prepare standards relating to each case in these areas. AHB accommodation must meet the standards of the service level agreement between the AHB and the local authority. Access to additional services which may be provided on a campus but which are not covered by the service charge is a matter for individual negotiation by a tenant. It is not a matter for the Department.

The Part V process makes a valuable contribution to social housing delivery and the core and critical nature of such delivery of social housing units in a manner that is sustainable, efficient and consistent with social housing policy and objectives. I am satisfied that the approach adopted by the AHB concerned in the development referenced by the Deputy is consistent in trying to achieve these objectives.

I will raise the rental legislation with the Minister, who is expecting to publish the affordability measures legislation before the end of this year, with a ring-fenced fee of approximately €80 million and €15 million contained in the budget for both cost rental and affordability measures. I will raise the other points directly with the Minister and revert to the Deputy.

Environmental Protection Agency

I thank the Ceann Comhairle for selecting this matter, which I submitted last week on publication of the Environmental Protection Agency report. I appreciate having the opportunity to address it today.

I thank the Minister of State for coming before us today. However, I must express my disappointment that the Minister for Housing, Local Government and Heritage, Deputy Darragh O'Brien, is not available.

That said, I will start by referring to the report of the Environmental Protection Agency, EPA, which has generated a number of headlines such as "EPA says decade of action needed on environment" or one from today - I thank the newspapers for covering this issue - "Bad air day: pollution in Dublin reaches levels of smoky coal era 30 years ago". According to the EPA, up to 1,300 premature deaths are caused by pollution in the Republic of Ireland each year.

I wish to focus on the aspects of Irish Water and our local authorities, which explains why this issue is being put to the Department for Housing, Local Government and Heritage. The outlook for Ireland's environment is not optimistic unless the implementation of solutions across all sectors of society is accelerated, as stated by EPA director general, Laura Burke, who, in a recent contribution to RTÉ's "Morning Ireland" programme, stated that national vision and a decade of action was needed to put things right. She went on to state that there is an issue with compliance and although Ireland is good at signing up to directives, the aspiration does not really meet the reality. She stated "We need to speed up, we need to scale up, and we actually need to deliver."

Our watercourses and seas are polluted to our collective detriment and, indeed, to the detriment of our health. Fifty years or more of the failure of this State to invest appropriately in water supply and waste management treatment has resulted in overflows in dozens of locations, including at the country's largest plant at Ringsend. Back in 2019, the Minister of State will probably recall the scenes of booms being placed around certain places in Dublin Harbour, and subsequent to that, beaches like the one at Sandymount were black-flagged, and swimming is now prohibited there as a result. The event generated headlines like "Ringsend treatment plant will continue to fail treatment standards" or that the EPA warns plume will continue near Ringsend wastewater plant until upgrade works are completed. A constituent of mine commented online:

Plans to build another wastewater plant around Dublin have been mired in the usual nimbyism. Until politicians grow up and are responsible to all citizens, it will remain the same.

I completely agree with those sentiments.

The comprehensive EPA report, which was published last week, examines a wide range of impacts on the environment and highlights that there are severe issues in respect of the quality of water in Irish rivers, lakes, estuaries and near-coastal waters. In short, water quality in Ireland has declined and this is being driven by three factors, namely, agricultural and physical changes led by development and how we treat our waste water. Nearly half of all of Ireland's surface water bodies are not meeting quality goals set by EU directives and climate change is driving temperature change and is increasing the amount of water flowing through these bodies of water, which is exacerbating pollution in our water and is critically endangering our biodiversity. Raw sewage is being discharged to waters from 35 towns and villages up and down the country and we only have 20 pristine river waters left, compared with more than 500 in the 1980s, which is not too long ago.

I think this underscores the importance of developing modern and effective drainage and wastewater treatment systems that will address these issues. The plan for a plant, for instance, in Clonshaugh, not too far from my constituency, has been delayed due to the failure to consult with the EPA. This is an example of the problems that exist within our system that the Minister of State should address.

I thank the Deputy for raising this issue and providing an opportunity to comment on the EPA's latest report, "Ireland's Environment 2020". This important statement on the condition of our national environment brings together key data and assessment from right across the spectrum of the EPA's work.

This report includes an assessment of the water quality of our rivers, lakes, canals, groundwaters, estuaries and coastal waters. The EPA sets out in stark terms the present and future challenges we face as a country and as a society. Yet, it also points the way forward with practical and positive, albeit not painless, actions that must now be taken to address these issues. The EPA report is especially significant now and will give practical orientation to the opportunities presented by major new policy initiatives and a new programme for Government with strong commitments on climate, water and biodiversity.

The Government, like the EPA, is eager to see faster progress and consequently has put a priority on funding Irish Water's capital investment programme. In budget 2021, a significant sum of €1.4 billion was announced for investment in water services. In response to the EPA's call for action, we will continue to build new and upgraded services including urban waste water treatment plants and collection systems, which will eliminate raw sewage discharges and improve treatment. This will be achieved by funding Irish Water's water services capital investment plan to deliver the full €8.5 billion funding package committed to in Project Ireland 2040. We will expand environmental programmes, including the agricultural sustainability support and advisory programme, ASSAP, to work locally with communities, farmers, farm advisers and the food industry, to improve nutrient management on farms to reduce nutrients lost to water. We will continue to improve the protection of our pristine waters learning from initiatives such as the Blue Dots programme and the EU LIFE Waters of Life project, and we will launch a new revised and strengthened river basin management plan in 2022, drawing on a collaborative approach between all stakeholders. With these actions, I look forward to co-operating across the Government, with key stakeholders and with the public on these complex and interrelated issues.

I thank the Minister of State for his response. Previous EPA reports have drawn attention to this issue and while I appreciate the statement the Minister of State has made to the House, I point out there are plans that predate Irish Water in respect of treating and catering for the expansion of our cities, particularly here in Dublin, that are pushing up daisies. For example, the greater Dublin strategic drainage study, GDSDS, report has been around for over a decade and yet it has not been implemented because of politicians and communities standing in the way of critical environmental infrastructure, and I really do mean that, because some of it is happening in my own constituency. I am certainly not raising this issue to garner votes; I am raising it because I believe that it is right to do so and because there are beaches and rivers in this city that cannot be used because of the presence of effluent in our watercourses. It is essential that urgent action is taken - indeed, a decade's worth of action needs to be taken, as the EPA has highlighted.

Irish Water needs certainty regarding its funding and while I appreciate the comments the Minister of State has made in respect of the budget, our citizens also require certainty regarding the political nerve to deliver on this critical infrastructure. We need to end political chicanery around questions of what infrastructure goes where and the reasons behind those campaigns, which invariably are due to a lack of information in the public domain or worse, misinformation, that is sometimes perpetuated by politicians. We have a responsibility to ensure that when these projects are launched, put up on websites, discussed in our communities or mentioned by our local media, that we are informed as to what they are, what they will result in and most importantly, what they will not result in.

In conclusion, it is critical that we ensure that Irish Water is actually able to meet the targets that we set for it, not just in respect of the capital plan but in respect of the environmental impact that it has. As the EPA has said, any post-Covid-19 stimulus package should include development that has that climate action focus at the core of what it hopes to achieve.

I thank Deputy Alan Farrell again for his comments and for his genuine interest in the issue of improving our water quality, which is a huge issue facing us all as citizens. The report marks a concerning change in direction in our water quality trends and it identifies the need to amplify and co-ordinate efforts across all sectors.

In particular we must increase efforts to address both diffuse pollution sources, such as nutrient losses from agriculture, and point sources, such as wastewater run-off. These are both, by their nature, challenging issues for us to address. I emphasise the Government's commitment to continuing to implement the actions in the River Basin Management Plan for Ireland 2018-2021. The new river basin management plan will build on this work and will put in place further measures to protect and improve water quality in rivers, lakes, groundwater, estuaries and coastal waters. Our wastewater system requires substantial and sustained investment of money to bring it up to the standards expected of a modern service, to provide for population growth and to build resilience in the face of climate change. Through the funding decisions it has already made since coming into office, this Government has shown that it is determined to provide investment to enable Irish Water to meet this huge task over the coming years.

National Broadband Plan

I welcome the Minister of State, Deputy Peter Burke, who is speaking in place of the Minister, Deputy Eamon Ryan. He is somewhat of a jack of all trades tonight and has spoken on social housing, Irish Water and, now, broadband. It is not an enviable task. I welcome him to the House. I have discussed this issue in the Dáil in recent weeks. We are all aware of how critical high-speed broadband is to our daily lives. This need has been exacerbated by the Covid-19 pandemic and the recent lockdowns.

I will highlight the failure of Eir and National Broadband Ireland, NBI, to deliver in parts of my constituency. The people I represent are extremely disappointed with the customer service Eir is providing and with its approach to the roll-out of the national broadband plan. Stories of people being left in a queue or on hold for hours on end are the norm rather than the exception. Eir appeared before the Joint Committee on Transport and Communications Networks last week to explain and excuse its poor customer care performance. It did not cover itself in glory on that occasion.

I will not provide local examples because I know the Minister of State will be well aware of this great crisis. We expect people to work from home, study from home and run businesses from home. They simply cannot do this with the service being provided. Is Eir willing to fill the gaps in intervention areas to which it was providing fibre broadband before discontinuing such provision? I know many people who are not connected but whose neighbours across the road are connected. This causes much frustration.

My office is regularly contacted with regard to Eir and NBI. People often seek updates in respect of postcodes in the intervention area. People are requesting updates and wondering when they will be connected. They come to my office because they have been disregarded by Eir and other providers or because they cannot get through to Eir. This, in itself, is a problem. Such people receive generic responses stating the number of areas that have been surveyed. What people really want is a timeline as to when they will be connected. Would it be possible for people to receive quarterly updates in respect of their areas? There is surely a more effective way to communicate with people.

I know the Minister of State will say that this is a matter for the provider and for Eir but, on behalf of my constituents, I plead with him to put pressure on Eir to provide a better service. Two weeks ago, Peter Hendrick, CEO of National Broadband Ireland, said that, while Covid-19 has presented many challenges, the roll-out of the broadband plan was on schedule. This is very welcome. When the full roll-out is completed over the next three years or so, that will also be very welcome. The crux of the matter, however, is not whether a customer will be connected, because ultimately everyone will be. The issue is when that will happen. Clarity on the timing is key.

I thank Deputy Pádraig O'Sullivan for consistently raising issues in respect of the national broadband plan on behalf of his constituents. The national broadband plan contract was signed with National Broadband Ireland in November 2019 to roll out a high-speed and future-proofed broadband network within the intervention area, which covers 1.1 million people living and working in the over 544,000 premises, including almost 100,000 businesses and farms along with 695 schools.

The national broadband plan will ensure that citizens throughout the entire country have access to high-speed broadband services and that nobody is left without this vital service. The national broadband plan network will offer users a high-speed broadband service with a minimum download speed of 500 Mbps from the outset.

The current deployment plan forecasts premises passed in all counties within the first two years and over 90% of premises in the State having access to high-speed broadband within the next four years. The high-speed broadband map, which is available at shows the areas which will be included in the national broadband plan State-led intervention, as well as areas targeted by commercial operators.

Design work is complete or ongoing in target townlands in every county in Ireland, with over 136,000 premises surveyed as of 23 November. This survey work is feeding into detailed designs for each deployment area, and build work has started in rural parts of Cork, Limerick, Cavan and Galway. The first connections are expected shortly in Carrigaline, County Cork. These will be subject to technical testing and validation prior to a wider release in the area.

While substantial progress has been made to date, the Covid-19 pandemic has had an impact on the delivery of the fibre network as a result of restrictions imposed on travel and social distancing. The Minister's Department is monitoring the situation closely and National Broadband Ireland has committed to putting in place measures to mitigate these impacts as much as possible. The extent of the impact is currently being assessed.

The Covid-19 pandemic has also highlighted the importance of reliable broadband to ensure that citizens in rural Ireland can have the high-speed connectivity required to facilitate remote working, education, social interaction and online shopping. This is reflected in the programme for Government, as delivery of the national broadband plan will be a key enabler of many of the policies envisaged, particularly those around increased levels of remote working.

The programme for Government specifically commits to seek to accelerate the roll-out of the national broadband plan. In this regard, the Minister's Department continues to engage with National Broadband Ireland to explore the feasibility of accelerating aspects of this roll-out to establish the possibility of bringing forward premises which are currently scheduled for the sixth and seventh years of the current plan to an earlier date. As part of that work, National Broadband Ireland is engaging with the ESB to assess the potential to utilise the ESB network for certain areas. The potential to accelerate the network roll-out is being explored in parallel with the measures required to mitigate delays arising as a result of Covid-19.

Broadband connection points are a key element of the national broadband plan. These provide high-speed broadband in every county in advance of the roll-out of the fibre-to-the-home network. As at 20 November, some 201 broadband connection point sites have been installed by National Broadband Ireland, 59 of which are now connected to high-speed broadband services through a service provider contract with Vodafone which is managed by the Department of Rural and Community Development for publicly available sites. In addition, primary schools are also being provided with high-speed broadband, for educational use only, through service provider contracts managed by the Department of Education. To date, 22 schools have been connected with high-speed broadband for educational purposes.

I am aware that concerns have been raised by the Oireachtas Joint Committee on Transport and Communications Networks regarding the level of information available on the deployment of the NBI network. The Minister, Deputy Eamon Ryan, has advised me that National Broadband Ireland is working to provide more detail on the deployment programme on its website, with rolling updates on the network build.

I welcome the fact that the national broadband plan is being accelerated. I acknowledge that but it is ironic that the Minister of State's four or five pages of a response uses the same kind of language as Eir and other providers use when our constituency offices contact them. I welcome the roll-out of the broadband connection points. My own constituency is benefiting in that regard as Whitechurch will be getting one. The real issue I need to hammer home is that people require access to information. I welcome the last part of the Minister of State's speech in which he mentions that the Minister, Deputy Eamon Ryan, has advised him that NBI is working to provide more detail on the deployment programme on its website. I ask the Minister of State to emphasise to the Minister how important that is and to tell him that the sooner that can be done in the new year, the better it will be as regards giving people comfort as they may then have some indication of when broadband is to come to their town or village.

As public representatives, we are all aware of how many of these large semi-State and private companies operate. When I was on Cork County Council, the various departments, such as those for roads, engineering and water services, operated under a programme of works. It is the same in many other local authorities across the country. A programme of works can be deviated from, changed or revised. There is nothing wrong with that, but at least the programme is there.

In the case of the organisations of which I am speaking there is a total absence of information. The responses to public representatives have been appalling and the responses to customers the length and breadth of the country are infuriating.

I call on the Minister of State to relay my sentiments to the Minister for the Environment, Climate and Communications, Deputy Ryan. Most important, I appeal to the Minister of State to place a requirement on Eir and all providers involved in the roll-out to supply proper coherent information to all of us, customers and public representatives alike. They should leave out the jargon and provide even indicative timelines for the provision of broadband services in the different areas.

I thank Deputy O'Sullivan again for raising this issue and for the points he clearly makes regarding it. I share his frustration in respect of the providers and the issue of access to information as well as genuine customer service, which is a major frustration with people. I do not want to put a tooth in it: that is fully reflective of the situation on the ground. I believe the joint Oireachtas committee shone a light into this recently. We have a great deal of work to do to respond to that issue. It is something I get representations on every day in my constituency.

Covid-19 has highlighted the importance of good reliable broadband to ensure citizens throughout Ireland can avail of remote working, education and other essential online facilities. This is reflected in the commitments in the programme for Government. The delivery of the national broadband plan will be key to enable many of the policies envisaged, especially around increased levels of remote working. The national broadband plan will ensure citizens throughout the entire country will have access to high-speed broadband services. It will ensure no one is left without this vital service.

Despite the impacts of the Covid-19 pandemic, National Broadband Ireland continues to make steady progress on its deployment activities. As I mentioned before, over 136,000 premises across all counties have been surveyed to date. A total of 201 broadband connection points and schools have had connections installed by National Broadband Ireland. That is genuine progress.

The Government has committed to seek to accelerate the roll-out of the national broadband plan. In this regard, the Department of the Environment, Climate and Communications continues to engage with National Broadband Ireland to explore the feasibility of accelerating aspects of the roll-out.

I will raise the issues put forward by Deputy O'Sullivan in respect of broadband and access to information with the Minister, Deputy Ryan, and reaffirm the views on the urgency of this for everyone in the House, including Deputy O’Sullivan, in terms of accelerating the roll-out of broadband. I fully appreciate that it is a key issue.

Disability Support Services

I thank the Minister of State for taking the time to speak about this serious issue. "What's seldom is wonderful." That is how one parent described the level of services his child with Down's syndrome has received. The tone in which he said it would break a stone heart.

In my constituency of Longford-Westmeath the Springfield Centre in Mullingar plays a critical role in the provision of these services. It is vital that the centre reopens for face-to-face therapy sessions. The families concerned have waited patiently for their turn for services to reopen since the pandemic arrived. From Friday, the reality is that they can bring their children to the cinema across the road from where they want to bring them and need to bring them, which is to the centre to get those vital services.

A little boy born in April with Down's syndrome has had one physiotherapy session. He has had no more, nothing else and no contact. Another child has had two sessions. More were promised but none were delivered. This feedback is common. It is not the exception to the rule; it is the rule. Parents are doing everything they can but they desperately need help now, and that help is difficult to get. They are no longer begging and pleading for services to reopen; they are shouting and roaring. That is the urgent nature of the need for their children to receive these services. Let us be honest. This is a damning indictment.

Covid-19 is not an excuse. The fact is that the level of these services pre-Covid was never fit for purpose. Any intention to return to that level of service provision will miss the needs of these children by a country mile. The parents want the services to reopen urgently and their children need the services to reopen urgently.

Schools can be open. In schools it is deemed safe for adults and children to be together for extended periods of time. Cinemas are open. We can now go shopping for our Christmas gifts. However, these parents still cannot have the essential services that their children need. It simply does not make sense.

What is more concerning is that it does not stop there. I received a call earlier this week regarding adults with Down's syndrome. They are part of a wider group of people requiring extra needs who are close to the same centre geographically. Every morning they used to be picked up by a bus. They learned new skills for independent living and in how to take care of themselves. Their interaction was social but also psychologically beneficial. The routine and structure for participants and the respite they afforded the carers were invaluable. However, the HSE has moved the Covid-19 testing site to where they were situated. They now have no home. They are operating out of two places in industrial estates on either side of the town. They have no access to materials, resources or their peers on a regular basis. The bus that picked them up has also stopped. Gone is the routine and the structure. It is sad and concerning that their families are reporting that the skills they learned while they were there are gone.

Everyone understands that the pandemic and Covid-19 take precedence. No one is disputing or arguing that fact. However, what could be, and is being, disputed is that the demands on these people have been disproportionate. Some members of society have sacrificed so much more and have lost access to so much more. These children and babies fall into that category. We are still asking the most vulnerable group in our society to make sacrifices.

It does not have to be like this. We are not in the early stages of Covid. We are almost a year into Covid. It should not be a choice between testing centres, provision of services, provision of therapies or support services for adults. Packaging things in that way is unconscionable.

The reality is that what has led us here is poor planning and decision-making. When will the Springfield Centre reopen to provide these vital therapies for children? Why were more suitable premises not found for the adult group?

I thank Deputy Clarke for raising this valuable issue and giving me the opportunity to speak on it.

Several weeks ago, I spoke about Offaly with Deputy Nolan. She raised the matter that evening. Deputy Clarke talks about the constituency of Longford-Westmeath. I talk about the community healthcare organisation area that covers Longford, Laois, Offaly, Westmeath, Louth and Meath. That is the size and magnitude of the area. I am putting it in context.

I thank the Deputy for raising this important issue. I understand the Deputy is referring to both occupational therapy services as well as speech and language therapy. It is not in my note but I assume Deputy Clarke is also referring to the Mullingar Resource Centre, MRC. Is that what she is talking about? I am abreast and across that in recent weeks.

I am glad to say that in the context of the Government's resilience and recovery framework, the provision of disability services is deemed essential. That only happened last September when they were planning to do it. Prior to that, disability services were not deemed an essential service, especially the first time we were locked down last March, unfortunately.

It goes without saying that all disability services must follow the public health guidelines in the area to ensure service users and staff are protected as much as possible. It is important to note that most children's disability services maintained a level of service and support for children and their families throughout the Covid-19 pandemic. This was based on prioritised need, available staff, family consent and was in line with the HSE guidelines. These services and supports were provided by way of phone or telehealth as a first option, advancing to direct face-to-face contact where telephone or online supports did not meet the child's needs.

Deputy Clarke has outlined some clear comprehensive examples where people could not do face-to-face interaction, including the case of a baby who was several weeks old. I am not here to defend the HSE and I will not defend the HSE, but I cannot quantify the wording in my script as a level of service. Clearly, we cannot quantify what Deputy Clarke was speaking about as any level of service.

To address the challenges of the Covid-19 pandemic, the HSE has redeployed staff across the five different counties to testing and contact tracing throughout the pandemic.

I have been raising this issue consistently with Paul Reid since 5 October. I have asked repeatedly for these therapists to be returned to their substantive work. This work is ongoing, but the HSE has committed to returning all these staff as its recruitment of community swabbers continues.

In the case of the Longford-Westmeath region specifically, the most important thing is that the local HSE services have advised me that the Springfield Centre in Westmeath is due to reopen next Monday and therapy services will resume on that date. I apologise that cinemas will be open before it, but at least we will have it opened. It has taken us until 8 December to get to this stage, but at least we have it opened and I thank Deputy Clarke for raising this question. I hope I am not getting a response because a Topical Issue matter was tabled regarding this issue. I would hate to think that we are reactionary to children's needs, as opposed to, as Deputy Clarke clearly stated earlier, being proactive and planning ahead. I will address the MRC in the next part of my answer.

There is no doubt that what the Minister of State said will come as welcome news to the families that use the Springfield Centre. From personal experience, I can state no parent brings his or her child to that centre for the craic. People go because of established and proven needs. The Minister of State mentioned face-to-face or online meetings. One issue which has cropped up is that of parents being fobbed off with Zoom meetings. If the Minister of State will accept it, I will send her a copy of an email I got from one parent. This parent was fobbed off with a Zoom meeting in respect of sensory processing because he or she had kicked and screamed in frustration to highlight the needs of his or her son. That is insulting to the parents and highly disrespectful to the child, because that child does not have a sensory processing disorder and never did. This was well known and has been flagged.

Another issue which concerns me more in this regard is that the parents involved felt compelled to accept that Zoom meeting for fear of repercussions regarding the provision of further services down the line. The parents had that Zoom meeting, knowing full well it was going to be of zero benefit to their child. That is concerning considering that probably umpteen parents would probably have given their right arms to have that Zoom meeting. When we talk about the provision of services, particularly in this regard, meeting low standards is not something to be proud of.

These children, families and groups are our neighbours. They are in our communities and they deserve a hell of a lot more than what has been provided to date. Time is not something that is on the side of these children. We know the value and importance of early intervention, but that relies on delivery. Otherwise, it is wholly ineffective, just words on pages and sound bites, which have never delivered so much as half an hour of physiotherapy or occupational therapy. It is absolutely meaningless for them. The reality is that while there will be a vaccine for Covid-19, there is not, as one parent remarked, a vaccine for Down syndrome.

I thank Deputy Clarke again. I am not one for sound bites at all. I am more a person of action in respect of understanding exactly what is going wrong behind the system. The Deputy is right in everything she said. I will not contradict one bit of it. I will talk about the MRC for one moment, however. I went to the MRC with the Ministers of State, Deputies Burke and Troy, in August and September. I met with parents, families and friends of the MRC. I was at the Bridge House and the Millennium House, I think, and I was out to the MRC building itself. On the day of my visit, I queried the fact that it was going to be used as a testing centre. That was contrary to what many parents had requested for the service users. I was told it was an essential service and led to believe that the building was not up to standard.

I met with officials from HSE CHO 8 three times regarding the MRC and I am due another update next week. I requested that meeting for the simple reason that if the building was good enough for service users prior to Covid-19, I am at a loss to understand why it is not good enough during Covid-19 when we have a shortage of capacity for service users and we are looking for space. I appreciate we are trying to move in new directions, but we have a shortage of space. The Minister of State, Deputy Troy, sourced the band hall to try to help with accommodation while works were going on in Bridge House.

To bring Deputy Clarke up to speed regarding the MRC, I have already organised another meeting which will take place next week. The head of CHO 8 is meeting me, along with different people in the Department and the HSE. That will be a complete and comprehensive meeting, and not a taking of the box exercise as carried out last May. I refer to the deeming of the building as unfit. That was a different meaning of the word "unfit" when compared with a description based on a proper score chart.

The Dáil adjourned at 10.06 p.m. until 10 a.m. on Wednesday, 2 December 2020.