Saincheisteanna Tráthúla - Topical Issue Debate

Homeless Persons Data

In the week from 19 October to 25 October last, a total of 8,737 people were in emergency accommodation nationally, of whom 2,642 were children. This compares with a total of 8,656 people, including 2,583 children, in the corresponding week in September, indicating a month-on-month increase in the homeless numbers. The figures had been going down. The Minister stated yesterday morning that 4,400 people were moved to permanent accommodation during the pandemic period. We know this is because of the volume of surplus Airbnb accommodation that came on board. As I said, however, the numbers remain high. The first problem is that we have a revolving door such that for each family housed, another family becomes homeless. Second, housing assistance payment, HAP, tenancies do not provide permanent accommodation, it being at the whim of landlords whether they remove tenants from the tenancy because they are moving family members in or selling the home. As a consequence, the homeless figure has been stubbornly high throughout the recent period.

The new data show that 4,495 single adults were classified as homeless countrywide, including 3,051 in Dublin. In the corresponding week in September, 4,452 adults were registered homeless, 2,994 of them in Dublin. The figures climbed steadily in the capital for five months, with the previous high being 2,906 in March. Over the period of the pandemic, the number of single people becoming homeless has increased significantly.

This is due to the Covid pandemic and family problems with overcrowding. Last month's figures were 93% higher than they were in December 2015. The Minister has claimed Housing First will solve this problem. Housing First has been in operation for the past five years but it has not solved the problem.

There is also the case of those sleeping rough. I heard the Minister yesterday say that no one would be denied safe and secure accommodation, even if they are not habitually living in the area in which they are seeking accommodation. Last night, however, three men were refused accommodation of shelter because they were not living habitually in the Dublin area. One of the men in question, who was from Galway, had come to Dublin and was sleeping in the Phoenix Park. He had got his social welfare transferred to Dublin. When Mendicity rang looking for accommodation for him, the organisation was told that as the individual in question was not on the Dublin city housing list, he was not able to access homeless services. Three people were told last night to sleep on the streets. That is horrendous. I heard today that this has changed. However, I would like to hear from the horse's mouth as to how this has changed given that last night the Lord Mayor of Dublin would not allow an emergency motion on the agenda dealing with this, claiming it was a legislative problem not a question of bureaucracy.

I thank Deputy Joan Collins for raising these important issues. I am deeply sorry to hear of those particular incidents which she raised.

It is a matter the Government is taking seriously. In addressing homelessness, our approach is to prevent it, where possible, and to provide support services for those who need them, invest in housing and move people out of homelessness.

There have been a number of deaths in recent months of people who had been sleeping rough or accessing emergency homeless accommodation. Each of these deaths is a tragedy. I extend my sympathies to the families and friends of those concerned. It is important that the people affected are treated with dignity and respect. All Members will be mindful of such sensitivities.

In order to provide a better understanding, the Dublin Region Homeless Executive, DRHE, and the HSE have jointly commissioned a detailed review of recent deaths in homeless services. It is important that we establish the facts and that we base our response, as policymakers and elected representatives, on the best knowledge and evidence available. This review will build on previous research conducted in this area, including a study published in January 2019 on the mortality of homeless people in the Dublin region.

Separate to this work, the Department of Health has commissioned the Health Research Board to undertake a one-year feasibility study to collect data on deaths among people who were homeless. I have been advised that the research will apply the methodology used to compile the national drug-related deaths index, which is a census of drug-related deaths, including deaths among drug users and those who are alcohol dependent.

The Deputy referred to an increase in homelessness in putting forward this matter for debate. There was an increase of 81 persons who are homeless in the most recent published figures, which are for the month of October. However, it is important to acknowledge the progress being made. The total number of homeless individuals in October 2020 was recorded as 8,737. This is a decrease of 1,777 people on the total recorded in October 2019.

While these homeless figures are still too high, they are down year-on-year by 17%. The most recent data show that family homelessness continued to fall in the past month and is at the lowest level seen since June 2016. It is still vital that we continue to deliver the appropriate measures to ensure all individuals experiencing homelessness are supported into permanent housing solutions while those with complex health and mental health needs are provided with the supports they need.

Engaging with rough sleepers is also essential. This engagement is first and foremost to encourage those rough sleeping to avail of emergency accommodation. Critically, it also allows their health needs to be assessed and provided for. The DRHE outreach team works 365 days per year up to 1 a.m. in supporting rough sleepers to access emergency accommodation. In undertaking this task, the clear and unambiguous approach taken is to work with the individuals to assess their immediate needs and work with them to cease their rough sleeping.

As we move further into the winter months, cold weather arrangements are in place nationally. In the Dublin region, the DRHE, which has responsibility for over 70% of all homeless persons nationally, has assured the Minister that sufficient capacity exists in services to ensure no person should sleep outside for the need of an emergency bed.

I want also to take the opportunity to place on record my gratitude to the staff of our local authorities and to our service delivery partners in the NGO sector. Their work during a difficult operational year, as we have also dealt with Covid-19, has been extraordinary.

Looking forward, the programme for Government includes measures targeted specifically at those experiencing homelessness with complex needs. It commits to the continued expansion of Housing First, and, importantly, to ensuring that health and mental health supports are provided. Housing First is now supporting over 450 former rough sleepers and long-term users of emergency accommodation in their own homes. Research is currently under way to support the expansion of the targets for this programme.

The Minister, Deputy Darragh O'Brien, has established a high level homelessness task force, which is feeding into the implementation of the programme for Government. The recent deaths in homeless services were specifically discussed at the most recent meeting of the task force in November.

Key to addressing homelessness is an increase in supply. The Government has committed to the increased supply of public, social and affordable homes. We will increase the social housing stock by more than 50,000 with an emphasis on new builds.

I assure Deputy Collins and others in the House of the work being done collectively and collaboratively to address the homelessness issue.

With no disrespect to the Minister of State, I was hoping the Minister, Deputy Darragh O'Brien, would have been here. I listened to him yesterday morning on the radio making the point that 4,400 families were homed permanently over the last period of the pandemic and it will be 6,000 next year. That 4,400 families were found homes during the pandemic was precisely because of the number of former Airbnb properties that came into the system on foot of the fall in travelling and tourism. We will not have that next year.

Where is the Minister going to get 6,000 homes to move people from homelessness into homes? If they are rented homes, they are not permanent as the landlords can remove people from those homes if they need to.

The whole question of the eviction ban during the pandemic should be looked at. In August, when it finished, 13 families in Dublin became homeless for the first time in the private rental market. We will see more of this happening if we do not put an eviction ban in place. Will the Minister seriously consider this?

Three people were told last night by homeless services in Dublin city that they were not entitled to accommodation when beds were available. They had to sleep rough last night in Baltic weather. That was just absolutely horrendous. We cannot allow this to happen. We had the same situation five years ago when Jonathan Corrie died across the road from here, while many others have died in between. We have always raised our voices in horror and concern but it still happens. Last year, it was 36 people. This year already it is 59 people and we have not really hit the winter season. I am expecting the Minister to step up to the plate now. His honeymoon period is over and he must show how he will deal with this question. Shelters are not just for winter or for Christmas. Accommodation is for life.

I assure Deputy Joan Collins that our Department takes this matter seriously. It is right that homelessness, along with the challenges we face in addressing it, are discussed here today. The death of any person accessing homeless services is a matter of deep concern to us all. I want to express my sympathies again to the families and friends of loved ones who have found themselves in such tragic circumstances. I also want to recognise the work being done on the ground by local authorities, service providers and NGOs.

We need to know more about the deaths of the people availing of homeless services. It is right that the review is being undertaken. I want to reiterate that addressing homelessness is a priority for the Government. We are investing in additional resources. Significant numbers of households continue to exit homelessness and to own a home each month. We will continue to build on the good work already being done in this area. I recognise that behind all statistics and figures are human beings or real people. We must not forget this.

The Minister, Deputy Darragh O'Brien, and our Department is taking this matter seriously. I take on board the Deputy's point on the eviction ban. It has been an effective emergency measure. We will certainly give consideration to the matters raised about Airbnb properties.

We are making every effort with our partners, local government and the NGOs to ensure we reduce homelessness and eliminate it if possible.

If I might, with regard to the question of people being turned away from homeless centres when our understanding is that this should not happen.

Absolutely, I would wholeheartedly agree. It is something I will take back to the Minister, Deputy O'Brien. We have reiterated a commitment that it should not happen and it should not be the case that anyone who seeks accommodation would be turned away from a homeless service. We will investigate it as a matter of urgency.

Do we need to bring in legislation for it? That was said last night at a meeting of Dublin City Council.

I take on board that point.

We appreciate the assistance of the Minister of State on that matter.

Gender Equality

We now move to the second important issue and Deputy Niamh Smyth, who wishes to discuss gender equality for ladies Gaelic games, which is not surprising given what happened in recent days.

I will begin my remarks by acknowledging and thanking the Minister of State, Deputy Chambers, for his announcement this morning of €2.5 million for swimming pools throughout the country. Bailieborough leisure centre and swimming pool and Cavan leisure centre were recipients of this and we know how desperately they need this funding.

On a more pressing matter, I have to begin by commiserating with the Galway players and management team who found themselves in a most difficult situation on Sunday. Before the all-Ireland semi-final commenced, they were seriously disadvantaged by having no warm-up time, which is an essential for any team's pre-match preparations. Everything was rushed for Galway, which did not allow for proper mental or physical preparation before that defining match. The teams were not on a level playing field. I must acknowledge that the Galway players trained and prepared all year for last Sunday's all-Ireland semi-final only to be let down by circumstances that could have been prevented. They were the real losers this weekend and my heart goes out to them. There are no second chances for this group of talented sportswomen.

Why was the game moved to Dublin when Limerick became unavailable? Semple Stadium had been made available as an alternative venue. Surely Thurles was nearer for both teams and the decision to bring the game to Parnell Park needs an explanation. For me this is a core part of the problem. Last year, as the Minister of State is well aware, 56,000 people attended the final in lashing rain. However, this weekend, because of the sudden change, TG4, which does tremendous work to promote peil na mban so strongly, was unable to televise it. Viewers and supporters were also let down and I can only imagine how the families of these players must have felt, given their disappointment at not being able to watch the game. The image of the ladies' game has been tarnished by questionable decision making in the lead-up to the game. The GAA, the Ladies Gaelic Football Association and the Camogie Association need to work together for the betterment of their players.

The original change to this match was caused by five Cork dual players being unable to play due to a clash between camogie and ladies football the previous weekend. Communication is an important part of all of this. Perhaps considering the curtailed and condensed season this year, an issue was likely to occur. However, a recurrence cannot be countenanced as it threatens the image and perception of the game. At the heart of sport is equality and this needs to be central in how women's football and women's sport in general are catered for. I intend to pursue further the imbalance that exists in expenses for male and female GAA players but that is for another day. It is something I hope to do with the Oireachtas committee.

The organisations under the GAA umbrella that govern men's football, ladies' football and camogie need to work together to prevent issues such as this happening again. It brings into sharp focus the larger question, which is funding for ladies GAA games. The GAA does tremendous work and was at the forefront during the pandemic, and we have evidence of this throughout the country, with regard to how its members got into their vans and brought food to people living in more isolated areas in the community. The GAA came together and was to the forefront in helping to support many less well-off and more vulnerable people in our communities. We know the GAA men's games attract funding of more than €3 million, which is wonderful. The Ladies Gaelic Football Association, by comparison, receives €700 million and, of course, the ladies have a lot to do with regard to their own travel and physio-----

I do not think it is €700 million, somehow or other. They would be happy with €700 million.

I apologise, €700,000.

I sincerely thank the Deputy for raising the matter. What she said about sport being about equality is everything we have sought to negotiate in the programme for Government. Our overall vision for women in sport is one where women have an equal opportunity to achieve their full potential, while enjoying a lifelong involvement in sport. With specific regard to the ladies games, there has been commentary recently on State funding disparity and the events last weekend surrounding the ladies football semi-final between Cork and Galway.

In relation to the semi-final, it goes without saying that the situation that arose was both disappointing and regrettable. Clearly, the State has no role or involvement in venue and fixture arrangements for any sport, but serious lessons need to be learned from what the Deputy has outlined and to prevent a recurrence. Sporting organisations are operating in specific difficulties and this has to be taken into account. As Minister of State with responsibility for sport, I agree with what the Deputy has said. We need to encourage closer collaboration and co-operation between all of the associations in the Gaelic games family and what happened on Sunday should not happen again.

In relation to State funding, I am committed to narrowing and eliminating the current funding gap between the Women's Gaelic Players Association and the Gaelic Players Association. Future Government decisions regarding these player support schemes will also be informed by the outcome of an independent review of these schemes commissioned by Sport Ireland that is under way. There is, in my view, a strong case for the development of a common funding approach and framework to guide an equitable distribution of such funding in the future. I have already discussed this matter with Sport Ireland and I am committed to ensuring that it is progressed in the short term in tandem with the review. We have to have equality, as the Deputy referenced.

A fundamental aim of the Government's National Sports Policy 2018-2027 is to increase the levels of participation in sport and physical activity across the population, with a specific focus on less represented groups, including women and girls. Addressing women's participation at all levels in sport is a key element of the national sports policy. A lot of work is happening and good progress is being made, not just in terms of increasing participation by women and girls but in the important areas of leadership and management roles in sport. It is imperative to make quick progress towards a much greater gender balance on the boards of national governing bodies, for example, and this is not happening quickly enough. We need to put everything on the table, including, for example, the possibility of gender quotas.

I acknowledge the work that is being done by the national governing bodies and the network of local sports partnerships in developing programmes and contributing to the increase in the number of women and girls taking part in sport. The number of women participating in sport in Ireland is continuing to grow and, at 3.4%, the gender gap in sports participation is narrower now than at any point over the past ten years. This is progress and the Government is determined to see that gap eliminated altogether.

The women in sport programme was established in 2005 and to date more than €20 million has been invested through the national governing bodies of sport and the network of local sports partnerships around the country. A key aim of the women in sport investment programme is to have equal participation between males and females in sport. As part of Sport Ireland's new women in sport policy, which was launched last year, a revised women in sport investment programme was put in place, involving the provision of funding to national governing bodies on a multiannual basis. A total of €3 million was invested over 2019 and 2020, doubling the previous funding for the women in sport programme. A further €265,000 was invested in the local sports partnerships under the women in sport programme.

Sport Ireland will reopen applications under the programme in 2021 with the intention of issuing a second cycle of multiannual funding. All national governing bodies will have an opportunity to apply for funding under the women in sport programme.

As I mentioned, Sport Ireland launched its policy in 2019. It is the express commitment of Sport Ireland and the Government that we build on the work that has been undertaken and address the funding challenges referenced by the Deputy, and the organisational challenges in Gaelic games and what the Deputy has outlined.

l thank the Minister of State. Players and management listening in will be heartened by what he has said.

I have to acknowledge the work of Justin McCarthy of RTÉ, who did much research and interviewed many of the players. We have heard them talking very publicly and very honestly about their own experience. Of course, many of them are working and studying in cities like Dublin, Galway and Cork but are from more rural counties, like my own county of Cavan, and are perhaps travelling two or three nights a week. It is not acceptable that men’s GAA would be remunerated for any expenses the men incur for that commitment and dedication, and the women are not given equal respect in terms of the expense that is incurred by them. We also heard players say that when they have an injury or have physio, that comes out of their own pocket, unlike the guidelines that are in place for men in the GAA, for whom that is all taken care of and looked after.

There is a big onus on us, as a Government, to ensure there is a level playing field. Given the big disparity that exists, we need to close that gap and create a level playing field for women and men.

Players make huge sacrifices. I would also make the point that many of them have families and small children and they make huge commitment to their team. They do it for their team, their community, their club and their county. It is a passion and a vocation. They should be valued in the same as men in the GAA. I do not in any way suggest that men should not get what they get, of course they should, but women who demonstrate the same dedication to our national game should be valued in the same way.

It would be remiss of me not to mention Aisling Sheridan from Mullahoran, County Cavan, who is about to fly back to Australia. She is a member of the Cavan Ladies Gaelic Football Association but she also plays Australian rules for Collingwood football club and she heads back to Australia tomorrow. That kind of dedication is exemplary and needs to be encouraged.

I absolutely agree. I admire players like Aisling Sheridan for their dedication to their county, and we have had many across the codes who have been on both sides of the world.

I agree we need a level playing field when it comes to this issue. That is why we are trying to pursue a common framework in the context of the review by Sport Ireland. We want to see the issue around governance and leadership at board level addressed by many of the national governing bodies, NGBs. Some NGBs have below 10% on their boards, which is not sustainable and is not something we, as a Government, can support if they continue with that position. That has to be part of the conversation as well.

In terms of the broader Gaelic games associations, we need better co-operation, co-ordination and collaboration across fixtures and across how games are organised. I have been involved with my local Gaelic games club from a young age. In my club, it is one club across camogie, ladies football, men’s football and handball. Everyone operates collectively, with equality at the heart of it, and promoting all of the games equally. We would not have seen happen what manifested nationally in recent days in many of our local clubs.

That is why we need to see greater co-operation across the associations and it is why we have already discussed this. When I met Sport Ireland, I raised this as a key issue in terms of the funding approach. The current position certainly sends the wrong signal to women, girls and people who want to see and play our national games. There should be a common funding approach. That is something we are committed to as part of the review and, hopefully, we will work with Deputy Smyth’s Oireachtas committee to achieve that collective aim. We want to see the current gap dealt with properly. That is a core objective of our national sports policy and something I am committed to pursuing in a proper way. We have engaged on this with the women in sport committee of Sport Ireland, which has looked at this in a really forensic way. We support it and the 20x20 campaign, which is a key objective for Government.

Covid-19 Pandemic

It is satisfying to raise an issue that the Cabinet has addressed at least in part today, with the publication of who is going to get the Covid vaccine and the logic and the sequence of how that is going to happen. People are going to be understandably impatient and they are going to want as much information as possible. How and when they are going to get it will be crucial if we want to keep people with us as we roll out this vaccine.

It is simply extraordinary what science has managed to achieve in discovering the new RNA vaccine technology and that it has been able to develop this within the period since the beginning of this year. While it is absolutely unprecedented in terms of scientific achievement, we now have an equal challenge in terms of the logistics of the delivery of the vaccine. It is a logistical challenge like none of us has ever seen before, a logistical challenge that is only comparable to the effort around the Second World War. The volume, the scale and the urgency of the roll-out of this vaccine is unprecedented. I urge the Government to be as transparent as possible at the earliest stage in regard to how people are going to get it.

It is welcome that the Minister has made the announcement today setting out clear guidelines in regard to how different groups will get the vaccine and the priority that has been decided. It is important that we acknowledge the work of everyone involved in this matter, in particular the National Immunisation Advisory Committee for its recommendations.

I agree with my colleague about transparency. This is going to be quite a complex roll-out because it is not just one round of vaccinations. There will be a second round, as I understand it. It is important, therefore, that records are kept and that they are carefully structured. I have not seen yet how this is going to be managed during the roll-out to make sure records are carefully kept of who has received the vaccine before the second round occurs. It is important there is clarification on that.

I note we are talking about people who are vulnerable, especially people in nursing homes and long-term care facilities, who are the No. 1 priority. There are also those working in the healthcare sector. That includes everyone in the healthcare sector, the doctors, nurses and care assistants, but also the people who are on the ground in healthcare facilities. They also need to be prioritised because they provide a major contribution in making sure healthcare is delivered, whether that is porters, cleaning staff or administrative staff. It is extremely important they are included when we talk about healthcare workers in all of that area.

To conclude, we need clarification in regard to the record keeping and how that is going to be monitored as we roll out this vaccine.

I thank the Deputies for giving me the opportunity, on behalf of the Minister, Deputy Donnelly, to update the House on the Covid-19 immunisation programme. The Government is committed to the roll-out of a Covid-19 vaccination programme as soon as suitable products have been authorised and supplies are available. In this regard, a high-level task force has recently been established, under the chairmanship of Professor Brian MacCraith, to support and oversee the development and implementation of the programme. The task force is working on a national Covid-19 vaccination strategy and implementation plan, and aims to submit this by Friday, 11 December. The Minister, Deputy Donnelly, will then bring the output of the task force's work to Government for consideration, and subject to the outcome of this discussion, it is the intention that the vaccination strategy and implementation plan will be published.

Today, the Minister, Deputy Donnelly, announced the allocation strategy for Covid-19 vaccines, following sign-off from Cabinet. The allocation process that should apply to the vaccination of the population is based on the advice of national experts on immunisation and the National Public Health Emergency Team, NPHET. The Covid-19 vaccine allocation strategy is based on a Department of Health and National Immunisation Advisory Committee paper. It sets out a provisional priority list of groups for vaccination once a safe and effective vaccine has received authorisation from the European Medicines Agency. This paper was endorsed by NPHET on 3 December.

In terms of procurement of vaccines, Ireland is taking part in a procurement exercise being operated by the European Commission on behalf of member states to procure suitable, safe and effective vaccines, in sufficient quantities, to combat Covid-19. Although Ireland has secured large numbers of doses of candidate vaccines, the initial availability will be limited if authorised for use. Therefore, a prioritisation strategy had to be developed.

So far, Ireland has opted into five advance purchase agreements, APA, with pharmaceutical companies and a process is in place to opt into a sixth APA. Covid-19 vaccines can only be approved and used if they comply with all the requirements of quality, safety and efficacy set out in the EU pharmaceutical legislation. No vaccine will be used until market authorisation from the European Medicines Agency, EMA, is obtained and any authorised vaccine will be subject to ongoing monitoring in Ireland by the Health Products Regulatory Authority.

Ireland, similar to all other member states, is awaiting conditional market authorisation by the EMA for the Pfizer-BioNTech vaccine and other vaccine candidates such as Moderna and AstraZeneca. It has been agreed at EU level that this is the most appropriate process regarding those new and rapidly-developed vaccines.

The EMA has stated that it wishes to take the time and make sure that the quality, effectiveness and safety is assured and matches EU standards.

What the Minister of State said is very welcome and it is appropriate to wait for the EMA sign-off. I believe in people's minds that has already happened and they are planning when access to the vaccine might happen for them. In that sense what I am saying about the how and the when becomes important. There may be ways in which we can use the technology we have, such as the Covid tracker app, for people to be able to register an interest, select their location and get a sense of where the centres will be located. Are we going to rely on existing architecture with pharmacists, GPs or hospitals, or create additional architecture that enables us to get through this logistical challenge much more quickly? Those are all the questions people will have and we could get to a point mid-way through next year where we end up with some unrest if we have not provided real clarity on the how and the when for people at every stage. Ultimately, the vaccine will not be truly successful until enough people have got it to stop the spread of the virus and prevent serious illness and death. I thank the Minister of State for all his work on it.

I very much welcome the Minister of State's statement and the statement by the Minister earlier today. I again raise the issue of the record keeping and how that will be completed. It is important that clarification on that is given at a very early stage. Whether people do or do not have medical cards, across the board we need to have careful records kept of who is getting the vaccine and who must get it the second time around, if that is the procedure that will be adopted.

We all agree that recent news from the vaccine developers is a beacon of hope after a very difficult year. Vaccination is a hugely effective intervention for saving lives and promoting good health. The safety and effectiveness of vaccines is our absolute priority and any Covid-19 vaccine administered in Ireland will have to be authorised by the European Medicines Agency.

While we await news on whether these vaccines comply with all the EMA's requirement of quality, safety and efficacy, the Government had been working ahead on plans for the roll-out of vaccines. A key part of the roll-out will be ensuring that those most vulnerable to Covid-19 will receive vaccinations first. Given the country's experience with Covid-19 to date and the risk that vulnerable people and those in front-line roles in health and social care services continue to face, it is only right that they are prioritised in the allocation of the vaccine. The Government has followed the advice from our leading medical experts to guide us through this process.

Driver Test

I thank the Ceann Comhairle for the opportunity to speak on this very important workers' rights issue. The denial of basic shelter and hygiene facilities, and for the avoidance of any doubt that is access to a toilet, for these workers is nothing short of a disgrace. They are left waiting out in the freezing cold and the rain while their students take the test in the instructor's car. The Road Safety Authority, RSA, will not let them use these basic facilities in the course of their work. I will quote what some of the workers are saying in their own words. One worker called Laura, who works on the north side of Dublin, stated:

It is a daily stress and humiliation to have to revolve my work schedule around how often I can travel home to use a toilet - especially at certain times of the month. I find I’m constantly dehydrated too because I’m trying not to consume liquids in case, I can’t find a toilet in an emergency, depending where I am on any given day. As a result of all this, I have had to reduce the number of students I can teach per day, which in turn has had a very negative impact on my finances. It’s not fair to have this added stress in work during a pandemic, especially coming up to Christmas.

Another worker, Dominic, in Dublin, summed it up when he stated:

Why has the department of transport classified driving instructor's as essential workers and then made their profession, health and dignity nonessential. When is the Minister going to take the RSA in hand and insist that they find a solution to this easily fixed problem? Why is the RSA controlled service of NCT'S different to driving test centres? Can the Minister explain how test applicants without private cars should sit their tests, if the Minister insists that instructors are not required at test centres?

I have been writing to the senior Minister for months and every single time they kick it back to the RSA and every single time the RSA does nothing. It is absolutely Baltic outside at the moment but even if it was not, they would still need to use the toilet.

I have raised this issue with the Minister of State on a number of occasions at this stage and I raised it with the chair of the RSA directly at the committee last week. The response to date has been totally inadequate. Driving instructors have been treated with contempt. Simple, low-cost and no-cost solutions are available but they have not been availed of. When I put this matter to the chair of the RSA, Liz O'Donnell, last week, she said that driving instructors were not allowed access to test centres but neither were mammies and daddies. That reflects the type of contempt I am talking about. I pointed out to Ms O'Donnell that driving instructors are not mammies and daddies. It is not once or twice in a lifetime that they need to cross the threshold of a testing centre. It is every day, if they were allowed to do it.

Driving instructors are essential workers who have worked through the pandemic with considerably less social distancing than many other workers are afforded and they deserve dignity and respect. To be locked out of centres where they cannot access toilet or hygiene facilities is unacceptable and a ridiculously strict interpretation of the rules. I do not believe any of us would be happy to have to stand outside the door of Leinster House in the freezing wind and rain between debates here or knock on doors on Merrion Square asking people to let us in to use their toilets because they are banned from using the ones here. No one would put up with that. The Minister of State would not put up with it but she expects driving instructors to put up with it. That is unacceptable. I ask her to outline what has been done on this issue since the last time I raised it.

I thank the Deputies for raising the matter in regard to access to hygiene and health facilities for approved driving instructors at driver test centres.

Both the Department of Transport and the Road Safety Authority are aware that driving instructors disagree with the decision by the RSA to close washing facilities and waiting rooms in driver test centres to ensure compliance with public and occupational health requirements during the ongoing Covid-19 pandemic.

I understand from the Road Safety Authority that prior to the current pandemic, some test centres across the country offered toilet facilities and, in some cases, indoor waiting rooms where instructors could choose to wait while their students were out undergoing their test. To be clear, some test centres around the country do not and have never had large waiting rooms or toilet facilities available for instructors.

As the Deputies are aware, driver testing is continuing under the current level 3 restrictions. The Road Safety Authority has been presented with the challenge of facilitating tests while at the same time safeguarding the safety of its staff and the public, minimising the risk of spreading the virus.

The safety of staff and test candidates is of paramount importance and this is highlighted by the range of steps taken to prevent virus transmission in the driver testing service. Some 60,000 tests have been conducted since tests resumed and no known case of virus transmission has been reported.

I understand that, at present, toilet facilities at test centres are only available to the learner driver who is undertaking his or her driving test. There are no waiting area facilities available in any of the test centres for either the learner or the instructor. The learner is contacted by phone while he or she is outside the centre and is then invited inside by the driver tester where the identity of the learner driver is established and preliminary test questions are concluded. Following this, the practical examination takes place. The test concludes back in the testing centre where the driver tester delivers the results and provides feedback to the candidate.

The case being made by the approved driving instructors is that they should have access to public areas of the test centre. This would have the effect of introducing third parties into the test centre without the robust controls in place for test candidates being undertaken. Twenty of the current 53 driving test centres are in shared premises over which the RSA does not control right of access. There are other instances where the RSA controls access, such as the Finglas test centre. This is one of the largest test centres, and up to 14 driver testers work there daily. There is no service officer on duty to control access to the centre so if access were to be granted to approved driving instructors and accompanying drivers, any member of the public would be able to walk in, thus breaching the public safety measures in place.

In this House on 12 November, I made a commitment that I would contact the RSA on this matter. I can now confirm that I have received a comprehensive reply from the authority, outlining the absolute necessity of retaining these safety measures. The decision to temporarily close public toilet and waiting facilities, where previously available, has been taken by the RSA in the interests of public safety and as part of its overall Covid-19 resumption of service protocols and in line with health and safety risk assessment procedures which had to be adopted as part of the RSA's resumption plans. It took account of guidance issued by the Health and Safety Authority and the return to work safely protocol agreed by the Labour and Employer Economic Forum, LEEF.

I assure the Deputies that this is not a decision that has been taken lightly. I am sure that they will agree that the health and safety of workers, such as those in driving test centres, should be our priority. The RSA is committed to ensuring that once the levels of risk are diminished to the extent that would allow ADIs and others to access test centres, this will be facilitated. The situation is continually monitored by the RSA and reviewed subject to any change to current Government guidance.

The Minister of State says that the health and safety of workers should be our priority and she is dead right, but it is not the case if a person cannot access a toilet in the course of his or her work. I like the bit where the Minister of State describes taking a driving test. I think we all know how that happens. The Minister of State talks about the need to protect the building and the health and safety of the workers. We are not seeking to put anyone's health and safety at risk. We are talking about the health and safety of the men and women who are assisted driving instructors.

If the Minister of State is not prepared to accept the word of the workers so that they can access and egress safely, will she consider the installation of welfare hubs as has been done in Britain to provide these facilities? That would protect the people inside the building and also provide a health and safety and welfare place for these people. If one contemplates what it would be like to have to stand outside in current temperatures for an hour, much less being unable to use the toilet, one would conclude that workers should be entitled to take access to a toilet for granted in the course of their work. It is a little embarrassing for the Minister of State and Government that this is not the only case where Opposition Deputies have had to come in to make a plea on behalf of workers who did not have access to a toilet.

Rita, a driving instructor from Sligo, told us:

I felt really embarrassed to have to ask my student could I use her toilet and wash my hands after dropping her home, we don't have public toilets, the only one was the other side of town at the bus station. I'm always in and around the test centre so I relied on the facilities

Darragh in Dublin stated: "From my experience I don't expect the RSA to care about me as a driving instructor." I echo the comments of my colleague, Deputy O'Reilly. I think the Minister of State has asked the RSA the wrong question. The RSA should have been asked to tell the Minister of State how it will deliver on the basic requirement of providing facilities for drivers, not if it has them within the existing constraints. There should be a mandate from the Government to deliver on those basic requirements, not for the RSA to tell the Government that it does not exist within what it has or to outline and detail the constraints that it has to live with. It should be obliged to provide these facilities. There are ways to deliver it which are low-cost. They are basic conditions. Every building site in Ireland, for example, would deliver the type of welfare facility that Deputy O'Reilly has mentioned. It is a basic facility and should be delivered.

I thank the Deputies and acknowledge that this is a difficult situation. Covid-19 has been disruptive to a number of settings. This is an operational matter for the RSA and driving instructors operate as independent businesses. They are not employed by either the Department of Transport or the Road Safety Authority. Driver testers are direct employees of the Road Safety Authority and, like any employer, the Road Safety Authority has a duty of care to those employees. That is why it has had to develop protocols to allow testers to carry out their job in as safe a manner as possible. The decision to close waiting rooms and restrict access to washing facilities has been taken by the RSA to safeguard staff and public alike in line with these protocols. It follows the approach taken by many organisations where access traditionally granted to members of the public to use staff facilities has been withdrawn for the protection of public health. While the authority recognises that this may be inconvenient for partners, family members and indeed driving instructors who accompany learner drivers to their tests, the fact is that if more people enter a building, there is a greater risk of Covid spreading. The safety of staff and the public in general must remain the Road Safety Authority's number one priority at this time.

The Dáil adjourned at 10.37 p.m. until 10 a.m. on Wednesday, 9 December 2020.