Saincheisteanna Tráthúla - Topical Issue Debate

Special Educational Needs

I have raised this issue consistently with the Minister of State, Deputy Madigan, both in the Chamber and when I have an opportunity at the Joint Committee on Education, Further and Higher Education, Research, Innovation and Science. I will continue to raise it because it is an issue of contention in Cork and it needs to be addressed urgently. Any clarification that the Minister of State could give today would be most welcome.

I will give a couple of facts that detail the situation we face in Cork. In area CHO 4, as per the HSE designation, there are over 1,000 children awaiting assessment of needs. A high proportion of these are from Cork and a significant number would require a place in a special needs school. The nearest special school, Scoil Cara, opened in 2014. This was a fantastic purpose-built facility. It currently has an enrolment of 71 students but with a capacity of 72. That is essentially full.

Following on from that, there are also 22 children in Cork who do not have a place in a special school at present and are not in any school. They are most likely receiving home tuition. In addition to those 22 children, there are 40 children in special class placements who remain on the waiting list for a special school. That amounts to more than 60 children in Cork who currently do not have a place in a special school but are entitled to one.

In response to a previous inquiry I made, there may be capacity for enrolment of four to six children in Rochestown in September 2021, but that is it. That leaves 56 children or so, as of now, with no special school place come September 2021. Our experience with Covid shows that these students suffer the most in the absence of the ability to get to school. What can we say to the 56 children who have no prospect of returning to any school for the next academic year?

Some work has been done to progress the idea of a new special school. I welcome the input of Department and, in particular, Cope into this process. I note that a report was submitted to the Department of Education on 12 October last in relation to a technical report on a nearby building, Montenotte House. That technical report surmised that the building was not able to deliver much-needed places in the short term. While I have not seen the contents of that technical report, Montenotte House is a protected building and, most likely, is unsuitable to cater for lifts and widening of doors, etc., for persons with disability. I would imagine that has put considerable restrictions on the building's ability to deliver much-needed places.

I understand that a further meeting took place on 3 November. I am not entirely sure of the outcome of that meeting. Perhaps the Minister of State could elaborate on it for me. I am led to believe from speaking to people locally that in response to the technical report that Cope submitted to the Department before Christmas, in addition to stating that the Montenotte House building was unsuitable to cater for children in special education, Cope essentially offered part of its office block on site for conversion. If that is the case, I wonder if the Minister of State could clarify where we are at with that process.

I thank the Deputy for raising this issue. He is correct when he says he consistently raises it with me in the Chamber and at the joint committee. He is correct to do so because it is an important issue for children with special needs in County Cork. This opportunity gives me a chance to outline the provision that we are giving for children with special educational needs, in general and also in Cork.

Departmental policy is that children with special educational needs should be included, where possible and appropriate, in mainstream placements with additional supports provided. In circumstances where children with special educational needs require more specialised interventions, special school or special class places are provided for. This year, the State will invest over 20% of its total education budget, or €2 billion, in supporting children with special needs. As a result, even though there is more progress to be made, the numbers of special education teachers, special needs assistants, special classes and special school places are at unprecedented levels.

Since 2011, the number of special classes in mainstream schools has increased by almost 235% from 548 to 1,836 for the 2020-21 school year.

Nationally, 197 new special classes have been established for the 2020-21 school year.

Budget 2021 also provided for an extra 235 special class teachers this year, supporting the provision of more than 1,200 additional special class places; an extra 990 SNAs, meaning that more than 18,000 SNAs will be available for allocation to schools this year; an additional 145 special education teachers, bringing the total provision to 13,765 in mainstream primary and post-primary schools; and an additional 23 special education teachers to be allocated to meet increased enrolments in special schools.

Notwithstanding the extent of this investment, I am acutely aware that there are some parts of the country where increases in population and other issues have led to concerns regarding a shortage of school places, for example, in Cork. It is accepted that additional specialist education places are urgently required in the Cork area. The Department's school building programme is focused on providing the additional school places to ensure every child, including children with special needs, has a school place. This includes opening new schools and extending existing schools in areas where more school places are needed to meet the growing number of children living there.

The National Council for Special Education, NCSE, has responsibility for co-ordinating and advising on the education provision for children with special educational needs nationwide. It has well-established structures for engaging with schools and parents. The NCSE seeks to ensure schools in an area can, between them, cater for all children who have been identified as needing special education placements. It continues to work with and support the families who have a recommendation for, and are seeking to secure, a special school placement.

A number of meetings between the Department, the NCSE and relevant stakeholders, including patron bodies, have taken place to consider how the demand for special school placements in Cork can be met. This engagement is ongoing. The NCSE is aware there are 20 children who are not in school and who require special school places. The Deputy mentioned a figure of 22, so the number is either 20 or 22. These children are getting home tuition, but that is not satisfactory. All options are being explored, including ascertaining the availability of any accommodation in existing schools that could be used as a short-term solution, the availability of lands where temporary accommodation could be provided, and the option of a greenfield site where a new school could be constructed.

I thank the Minister of State for her response. At the outset, I meant to acknowledge the good work that had been done in special needs education over the past decade in particular. We have more special needs assistants, SNAs, and special education teachers than ever before, but we must be cognisant of the fact we also have more children than ever with a diagnosis of some description on the spectrum. Hence the pressure we are under to facilitate places for them in special schools.

While I welcome the Minister of State's response, I would welcome any clarification she could give regarding the meetings in Cork between the NCSE, the Cope Foundation and her Department. In the initial technical report, three options were considered - short, medium and long-term. I understand the option of converting Montenotte House was the short-term option. Now that it seems to have been ruled out following the technical report submitted, will the Minister of State clarify what the medium- and long-term options are? Would they entail greenfield sites? I am aware the Cope Foundation has essentially offered its office and administration buildings in Montenotte for conversion into classrooms, which I have been informed could facilitate up to 25 or 30 children. If the Minister of State is aware of this offer, will she comment on it? This would not be about doing a short-term fix just for the sake of it. Not only would it be the quickest solution for the September 2021 intake, it would also be on campus with the existing facilities. It makes total sense to explore this option.

Short-term options are being considered, for example, if any other vacant accommodation is available in an existing school in Cork city. In addition, a number of building projects in Cork are being re-examined for potential capacity. The process is ongoing and includes engagement with local patrons and the education and training board, ETB. Options for the provision of a special school in Cork are also being examined. The Deputy will be aware there were meetings between the Department, the NCSE, the school's management and the Cope Foundation regarding Scoil Aislinn, whose patron is the Cope Foundation and which is located on Boreenmanna Road, Ballintemple, Cork, to explore the school's expansion and other options that would facilitate the enrolment of children who are without a school placement currently. My understanding is there will be another meeting in February to explore these options further and determine whether they would be feasible.

My Department will continue to support the NCSE and schools through the provision of the necessary funding and capital investment to ensure all children succeed in accessing education. In Cork, a concentrated effort is required by the Department, the NCSE and me. It is important that every child with special needs is catered for. It is not acceptable that school places are not available to the children who are waiting on them. The Deputy has raised this matter many times. A meeting will be held in February and I hope progress will come from it so that the children in question, particularly the 20 who are not in a school and are availing of the home tuition scheme, will be able to get school places. There are other children who have recommendations for school places and who are in special classes currently. They need to be considered as well.

Horse Sport Ireland

I thank the Ceann Comhairle for selecting this time-sensitive issue for discussion, and while I thank the Minister of State for being present to answer, I regret the Minister or a Minister of State from the Department of Agriculture, Food and the Marine is not present.

Horse Sport Ireland, HSI, was set up in 2007 and had a desire to establish a centre of excellence from the outset. It does good work with its 24 affiliates, which cross the spectrum from pony clubs to Olympic-level equestrian bodies. The decision regarding a centre of excellence must take on board the requirements of all these affiliates. The State has a controlling interest in HSI. In 2018, the then Minister, Deputy Creed, restructured the body, enabling him to appoint a chairperson and the majority of the directors of the board. The Department of Agriculture, Food and the Marine is the competent authority. The various stud books administered by HSI generate an income, but €6 million of its income of approximately €7 million comes from State funding.

HSI has entered into terms with a privately owned equestrian centre, with an obligation to spend between €7 million and €12 million on developing the centre and renting it for 35 years. What will happen to that investment after 35 years? None of the 24 affiliates were informed in advance of the location's announcement, which was issued in late December. There was a subsequent consultation with all of them over Zoom, but it only lasted for approximately an hour, which is not the level of consultation needed where such a long-term enterprise is concerned.

While I do not profess to have any expertise in what HSI and its affiliates do, I have a good understanding of process and the importance of transparency. A good, robust and transparent approach that properly scopes out needs and considers all location and funding options, including mortgage options, should be part of a process that is worked out with the affiliates. I would have expected finding a site to come at the end of the process.

What did the Department and Minister know of this? Will it be looked at again?

There are a number of issues with regard to the Greenogue facility to which I want to draw attention. It has been pointed out by some of the affiliates that it simply will not meet their needs. A portion of the 30-acre site at Greenogue has been frozen and this is to facilitate, in time, the western Dublin orbital route to link the N3, N4 and N7. This would impact on the ability to develop the facilities.

There was express reference in the planning permission to concerns regarding traffic volumes as this is primarily a residential area. Greenogue is currently in contravention of the existing planning permission. It has planning for private use that expressly prohibits competition and other commercial activities. Horse Sport Ireland has engaged a consultant, Colm McCarthy, to advise on this issue but in actual fact it would be better placed pausing this and taking the time to include its affiliates. There was an Indecon report in 2017 which stated Horse Sport Ireland should obtain the views of various subsectors of the industry, and the position of the stakeholders is of real value to Horse Sport Ireland in making the correct decisions. The report also recommended that Horse Sport Ireland's directors receive some accreditation and further training in the area of corporate governance.

This matter is time sensitive. Let us make a good decision on this. Let us work in the interest of all of the 24 affiliates. It needs to be paused.

Horse Sport Ireland is the national governing body for equestrian sport in Ireland. It is recognised by the Fédération Equestre Internationale, the Irish Sports Council, the Olympic Council of Ireland and Sport Northern Ireland. It was established in 2007, when the Equestrian Federation of Ireland and the Irish Horse Board were amalgamated, bringing together the breeding and competition sectors. It is a company limited by guarantee that operates independently of the Department. It receives funds from the Department of Agriculture, Food and the Marine, and was in receipt of funds from the former Department of Transport, Tourism and Sport through Sport Ireland. Horse Sport Ireland receives an annual grant, which is €5 million this year, from the Department in recognition of its work in promoting and developing the Irish sport horse sector and also receives funding from a share of an equine infrastructure grant scheme operated by the Department. The scheme is aimed at fostering breeding, marketing, educational and disease prevention research within the horse sector.

In 2015, a strategy report on the future of the sport horse industry, Reaching New Heights: Report of Irish Sport Horse Industry Strategy Committee, was published. This envisaged a centre of excellence for breeding, sport and coaching, providing breeding resources, making breeding technologies available, providing support for training riders and coaches through the national system of training for riders, coaches, and producers and providing support for inspection centre as well as sales, opportunities for training of young horses with talent and the provision of top class schoolmasters for the training of young riders among its services.

As recommended in this report, and as mentioned by the Deputy, a review of the structures of Horse Sport Ireland has been conducted by Indecon International Consultants, and its report with recommendations has been published. Indecon recommended the rationalisation of the boards. This has now been undertaken.

In its 2021 budget submission, Horse Sport Ireland said that it believed that a national centre as part of a hub-and-spoke model for the development of the industry would be an extremely worthwhile venture to underpin the industry. It stated that such a centre would enable an holistic approach to the sector, providing a world class environment for the production of horses, the provision of equine services, industry training and the promotion of an outstanding product, and that it would bring much cohesion to the sector providing a focal point for a very fragmented industry. The budget submission figures produced regarding the national centre of excellence were merely indicative and not specific to any particular site or venue and involved the development of a green field site. No additional capital funding was provided for this purpose.

As the Deputy pointed out, the Minister for Agriculture, Food and the Marine, Deputy McConalogue, is aware that Horse Sport Ireland is considering relocating to a new site as part of the establishment of a new headquarters and a national centre of excellence. It is envisaged that the centre will provide a world class environment for the production of horses, the provision of equine services, industry training and promotion. Horse Sport Ireland has had the objective of having a defined headquarters and a national training and breeding centre since its inception. I will bring the concerns raised by the Deputy about the Greenogue facility and what the Minister did or did not know to his attention that of the Department following this discussion.

I agree that there is an awful lot in what the Minister of State has said. I also agree that a centre of excellence is a really good idea and would have a unifying aspect. I saw this with the sports campus. There were benefits in the national sports campus that went beyond what was expected. I completely accept that the sport horse sector does need a higher standard of competition facilities. I am not questioning this need. Neither am I opposing it being supported by means of grants and public funds. However, let us not make the mistake of not consulting the affiliate organisations that require their needs to be met by this. Let us not, for expediency, make the mistake of picking a site that may not be the right site. It could end up being the right site but it has not gone through the type of process that would be unifying in determining and scoping out the needs and considering the funding options. These are the issues.

There are significant planning issues and constraints in this location. I ask that the Minister of State go back to the Minister and his Department and inform them in the strongest terms that they really need to look at this because it will be primarily public money that will go into developing this. Let us make sure that when it is developed, wherever it is developed, it will be something of which we will all be very proud and we will not be asking why somebody did not point out something in advance of making a decision. All I am looking for is that the correct decision is made, that there is proper consultation and that process and transparency matter.

I am advised that the board examined a number of sites in the context of choosing a location for its headquarters and the national centre for excellence. This was part of a selection process carried out by a subcommittee of the board. A detailed feasibility study for the centre was carried out. I understand Horse Sport Ireland appointed an independent consultant to carry out this study following a competitive request for tender. It also advises that the work of the subcommittee has been ongoing for two years and has involved the consideration of many different locations. It also advises that it engaged with a range of potential sites and hired a property valuer and adviser to review property and land offerings as well as the availability of property to purchase, rent or develop. The subcommittee also examined options not involving additional State funding.

Regarding consultation with affiliates, which the Deputy mentioned, Horse Sport Ireland indicates that it has engaged with all Olympic and paraplegic discipline affiliates on the Greenogue proposal, including Showjumping Ireland, Eventing Ireland, Dressage Ireland and Para Equestrian Ireland. It indicates that it has also met its equestrian sport and recreation affiliates, ranging from the Association of Irish Riding Clubs, riding establishments, mounted games, endurance, the Irish Quarter Horse Association, the Irish Pony Club, the Irish Pony Society, TREC Ireland, the Riding for the Disabled Association and the Irish Shows Association to discuss the matter. I understand that these affiliate bodies encapsulate approximately 30,000 participants in Ireland.

I hope this clarifies for the House the background to the proposal, which the board of Horse Sport Ireland is now endeavouring to progress. I agree with the Deputy that the right decision should be made and ultimately it is a decision for the Board of Horse Sport Ireland to make. I thank the Deputy for her interest in this topic.

Mother and Baby Homes Inquiries

I thank the Minister for coming to the House to facilitate our discussion on the commission for mother and baby homes, in particular the legal lifetime of the commission which is due to conclude on 28 February. The report from the commission reveals a very dark and disturbing chapter in our history, a history which none of us should ever forget. It is a piece of our history that should be recorded and archived to ensure that the 550 testimonies which make up the vast majority of survivor evidence is retained and protected.

I appreciate and am aware that the Minister has written to the commission in respect of the audio recordings and tapes allegedly destroyed on the grounds that survivors were promised they would remain anonymous. He and I know that was not the understanding of the survivors. The commission stated that it made clear to survivors that records would be destroyed, but the Minister and I know that in the leaflet presented to them there was no reference to the destruction of tapes or to the records being destroyed. To be fair, how could the Minister pre-empt the destruction of records?

Section 43 of the Commissions of Investigations Act 2004 clearly states that every piece of evidence gathered by a commission of investigation shall be transferred to the relevant Minister. How could the Minister expect or even imagine the deletion of records might happen? Nobody could anticipate that the commission of investigation would breach that clear commitment and destroy evidence without the permission of those who gave it.

The commission never stated it would keep a transcript of what survivors said and that their evidence was to be destroyed without a full transcript. I do not believe that in this day and age, when technology is at its best, that evidence cannot be retrieved. It must be retrieved. We must extend the legal lifetime of the commission.

We must remember that the survivors have rights and under GDPR their data rights have been breached. For that reason alone, we must act now and extend the lifetime of the commission. At the very least, the State owes the survivors the transparency they deserve.

I thank the Deputy for raising this important matter. I understand the anger of survivors regarding the deletion of tapes. For a long time, they have felt that their voices have not been heard and this action is compounding that anger and frustration.

I am aware of recent calls for the timeframe of the commission to be extended to enable it to deal with concerns relating to the audio recordings made by the confidential committee. The commission is independent in its operation. It has stated that each witness at the confidential committee was given a guarantee of complete anonymity and it was for this reason that the tapes were deleted. The commission has repeatedly stated that this process and the associated actions were carried out with the knowledge of survivors. However, as Deputy Smyth has said, it is clear some survivors do not share that view.

Since the concerns about the deletion of the audiotape was brought to my attention, I have engaged intensively with the Attorney General, the Data Protection Commissioner and the commission of investigation on this point. I am working to achieve a solution that ensures that survivors' voices are heard. As I stated to the Joint Committee on Children, Disability, Equality and Integration earlier this week, on 8 February I wrote to the commission of investigation to ask it to ascertain whether the deleted recordings could be retrieved. The commission replied to me on Tuesday, stating, "It seems we are unable to retrieve the recordings".

However, I am engaging further with the commission so I can conclusively ascertain whether there are any available technical solutions which may allow the retrieval of the missing data and this engagement is ongoing. When the issue of the deleted audio files was raised I asked my officials to examine whether the right to rectification under Article 16 of GDPR could be applied as a mechanism to address the issue of deleted tape recordings. This gives data subjects the right to have incomplete personal data about themselves completed, including by means of providing a supplementary statement. This is one of a number of GDPR rights that survivors of the mother and baby homes may be entitled to.

When the commission is dissolved, its archive will transfer to my Department. I know from my engagement with survivors how important access to information is, in particular access to personal information within the archive. Last October, the Attorney General clarified that when the archive transfers to my Department the rights of GDPR will apply. This was an important development and opens up the possibility of survivors being able to access crucial personal information in the archive.

My officials are preparing intensively for the Department's role in the management of the archive and are committed to having robust processes in place for managing information access requests in full compliance with GDPR. We have worked with the Data Protection Commissioner and sought advice from the Attorney General and external data protection experts on this point.

While I remain open to exploring all of the avenues that will best serve survivors, at this point it is not clear that additional time for the commission will necessarily assist in this regard. In practical terms, the commission has commenced the initial process of transferring its records to my Department. If it was extended, with the archive transferring to my Department as suggested, it is difficult to see how it could engage with any further investigation if it did not have access to its records.

If there was legislation for an extension, with the archive remaining with the commission, this would mean the commission would remain as data controller and make decisions on subject access requests, which it has always denied up to this point. The possibility of an extension also raises complex legal questions. I am engaging with the Attorney General on the specific matters. It is unclear how a proposed extension could overcome the complex legal matters associated with such a move or how best survivors could be served, in particular those who seek access to the commission's archive.

A decision on further action will be informed by the ongoing urgent engagement that is taking place with the commission, the Data Protection Commissioner and the Attorney General. I am happy to update the Deputy and the House on any further developments.

I thank the Minister for his comprehensive answer. There is a commitment in section 43 of the Commissions of Investigation Act 2004 that all information gathered will be kept as evidence. That is a basic and simple principle that we would all understand commissions of investigation to operate on.

I appreciate that the Minister has written to and awaits the advice of the Office of the Attorney General on this. However, we must remember the human life stories of the survivors who are listening to the debate and feel further anxiety and hurt is being piled on top of them after a number of years of waiting for a conclusion to all of this.

The positive aspect of this is the transfer of the archives to the Minister's Department so that people can finally access their details. However, it is difficult to understand how this commission of investigation could think for one second that the destruction of records and deletion of evidence could be in any way appropriate or helpful in terms of what it was trying to achieve. I cannot reconcile in my head how professionals at that level could think for one second that would be acceptable.

I appeal to the Minister to consider an extension. There are still a number of days until 28 February. I appreciate he is getting the legal advice necessary, but let us not cause any more unnecessary hurt to the survivors. If we have clear and concrete answers in terms of retrieving the information, evidence and records, I am sure survivors would be happy to move on with the next stage. In the absence of that and in the absence of the information I ask the Minister to continue to work night and day, as I know he is, to ensure that survivors have that transparency.

I am acutely aware of the very human stories and the real upset this has caused to survivors. I have engaged and continue to engage with survivors. My absolute priority is to see if there is a technical solution to seek to retrieve that information and those recordings. That is what we are looking at currently. We will continue to engage intensively with the commission on that point, to see if we can retrieve data. In the event that does not manifest, we are looking at the right to rectification and the potential right for each survivor to be able to ensure there is a statement of the survivor's testimony on the record of the commission's archive and to ensure their voices are heard.

I also want to emphasise what I see was a fundamental policy shift that we saw last October in terms of the GDPR access to the archive and the ability of the tens of thousands of former residents of mother and baby homes and county institutions to submit subject access requests to get that essential early-life information that they have been denied for so long. I am incredibly reluctant to take any action which I feel will delay the ability of survivors to start to use those mechanisms under GDPR. That must be borne in mind in our considerations and I know the Deputy recognises that. As I said, work is ongoing on all elements of this with regard to a technical solution, rectification and looking at the wider question of what is feasible in terms of an extension. It is a difficult and complex question, but all elements continue to be examined.

Water Pollution

I thank the Minister of State, Deputy Peter Burke, for taking the time to address this matter, which is quite prevalent in the constituency he and I represent. In a vast majority of cases people do not tend to have many interactions with different State bodies, unless there is a specific reason. What has happened, over generations in some cases, is that there has been very little expectation of the State in certain matters. However, people have one basic expectation and it is one that is shared across most of the developed world. They expect not to have the smell of fecal matter in their residential areas or to have other sewage floating into their communities and onto their farms from nearby rivers. Unfortunately, that is happening not only in my constituency but also in too many places across the country.

Due to insufficient infrastructure on the Shannon, in particular, and poor planning of housing developments as well as a considerable number of contributory factors, water is being drained into the sewerage system during high floods and then released back into river systems. This was also mentioned during the debate on the Land Development Agency Bill 2021 by another Deputy. In my area, residents in and around Athlone have been complaining for years about the odours coming from waters that are flowing very close to their homes in many cases. They have consistently raised concerns about the health implications, the impact this is having on their property prices, their reduced standard of living and their ability to enjoy their community fully.

Large parts of Athlone's existing network are based on combined sewers, which is a sewage collection system designed also to collect surface water run-off. Combined sewers can cause serious water pollution problems during combined sewer overflow events when wet weather flows exceed the sewage treatment plant's capacity. Works to rectify this are ongoing and the residents are happy about that. However, last year, the European Court of Justice ruled that the Irish Government had breached its environmental obligations in several locations across the country. This is not new, therefore, either to the Government or to residents. The European Commission had initially given a deadline of 2005 to resolve the nationwide problem of raw sewage being discharged into rivers.

The impact this has outside of the residential areas is also quite profound in areas of natural beauty and potential tourist attractions. Recently, in Lilliput, another area of Westmeath, the bathing waters were again rated as poor, which also happened in 2018. It is an incredibly popular area. We are lucky to be from what is known as the lake county, given the bodies of water we have, but the way we are taking care of them and valuing them is simply not fit for purpose. It is not just an issue for local residents. Due to the impact this is having, our ecology, wildlife and biodiversity are being damaged. We cannot expect to have a vibrant aquamarine system when we are polluting the waterways to such an extent.

The effect this has on fish and plant life in our waters is detrimental and in many cases devastating. One need only speak to some of the local anglers or a marine biologist in the area to hear them say the same. This is on top of the lack of regulation and enforcement in respect of toxic pesticides. Moreover, there are numerous instances of oil spills and other industrial residue being pumped into the waterways and lakes across the State.

I thank my constituency colleague, Deputy Clarke, for raising this issue and providing me with an opportunity to give an overview of the current work being undertaken to address the quality of our waters.

Water quality in Ireland is facing complex pressures and increasing demands due to population change and a previously growing economy that we all hope will continue after we emerge for the current pandemic, as well as a changing climate. The EU Water Framework Directive establishes a common approach framework for the protection of inland surface waters, transitional waters, coastal waters and groundwater. The overall aim of the directive is to maintain high quality and good status waters where they exist and to restore waters that do not meet these criteria. River basin management planning, structured in six-year cycles, is the tool prescribed by the directive for achieving these aims.

Our policy is to ensure we provide the right measure in the right place. It is clear that one-size-fits-all measures are not fully effective. Where the Environmental Protection Agency, EPA, identifies agriculture as a significant pressure, a free advisory service is now available to farmers in priority areas. Where urban wastewater is causing an impact, Irish Water is investing in improved services and infrastructure. The Government also improved the financial supports to help bring domestic septic tanks up to standard.

However, our rivers, lakes and estuaries are all complex, natural systems. An ongoing cycle of assessment and planning must continue in tandem with the implementation of measures to protect and improve water quality. In this regard, as one of the commitments in the programme for Government, we plan to launch a new revised and strengthened river basin management plan in 2022 to protect Ireland's water quality and ensure we have a well-protected environment and vibrant communities.

I appreciate the reply from the Minister of State. In reality, while we have these bodies and authorities that are responsible for certain areas, it has been my experience that when an issue emerges, such as an oil spill on a body of water, it is treated essentially like a hot potato. It is passed from one to the other and another until somebody finally takes responsibility, but at that point the damage has already been done. These are not isolated incidents that happen now and again. They are happening far too often and sometimes there are severe cases.

They have a huge impact, far beyond what they would have if there had been quicker responses. Unless comprehensive legislation to protect our waterways is brought forward quickly, the situation will continue to get worse.

Many of our rivers and lakes are already in a critical condition, their biodiversity is severely reduced and the numbers of fish and other wildlife has been depleted. The possible health and economic side effects are more reasons for us to take urgent action before it is too late. It is not good enough for any agency of the State to avoid responsibility. That is something we have seen far too often, namely, where the matter is kicked down the road in the hope that it will become somebody else's problem or that someone else will pick it up as an issue to be addressed. That is something that requires time but when it comes to issues such as this, we do not have the luxury of time. There needs to be a much more urgent and coherent approach to these events when they happen. What is needed is a radical new approach to how we treat our natural water sources. In order to achieve meaningful results, we need to provide the authorities with powers that they can actually enforce. We need sewerage and defence systems and regulations around pesticides and run off material, but we also need to crack down on the dumping of industrial waste, rubbish and any other waste material into our waters. We need to see these people prosecuted for their actions.

I again thank Deputy Clarke for her comments on this matter, many of which I agree with. As part of the implementation of the EU water framework directive in Ireland, the EPA is charged with monitoring water status in order to establish a comprehensive overview of the water quality within each river basin district. The EPA's most recent report in this regard sets out in stark terms the current and future challenges we, as a country and as a society, face, but it also points the way forward with practical and positive, though perhaps not painless, actions that must be taken in order to address these issues.

My Department is preparing for the third river basin management plan for Ireland to cover the period 2022 to 2027. Building on the work on the second cycle, this plan will again describe the main pressures and activities affecting water status, set out the environmental objectives to be achieved up to 2027 and identify the measures needed to achieve these objectives, including those highlighted by the EPA. However, given the extent, depth and complexities of the measures required, it is now more important than ever that all sectors of society engage fully and take all the necessary actions to protect and improve our water quality. With a draft river basin management plan due to be published shortly and put out for a six-month public consultation, I take this opportunity to urge all stakeholders to engage in the process and ensure that we achieve the best possible water quality in our rivers and lakes.

The Dáil adjourned at 6.25 p.m. until 10 a.m. on Wednesday, 24 February 2021.