Saincheisteanna Tráthúla - Topical Issue Debate

Qualifications Recognition

My time is short, and I do appreciate my colleagues, Deputies Gannon and Tully, joining me in this debate.

Nothing really brings shame to the Department of Education more than its treatment of special needs assistants, SNAs, who we send into the war against Covid in classrooms throughout the country without basic provision for their own safety and without any sense of when they will be vaccinated. It is quite clear that when it comes to actually paying them, however, the Department will do everything it can resist that temptation. What we are talking about here is proper accreditation for the certification which they receive. We are having difficulty in getting that accreditation. The suspicion is the Department does not want to sanction such accreditation because it would mean SNAs would have to be properly paid. On that basis, I am interested to hear the Minister of State's response. I am also interested to hear the contributions of my colleagues.

Over recent months, we have rightfully heard how truly essential our SNAs are. This was never not the case. However, it has never been reflected in their remuneration and conditions of employment. Right now, more than 500 SNAs are taking an extraordinarily difficult course at UCD, where some of them have worked in excess of 60 hours since January trying to improve their skills, knowledge and awareness. At the end of that, they will not be given an accreditation comparable with any other course of a similar difficulty being offered in the country. That is simply unacceptable. Why does the Department and the Government not put their money where their mouth is in relation to SNAs to ensure they are accredited properly for the work that they are doing and, beyond that, ensure their pay and conditions are commensurate with how truly essential their contribution is to schools throughout this country?

For far too long, SNAs have been treated as the poor relation within education. They deserve respect, and where they undertake training, it must be properly accredited and recognised. The Minister of State encouraged SNAs to take part in the first national training programme for SNAs at UCD. However, no clarity has been provided on the accreditation of this course. SNAs are going around in circles trying to get this clarity. While SNAs are spending a huge amount of time studying and putting the work in for this course, they deserve to know what qualifications they will come out of it with. They deserve to know what impact it will have on their employment, their rights and their entitlements. At the minute there is dithering, delay and confusion as to what the Department of Education is going to do about this and how it will be recognised. It is not good enough. The Minister, Deputy Foley, and the Minister of State, Deputy Madigan, need to resolve this with the Minister, Deputy Harris, and the institution involved. SNAs who are working hard and trying to upskill through courses like this deserve to know what status the qualification will have, and it must be clarified urgently.

I thank the Deputies for raising this matter today. I assure the House that the education of children with special educational needs is a key priority for this Government. The Government will invest in the region €2 billion this year in supporting children with special needs, which is over 20% of the total education budget. By the end of this year, there will be 18,000 special needs assistants employed in our schools. As the Deputies have pointed out, the SNAs play a huge role in supporting the inclusion of pupils with significant care needs in education and in school life. This was acknowledged in the Comprehensive Review of the Special Needs Assistant Scheme, published by the National Council for Special Education, NCSE, in 2018.

The review made a number of recommendations regarding SNAs and the need for a more broadly based set of supports, including therapeutic supports for pupils with complex needs. The review also referenced the training needs of SNAs. In this regard, the NCSE recommended that a new national training programme at level 5 of the national framework of qualifications be developed for existing SNAs who do not have the requisite level of training and for new SNAs on appointment.

The NCSE also recommended that training tailored to the specific complex needs of some students being cared for by SNAs should be provided.

The policy advice has been considered by the Department and the value of an accredited programme is recognised. The Department is committed to the development of a strategic framework for SNAs that will identify need and provide quality training in a timely manner. In order to begin providing a foundation for this, it was decided that initial priority should be given to the development of a training programme for SNAs who may not have had a recent opportunity to access a training programme tailored to their role. The initial aim of the new programme is to provide training, not a professional qualification. This might provide some clarity to the Deputies on that specific question. This is the first national training programme for SNAs employed by the State and it is tailored to their needs. I assure the Deputies that the programme will be evaluated and the outcome will inform the approach to the training of SNAs in the future.

The Department recognises that a more strategic approach is required for the training of SNAs. This would deal with a number of matters, including the identification of need and the provision of appropriate training programmes. The issue of programme accreditation will be considered further in this context. I look forward to its development. A public procurement competition was held for the development and delivery of a new national training programme for SNAs. A detailed specification of need and learning outcomes was developed and published for the competition. Following evaluation of the tenders received, the contract was awarded to University College Dublin's school of education, in conjunction with its school of nursing, midwifery and health systems.

A total of €2.5 million has been allocated to this programme over the next four years on the basis of a full uptake of 3,500 SNAs. My understanding is that some 2,500 SNAs have applied for the training, which meant this phase was oversubscribed, and the first cohort of 500 were enrolled in January. The programme consists of five modules delivered online over a ten-month period, with a two-month break during the summer period. Flexibility is a key part of the approach to the delivery of the programme. It is important to stress that it is a voluntary programme and something SNAs have been seeking for a considerable period of time. I stress that as it is a new programme, it will be evaluated and the outcome of that evaluation will inform future policy, including policy on accreditation.

The Minister of State knows, I know and, indeed, the cat knows that teachers would not be treated as SNAs are being treated because the Department would not get away with it. It is clear that the Department has a long-standing issue or policy when it comes to dealing with SNAs in that they are not treated with the same level of respect as teachers. We have seen that throughout the pandemic, from announcements being made without the sign-off of the union representing SNAs to the absolute debacle of the redeployment process last year.

Now we have a situation where the Minister of State has given a speech to the House that is very well-meaning but which shows that she will not do what we require her to do, namely, afford SNAs the credit and respect they deserve for the training they do. I suggest to the Minister of State that she should work harder to put in place the accreditation that SNAs are seeking for the training they do. This would show them that the Department recognises that theirs is a profession of which they can be proud, instead of leaving them always to feel that they are being undermined by the Department.

I thank the Minister of State for her response. It was an honest contribution, but contained within that honesty was clarity as to just how unhelpful it is. A total of 500 SNAs are undertaking a course that will not be accredited. We are supposed to alleviate the concerns of those 500 people by telling them the training will be assessed in the future and that other groups of trainees, perhaps, will be accredited for doing the same training. That seems quite insulting. If I were undertaking that course, I would be fairly demotivated.

The Minister of State said that the course has no cost for participants but that is not true. The effort involved for those SNAs in doing their day's work and then coming home and trying to provide childcare while they do a course online is a cost in itself. For that, they will not receive any accreditation. Even worse, they are being told that taking this course may be of assistance to them in pursuing further education. Equally, however, it may not be of any such benefit.

We need some urgency around this issue. I fully appreciate what the Minister of State is telling us but it is not good enough. All we are asking for is clarity as to what level SNAs will be accredited at for completing quite a difficult and worthwhile course. The Minister of State needs to do better on this matter.

Like the two previous speakers, I am somewhat disappointed with the Minister of State's reply. SNAs are professionals and they want to do their job as well as possible. They are willing to undertake this training to improve their abilities. Without SNAs, many students would be excluded from education. Their work is imperative to ensure inclusion. I ask the Minister of State to go back and revisit this matter. There must be an incentive for SNAs to improve the work they do through this training programme. Members of other professional bodies would not be asked to do work for which they do not receive some sort of accreditation and which could be reflected in their employment conditions and pay.

It is not a fair assertion that my Department and I do not care about treating SNAs well. This course provides the very first opportunity for many SNAs to engage with the theory and research-based practice which underlies their role. I accept that the training is not yet accredited, which is not to say that it never will be accredited. We have to start somewhere and this is very valuable training. It is testament to its value that there have been so many applicants. It is a very well-considered course with excellent modules contained within it. It will provide a really good grounding and training, which, as I said in my initial response, is what the NCSE has recommended. The aim, in the first instance, is to provide really good training as opposed to a professional qualification. The Deputies will appreciate that we cannot suddenly go from a zero base to accreditation without evaluating the outcomes of particular courses. I reiterate that the outcome of the course will be evaluated and will inform the approach that is taken into the future.

We have 70% more SNAs now, at nearly 18,000, than we had in 2011, when there were 10,500. As the first Minister of State with a dedicated remit of special education, I certainly have, at all times, tried to look after SNAs, whether that involves the provision of PPE or taking care of other aspects of their well-being. We have written to the Department of Health to see whether we can get them moved up the vaccination schedule. We are doing everything we can to support them. This training is a stepping stone for SNAs and it will result in much better training in the future.

I thank the Deputies for raising this important matter and the Minister of State for coming to the House to respond to it.

Social Welfare Benefits

My colleague, Deputy Richmond, and I appreciate that the net issue around construction is a matter for the Minister for Housing, Local Government and Heritage. However, we want to deal with a specific issue relating to the financial impact of the shutdown of the construction sector. There are families who have been engaging in home renovation projects and who are renting other accommodation for the period of the renovation. The unforeseen additional shutdown of construction activity in the private accommodation sector has left them facing very considerable additional rental bills. Some families can absorb that additional cost but many of them are under severe financial pressure to bear it for three, four, five or even six months. They also need to plan two months in advance in order to give notice to their short-term landlord.

I want to flag this as a significant cost burden to the families affected which, in some cases, they are simply unable to bear. I am asking that the Department of Social Protection make additional needs payments available to them, whether under the supplementary welfare provisions or as exceptional needs payments.

It is a question of ensuring that if the families approach the Department or Intreo offices, the Department will be aware of their circumstances and the burden on them. The families would not necessarily present to the Department or Intreo in other circumstances but they are under particular pressure now.

We are aware that renovations and private home construction cannot be progressed at the moment. People understand that, although they look with frustration at the construction activity that has been going on, including in respect of housing adaptation and social houses, as important as these are. When it is one's own house that is being renovated and the works are subject to the vagaries of the wind and rain, meaning that jobs cannot be completed, and one is bearing an additional burden, it is very difficult. In my constituency, for example, there is an affected couple who recently purchased a private home in a new development. The home is at the final snagging stage but the deadline of 31 January could not be met. Had everything gone to plan, the couple would have moved in last month. They had been saving for a really long time but they just cannot afford the additional rent. I thank the Minister of State, Deputy Joe O'Brien, for hearing us on this.

I am very grateful to my colleague, Deputy Carroll MacNeill, for allowing me to contribute on this important Topical Issue matter.

We are all aware that throughout this pandemic, people have sadly slipped through the gaps in terms of the supports available from the Government. We discuss these at length. Supports are available under the Covid restrictions support scheme and there are workplace supports for many employers and businesses, but a group that is really getting caught comprises those who have been having work done on their homes, as alluded to by Deputy Carroll MacNeill. The fact that much of the work was not counted as essential has left them in circumstances in which they must rent accommodation. They have to meet the cost of rent as well as pay a mortgage. They have to rely on borrowings and savings and they face a very difficult situation. We all know of the difficulties and uncertainties in the rental market, and we do not know exactly when the works can continue.

I am struck by two cases in my constituency. The first concerns a family who contacted me in January. They are having pyrite remediation works carried out on their home. The home has been stripped to the foundations and it is completely uninhabitable. The works have not continued and the family has to rent accommodation. They do not have family they can live with. Now the landlord is asking how much more time they want, and they are asking how they will be able to afford both the rent and the mortgage.

In the second case, a family in Stillorgan has taken off the back of their house to adapt it and construct a wet room for a child with severe special needs. They are living in temporary rental accommodation and the lease is up. The costs are mounting and the builders cannot do the work. The family is really starting to worry about how they will make ends meet, make rent payments, pay the mortgage and pay for the important work that needs to be done. It is not a case of people making a choice or opting for a luxury item; these are vital works. Those affected are in a quandary in that they are falling through the cracks and facing double payments in a very difficult situation. They absolutely need an emergency payment of some kind.

I thank the Deputies for raising these really human dilemmas.

I thank the Deputies for raising this issue. I will give some context first. On 6 January, the Government announced that additional public health restrictions would apply under level 5 of the plan for living with Covid-19. The additional restrictions required all construction activity to cease from 6 p.m. on Friday, 8 January, with a number of exceptions. These measures are set out in the Health Act 1947 (Section 31A - Temporary Restrictions) (Covid-19) (No. 10) Regulations 2020, as amended.

With regard to private housing developments, the regulations provide that housing and construction works that were ongoing on 8 January could continue where the works required to render the property capable of occupation were scheduled for completion by 31 January 2021. The regulations also provide for the supply and delivery of essential or emergency maintenance and repair services to businesses and homes, including electrical, gas, oil, plumbing, glazing and roofing services, on a call-out basis. On 23 February, the Government announced that the current level 5 restrictions would remain in place until 5 April 2021.

People who cannot occupy their new or renovated home can apply for mortgage payment breaks. The banks have been asked to exercise, and generally are exercising, forbearance with regard to mortgage and loan repayments. In September the Central Bank reported that over 90,000 people were availing of mortgage payment breaks and that the overall number of people in arrears had reduced. Banks are obliged to follow the Central Bank's code of conduct on mortgage arrears, which involves a four-step mortgage arrears resolution process, MARP. Accordingly, in most circumstances a person who does not have the financial wherewithal should not have to face the challenge of covering both rent and mortgage or loan payments while awaiting the completion of a new home build or renovation. In addition, people can access the Money Advice & Budgeting Service, MABS, which is funded by the Department of Social Protection under the aegis of the Citizens Information Board, for support in utilising the mortgage arrears resolution process.

Protections are also in place to support tenants during the lockdown. A moratorium on evictions has been in operation throughout the country since 31 December 2020 and it is to last until 15 April 2021, with limited exceptions. The Department of Social Protection provides a range of supports to help people during the Covid-19 pandemic, most notably the pandemic unemployment payment, the employment wage subsidy scheme and the Covid-19 illness benefit, and it has introduced flexibility with regard to access to rent supplement. In addition, it provides supplementary supports where a person is experiencing financial hardship. These are, of course subject to a means test to ensure supports are targeted at those who need them most. For example, the exceptional needs payment scheme is available to provide supports to people who may be experiencing exceptional needs as a result of the Covid-19 pandemic. Payments are made at the discretion of the officers administering the scheme, taking into account the requirements of the legislation and all the relevant circumstances of the case. In considering whether to make a payment, officers consider the income of the household and the ability of the applicant to meet the need from his or her own resources. Exceptional needs payments are not subject to the habitual residence condition and payments can be made to those who do not qualify for other social welfare supports. Accordingly, any person experiencing financial hardship as a consequence of Covid-19-related constraints can and should access the community welfare service. Where a need can be established, we are there to help.

I thank the Deputies for raising this matter.

I thank the Minister of State for his response, which is very welcome. I will be sure to bring it back to my constituents who are suffering in the way I have described. They have faced an unexpected burden. Many of them have not had contact with Intreo services before and just may not be aware of the supports offered by the Government at different stages. I will, of course, refer to the Minister of State's speech when advising them. I will advise them to refer to it when they make contact with the Intreo offices.

As the Ceann Comhairle said, these are the very human dilemmas and cases related to the Covid experience that one just did not expect. They relate to the sorts of changes that had to be made under public health guidance. I encourage the Minister for Housing, Local Government and Heritage to ensure that construction of the kind in question will be among the first categories of construction, if not the first, to recommence when possible. We recognise the reason construction had to stop but the human impact is quite considerable. The stress and strain of not knowing whether an extra month or an extra two or three months are needed is quite a burden when it is about family accommodation.

I thank the Minister of State. I welcome many of his comments. This is about the practicalities of individuals carrying out vital works that are unfortunately not classified as essential. I am referring to family circumstances that most of us in this House deal with every day simply through representations but we do not experience them on a personal level. The families do not have the time to go through a labyrinth of forms and various schemes.

I was a little concerned when the Minister of State referred to means testing. To what extent will means tests take into account factors such as having a mortgage in addition to having to pay rent? There is scope for expanding the rent supplement. I ask the Minister of State to work with the Minister for Social Protection to consider this expansion. To the Minister of State and me, this matter involves a short-term measure but for the families who are locked out of their homes on which they are doing vital work and who do not know how they will pay their bills at the end of the month, it is very pressing and concerning.

The exceptional needs payment scheme is available to provide supports to people who may be experiencing exceptional needs as a result of the Covid-19 pandemic. I appreciate that current restrictions on construction have had a significant unforeseen impact on households that began renovations on family homes prior to the introduction of the current level 5 restrictions, and particularly on those who had to vacate their homes to seek alternative accommodation once renovation started. Those affected can access MABS, which is funded by the Department of Social Protection, for support in utilising the MARP. It is unlikely that financial support from the Department of Social Protection will be available in all cases where there are additional unforeseen rental costs associated with the ongoing shutdown of construction, which has prevented renovation work on family homes from being completed. The Department may be able to assist some low-income or welfare-dependent households affected in meeting these costs through the exceptional needs payment scheme. Any person experiencing financial hardship as a consequence of Covid-19-related constraints can and should access the community welfare service. Where a need can be established, we are there to help.

The exceptional needs payment cuts through a lot of red tape and form filling and is a relatively easy payment to apply for as it is generally accepted that it is needed quickly. That side of things should not cause a major problem for people. I thank the Deputies again for raising the matter.

Community Employment Schemes

The community employment, CE, programme is invaluable. Workers gain experience and develop skills. Communities gain from the work and society gains from the programme. In west Cork, CE workers are vital. Without them, many rural services and organisations would close.

Skibbereen Education and Environment Project recently shared with me a selection of the roles CE workers fill. There is the care and repair service, set up with support from one of my predecessors, former Deputy Jim Daly, which carries out small repairs to keep elderly and vulnerable people in their own homes and is staffed entirely by CE workers. Support staff in Lisheens House, a suicide awareness and counselling charity, are CE workers. Community halls, Tidy Towns committees, sports clubs, and charity shops have all gained substantially from this programme. It is the type of Government policy we need. Community employment is targeted at the needs of people and communities and meets our shortfalls in local services. Every Deputy in the House knows its value and supports it.

There are three issues that projects and sponsors have highlighted to me. The first is the situation regarding workers aged over 55. Rural areas have proportionately more older unemployed people. Rural and coastal communities need the CE scheme to recognise this reality. Prior to 2017, workers could remain on the scheme for up to five or six years depending on their circumstances. However, the previous Government greatly reduced this period and community employment schemes generally last one year now, with the possibility of an extension if the participant is working towards an award. This is beyond frustrating for workers and sponsoring services. Individuals doing good work and helping their community have to leave their role because the Department changed the conditions. They are forced to leave the programme, are made unemployed and the vacant role is not filled. I do not know where the joined-up thinking is in this.

The second issue raised with me is that projects and sponsors are calling for the qualifying period of unemployment to be reduced from 12 months to six months. This would enable a whole cohort of people to participate in the programme, upskill and actively contribute to their communities. I do not know what sense there is in making people spend an additional six months unemployed rather than giving them the opportunity and dignity of taking up meaningful work. This issue is even more relevant during the pandemic, when employment prospects are bleak. The people affected and all communities need the Government to respond pragmatically by allowing people to access this excellent programme earlier.

The third and most urgent point, to which I ask the Minister of State to give priority, is the clear need for a further extension of contracts for community employment workers. While I welcome the extension the Minister of State announced during the week, it was only until 2 July. Over the past year, sponsors and projects have not been able to recruit and retain effectively. Training, which is a requirement of the programme and part of the contract, has not been adequately delivered, particularly during the pandemic. It is only fair that all existing contracts be extended well past July. The Department has acknowledged that an extension is needed; it just needs to follow that through to its logical conclusion.

There is precedent for this. On the islands, an exception is made for lifelong learning due to the restrictions caused by living on an island. Those same restrictions are apparent in many rural areas as well. These roles cannot be filled, particularly in a pandemic. For example, social welfare officers would normally look for new people to fill community employment roles after 12 months. However, these officers are in desk work now so the roles are not being replaced. Leaving vacant roles such as those I highlighted will have a detrimental effect on communities, even more so in a pandemic. If community employment positions in west Cork are not extended very soon, the number of CE workers will fall from 30 to 11, which could cause the service to be discontinued. We would then lose services we desperately need, especially at the moment.

Skibbereen Education and Environment Project and other organisations have asked me to bring these matters to the Minister of State’s intention to help preserve their schemes and the service they provide. What answers can I give them?

I thank the Deputy for raising this matter. Community employment is an active labour market programme designed to provide eligible long-term unemployed people and other disadvantaged persons with an opportunity to engage in useful work within their communities on a temporary, fixed-term basis.

Since the start of the pandemic, we have approved the extension of CE participant contracts that would have come to an end during level 5 restrictions on a number of occasions. To date, more than 5,000 community employment and Tús participants have benefited from these arrangements. These participants will now benefit from a further extension up to 2 July. This will benefit an additional 2,000 CE and Tús participants whose contract would otherwise end between now and the start of July. I reassure the Deputy and the community employment scheme in Skibbereen that these contracts will not suddenly end on the final date of extensions, whenever that will be. Subsequent to the final extension date, there will be a planned ending of contracts on a phased basis and over a period of time to ensure continuity of local services. Department officials will work on the ground with CE schemes to support them in managing this process.

We also announced on Tuesday that a new forum comprising representatives of community employment and Tús schemes and officials from the Department of Social Protection will be established shortly. The purpose of the forum is to discuss and exchange views on operational issues impacting on both schemes. These recent changes that have been announced will mean the schemes in Skibbereen will not have any participants exiting until 2 July at the earliest. One participant employed in one of the two CE schemes in Skibbereen will also benefit from the changes announced for those affected by the 2017 rule change.

The Minister and I are fully committed to the future of this programme, as is evidenced by the announcement of 3,000 additional CE places. We also secured approval to support community employment and Tús schemes as part of the July stimulus package. We will continue to support and improve the programme for the benefit of CE participants and the valuable contribution being made to local communities through the provision of services.

I thank the Minister of State and welcome his interest in the scheme. Communities now need that interest to be lived up to with commitments.

The programme is incredible value for money. For almost 20 hours of work a week, participants get only €22.50 more than their social welfare payment. While my critique of this small amount is a discussion for another day, the Government and Department must recognise that the cost of the programme is vastly outweighed by its impact on the ground and it needs greater flexibility to meet the needs of workers.

The Minister of State said he was aware of the recruitment issues. It is hard to recruit new CE workers who have been unemployed for longer than 12 months during this time, and particularly, if there is an extension to 2 July. There is precedent to provide for lifelong learning for island communities. We know it is possible to do that. It is necessary during the pandemic, not to mention the fact that many rural communities have the same restrictions and barriers as island communities. I ask the Minister of State to look into that and to please, if he can, extend that special measure for islands into other areas during the pandemic, because we all know 2 July is not long enough. I will leave the rest of my time for him to respond to that specifically. It will give people much ease. Programmes such as the care and repair service set up by former Minister of State, Mr. Jim Daly, allowing vulnerable people to stay in their homes and be looked after, are entirely staffed by CE workers. In west Cork, we are looking at a situation where we could go from 30 CE workers to 11. I know the Minister of State said 2 July but people need more reassurance and longer-term assurance that they will be able to stay in their positions, not just for themselves, but for the people who rely on them.

I thank the Deputy for raising this matter. I also place a major emphasis on the importance of CE schemes. I am aware of the CE recruitment challenges arising from the current restrictions, which has had an impact on the ability of some CE schemes to recruit new participants.

Community employment is an active labour market programme designed to provide eligible long-term unemployed people and other disadvantage persons with an opportunity to engage in useful work within their communities on a temporary fixed-term basis. CE schemes make a valuable contribution to local communities through the provision of services and my Department will continue to support them with this.

I reassure the Deputy, and the CE scheme in Skibbereen, that there will be no sudden ending for this number of contracts on whatever the final date of extensions will be. Subsequent to the final extension date, there will be a planned ending of contracts on a phased basis, over a period, to ensure continuity of local services. My officials will work on the ground with CE schemes to support them in managing this process and they will be in touch with the Skibbereen CE scheme over the coming weeks.

I will take away the Deputy's suggestion on lifelong learning exemption for the islands. I was not aware of it. I will take that back to the officials and hear what they say, however. We might need something beyond 2 July. We are, I suppose, moving in sync with the new plan and so we will review on an ongoing basis. There is a chance there may be a need for another extension.

The other issue to keep in mind is that there will also be larger cohort of long-term unemployed people who could very well benefit from CE schemes. While I understand many sponsors have many good people doing good jobs and who want to stay, there is also pressure in the other direction for many people who are and who will be distant from the labour market. We need to be conscious that they also need to be given a fair shot and a fair opportunity over time.

Missing Persons

I thank the Minister, Deputy O’Gorman, for stepping in for this Topical Issue matter. The Minister for Justice's office contacted me. I understand she is at a Brexit meeting. I know, however, given his interests and his past, Deputy O'Gorman may have a personal interest in this as well. He might bring this matter up to the Minister, Deputy McEntee.

I am going to discuss a matter of the upmost sensitivity. It is an issue of which I have no personal experience; the vast majority of people do not. However, for those living with someone in their lives who is missing, it is a matter of all-consuming trauma that is compounded by the lack of co-ordination and leadership between various Departments and State agencies. It can, however, be resolved with some political will, which is what I am hoping to start and engender today.

Today is National Book Day, and I am currently reading Missing by RTÉ journalist, Mr. Barry Cummins, who has been a tireless worker and advocate for families of missing people and the rights of those whose remains are unidentified. On 31 December 2020, he penned an article, which indicated there are 18 unidentified remains for which there is DNA analysis. That number is now down to 17 because in early February, there was a breakthrough in a case regarding Denis Walsh, the young Limerick man who went missing in March 1996. His remains were found in Inis Mór about a month later but were not identified until earlier this year due to DNA. His poor family searched for 25 years, even though an organ of the State had found the remains. However, no one was able to put two and two together and provide the truth for his family. That is a tragedy in itself . Ultimately, they have found the remains and he has been identified.

This could happen for many cases out there, however. We do not know how many unidentified bodies are interred in cemeteries or remain in morgues because there is no compellability upon coroners or cemeteries to report that. If coroners cannot find out the "how", they do not have to find out the "who". With 823 current live missing persons cases and an unknown number of unidentified bodies in our State, there is scope for more bodies to be identified and matched with people who are missing.

This must be done as it is the right thing to do. One relative of a missing person said to me this week that having to go to many different coroners offices and cemeteries throughout the country trying to seek information is similar to going to multiple lost and found offices, which I thought was such a tragic thing to say. It is so unbearably sad to not be able to get any information and for there to be no compellability on anyone to provide information.

A Department or organisation should be given responsibility and resources, and it will take time and resources, to do an audit of all the unidentified bodies out there. We could then match them and carry out DNA analysis to see if we can provide truth for many families who live with this unbearable trauma, through silence from the State, every day.

I thank the Deputy for speaking with such passion on this issue. The stark figure he raised of more than 800 active missing persons cases in the country reminds us why this issue is so critical. I spoke to the Minister, Deputy McEntee, about this earlier this afternoon. She said she would like to be here but cannot because of the Brexit meeting. I will, however, engage with her further and I know she is giving this issue her attention.

As the Deputy will appreciate, the investigation and prevention of crimes are operational matters for the Garda Commissioner and An Garda Síochána. The Minister for Justice does not have a direct role in that operational element. I assure the Deputy, however, that she is in ongoing contact with the Commissioner and his management team with regard to the policy and policing response to crime incidents generally.

The Garda missing persons unit, local Garda stations and the network of family liaison officers around the country all perform crucial roles in investigating missing persons incidents and supporting families and friends of missing persons. The missing persons unit is the linchpin in the investigation process, carrying out investigations, assisting local gardaí on complex cases, liaising with governmental and non-governmental agencies involved in this area of work, co-ordinating DNA retrieval from family members of persons on the missing persons database and assisting in the identification of unidentified human remains.

Forensic science and the retrieval of DNA from close family members has made substantial contributions to missing persons cases over the past number of years, and indeed, Ireland's DNA database contains valuable close family samples alongside profiles of persons whose identify is not yet known. The database can match missing people, sometimes via their close relatives, to unidentified bodies, helping to bring some element of closure for families searching for their loved ones. The database can also serve to eliminate a missing person if an unidentified body is found matching their description, again assisting the gardaí with their investigations. The population of this database, in conjunction with the work of Forensic Science Ireland and An Garda Síochána, has enabled increasing numbers of missing persons to be identified in recent years. These successes provide hope for those families who are still seeking answers about the disappearance of their loved ones.

I can confirm that some preliminary work was carried out by An Garda Síochána in 2019 to record unidentified remains that may be located with individual coroners across the country. Department of Justice officials are examining ways to update and take forward that work while fully respecting the independent role of the coroners as set out in the Coroners Act 1962. That identifies that particular real difficulty that relatives face with having to engage with individual coroners rather than just one agency. The Minister and the Department have identified this and are initiating work in that area.

Ambiguous loss of a loved one is a devastating experience for affected families and friends. As a Minister and member of the Government, I offer my deepest sympathies to family and friends who have been affected profoundly and sadly by these losses.

I thank the Minister for his reply.

I take some encouragement from the fact that some preliminary work has been done and this will be built on. Will the Minister give a commitment that the Department will examine some recommendations of what the best way to proceed would be and report them back to the suitable parties, be it the justice spokespeople or the House itself?

The missing persons bureau and Forensic Science Ireland do fantastic work. The science is there to bring resolution and truth to many people and families. There are many different reasons people go missing. Some are the victims of crime while others are victims of tragic circumstances. The majority of those in question meet lonely ends in this world. Many would have lived the last few months or years of their lives on the margins of their communities or, perhaps, their families. If the State does not do its best in identifying them, give them a resting place and reunite their remains with their families, then forever in death they will remain marginalised, outside and excluded. That is not something that we can stand over.

There are two choices for the Government and subsequent Governments. The first is to accept the status quo and rely on the combination of disconnected State bodies, imperfect infrastructure, the work of journalists and families to solve these mysteries and bring some truth. That is unacceptable. The second is to come up with the recommendation that will resolve this, provide a pathway for those families, as well as offering some kind of system and organisation in which they can trust and believe. It will not resolve or find the truth for all the cases. However, it will for some and, maybe, for most. That is something for which we should strive. I look forward to raising this further at the appropriate times in the House. I thank the Minister again for his response.

I will bring that request to the Minister for Justice, Deputy McEntee. While I do not want to speak for her by any means, I am sure the Government will look at examining recommendations. As I acknowledged in my own statement, the loss of a loved one in unknown circumstances is tragedy. The pain associated with such loss is carried and felt by families and subsequent generations. When we hear of a body being identified, there is the mixed emotion of the absolute tragedy for the family. There is also, I suppose, a slight sense of relief and some final answers being provided to that family. This is what the Deputy is seeking to achieve.

The Minister wants to focus on the importance of national Missing Persons Day as part of a commemoration that the Department of Justice runs every year. It complements the existing international Missing Children's Day. It has several objectives including that it commemorates those who have gone missing and it also recognises the lasting trauma for their families and their friends. It also usefully draws attention to open or unsolved missing persons cases and creates an opportunity to provide information on available support services.

Forensic Science Ireland and An Garda Síochána have worked in partnership over the past number of years to develop a DNA testing facility for families of missing persons at the national Missing Persons Day ceremony. This partnership has served to enhance the ceremony from that of a commemorative event to one that is actually contributing to raising awareness of the significant contribution that DNA testing can bring to the conclusion of a considerable number of missing persons cases over recent years.

This year Missing Persons Day 2021 will continue in the same vital vein and will seek to raise public awareness of the crucial work undertaken by a range of justice and State agencies, as well as that carried out by community and voluntary organisations.