Ceisteanna - Questions

Departmental Programmes

Neale Richmond

Question:

1. Deputy Neale Richmond asked the Taoiseach if he will report on the ESRI and shared island unit publication on economic and social opportunities for increased co-operation on a shared island. [27998/21]

Mary Lou McDonald

Question:

2. Deputy Mary Lou McDonald asked the Taoiseach if he will report on the research funding initiative related to the shared island initiative of his Department. [23897/21]

Neale Richmond

Question:

3. Deputy Neale Richmond asked the Taoiseach the status of the shared island dialogue of 9 May 2021; and the details of the next dialogues to be held. [26070/21]

Richard Boyd Barrett

Question:

4. Deputy Richard Boyd Barrett asked the Taoiseach the status of the shared island unit of his Department. [26243/21]

Paul Murphy

Question:

5. Deputy Paul Murphy asked the Taoiseach the status of the shared island unit of his Department. [26246/21]

Gino Kenny

Question:

6. Deputy Gino Kenny asked the Taoiseach the status of the shared island unit of his Department. [26250/21]

Alan Kelly

Question:

7. Deputy Alan Kelly asked the Taoiseach the status of the shared island unit of his Department. [26502/21]

Mick Barry

Question:

8. Deputy Mick Barry asked the Taoiseach the status of the shared island unit of his Department. [27887/21]

Rose Conway-Walsh

Question:

9. Deputy Rose Conway-Walsh asked the Taoiseach if the joint research programme of his Department and the ESRI on the economic and social opportunities from increased co-operation on the shared island will include an analysis of the potential benefits of increased co-operation in third level education and the actions necessary to facilitate that co-operation. [27950/21]

I propose to take Questions Nos. 1 to 9, inclusive, together.

On 22 October last, I set out the Government's vision and priorities on a shared island at an online event at Dublin Castle. Our approach is founded on the Good Friday Agreement and engaging with all communities and traditions to build consensus on a shared future on the island of Ireland. I established the shared island unit in my Department to act as a driver and co-ordinator for this work. Operationally, the unit is focusing its work in three areas: commissioning research, fostering dialogue and building a shared island agenda, including delivery of the commitments in the programme for Government.

The shared island unit is progressing a comprehensive research programme, working with the Economic and Social Research Institute, ESRI, the National Economic and Social Council, NESC, and the Irish Research Council. The research programme with the ESRI is on the economic and social opportunities from increased co-operation on the shared island. Research outputs will be published. The 2021 work is examining aspects of health, education, enterprise and the services economy on the island. Scoping papers on each of the ESRI research topics were published on Monday, 17 May 2021, and are available at gov.ie. As set out in the scoping paper, ESRI work on education this year is examining patterns of educational participation and attainment on the island, looking at how education and training systems, including at third level, shape these outcomes and assessing what lessons can be learned.

More broadly, the Government is committed to working to enhance all aspects of North-South co-operation on the island, including in third level education, and to supporting a North-South programme of research and innovation, including an all-island research hub. In budget 2021, the Government announced a shared island fund, with €500 million being made available through to 2025 and ring-fenced for shared island projects. The Government is working with the Northern Ireland Executive and the British Government to progress existing and new cross-Border investment projects. Our priorities for such investment are set out in the programme for Government.

On 28 April last, I and the Minister for Rural and Community Development, Deputy Humphreys, launched phase 2 of the Ulster Canal restoration project, enabled by an allocation of €6 million from the shared island fund and €5.6 million from the rural regeneration development fund. The shared island fund has also provided a further €1 million for phase 3 of the project to undertake feasibility and pre-construction work, which has now begun. The Ulster Canal is an excellent example of what North-South co-operation can achieve, as an amenity that connects towns and communities in the central Border region and a sustainable tourism initiative that will create jobs and be a linchpin for other economic opportunities on both sides of the Border.

I launched a shared island dialogue series to foster constructive and inclusive civic dialogue on our shared future on the island founded on the Good Friday Agreement. I addressed a dialogue with young people on 26 November last on the theme of new generations and new voices on the Good Friday Agreement. Dialogues on climate and environment, civil society engagement and equality on the island have also been held in recent months, with participation by the relevant Government Ministers. The dialogue series will continue through this year, including with a focus on the economy, health and education on the island. The dialogues are engaging with hundreds of civic representatives in the different sectors across all regions, communities and traditions on how we can work together to build a shared future on the island. Reports on the dialogues are available at gov.ie.

We are under time pressure and a number of Members have tabled questions. I will give a minute and a half to each Member, but it will be at the expense of the subsequent questions because we are going to run out of time in the overall 45 minutes. Is it agreed to give each Member a minute and a half on this group of questions? Agreed.

I will try to keep my supplementary questions to one minute in fairness to the other Deputies. With regard to the shared dialogues, the Taoiseach said that hundreds of people have participated. Is it possible to get the specific number of how many people have taken part so far? The Taoiseach addressed what issues will be discussed. Is there scope to move to either blended or in-person dialogues? At what stage is this hoped to occur? Ultimately, what will be the result of the shared dialogues? Where will the reports go and with whom will they be shared?

More specifically on North-South relations, we have discussed the importance of attendance at the North-South Ministerial Council many times. Equally, it is extremely important for the Minister for Health to meet with the Northern Ireland Minister of Health in person as soon as possible. I call on the Taoiseach to confirm that will happen.

The point made by Deputy Richmond about the North-South institutions functioning is essential. I see no good reason that the Minister for Health would not meet with his Northern counterpart. That meeting should happen as a matter of urgency. More generally, and particularly in light of the new leadership of the unionist parties, we need to recall that all the Good Friday Agreement institutions must work efficiently so I call on everybody to honour those commitments.

I asked the Taoiseach about research commissioned by his Department as building blocks for the work ahead. It is welcome that the research is taking place. I also wish to mention other pieces of work being done. For example, the Royal Irish Academy's project, Analysing and Researching Ireland North and South, complements the work of the ESRI and NESC. The RIA is an all-island body. It represents academics North and South, including those from a unionist background. It brings together evidence bases, research and questions of policy. It contributes greatly to the public debate. Academics have said in different forums that the Government seems intent on adopting a Science Foundation Ireland funding model through research centres and they do not believe that is the right way to go about this. The Taoiseach needs to give that some consideration.

Has the Taoiseach sought to meet Mr. Edwin Poots since he became leader of the Democratic Unionist Party, DUP? We are very much at risk of a further breakdown in relations, and Mr. Poots is of the view that North-South relations have never been worse. Ms Nichola Mallon of the Social Democratic and Labour Party, SDLP, has sought legal advice on the boycott by the DUP of the North-South Ministerial Council meetings. Has the Taoiseach received any advice on this? The North-South Ministerial Council is a key part of the Good Friday Agreement.

If we want to promote the merits of sharing the island, it is not just about initiatives from the top. It is about breaking down division and showing the value of unity and alignment from the bottom. I gave the Taoiseach a concrete example of this a few weeks ago. Taxi drivers affected by the Covid pandemic in the North have been given a financial package of up to £3,000 to deal with overhead costs, insurance costs and all the costs and debts they have built up because of the loss of income incurred by Covid-19.

I asked the Taoiseach, as the taxi drivers have done, to do the same down here.

I understand the Taoiseach met with taxi drivers this week and still the Government, despite vague promises, has committed nothing in terms of a supportive financial package for an industry that has been decimated. As the Taoiseach knows, the taxi drivers will conduct a large drive-by protest at Leinster House tomorrow. The industry has been decimated and taxi drivers have asked for a supportive financial package that is similar to the one available in the North. Let us start aligning North and South in a tangible way that means something to ordinary working people and take our lead from the good example in the North, where a serious financial package was put in place for taxi drivers. Will the Taoiseach do the same for the industry that has been so badly decimated and the taxi drivers affected here, in advance of the protest tomorrow?

We often talk in this House about sectarian division. I want to say a few words about the exact opposite. Some weeks ago, workers at the Hovis bakery in Belfast decided to take industrial action over the fact that they have been offered less than 2% of a wage increase this year. Catholics and Protestants stood united on the picket lines for the 12 days of the strike, after which they won an 8% increase over two years, despite the fact that they had received pressure from the PSNI to disperse on the grounds of Covid-19 regulations. The protestors organised their picket lines in a socially distanced and disciplined way, and won.

They were visited on the picket lines by crèche workers from Queen's University Belfast who have been taking various forms of industrial action since International Women's Day on 8 March. They are, this week, escalating to a one-day strike. This is in opposition to unilateral changes in their working conditions. There is a theme here of Covid being used as an excuse by the management to try to force through those changes. Workers stand in their way and workers are making a stand. I wish them well and give solidarity greetings from the Socialist Party to both the groups of workers. They are an example to us all.

I welcome the fact that the Economic and Social Research Institute of Ireland, ESRI, is conducting research on the economic and social opportunities from increased co-operation on the island. I have read the scoping paper in detail, particularly the section on education. We need to come away with clear actions that can be implemented to increase North-South co-operation on third level education and associated timelines. We have been conducting reports and carrying out research on cross-Border co-operation since the Williams report in 1985, yet we have seen very little progress, particularly in student mobility. Since the Good Friday Agreement in 1998, the cross-Border enrolment of students in third level on this island has remained unacceptably low. It has, in fact, declined in the past ten years by 18%.

In the North, students from the South account for approximately 4% of the total student population while, in the South, students from the North make up less than 1% of the student population. We must ask why that is. It takes the same time to travel to Belfast from Mayo as it does to Dublin or Cork. We know many of the reasons. There is a difference in the admission systems, an inequity between A level and leaving certificate grades, and a lack of information for students and teachers, particularly around access and supports. I hope the ESRI will be instructed to lay out practical measures and actions that the Government can take to end this situation. I firmly believe that if we invest in an all-island educational system, we will see the benefits not only in educational attainment, but also in creating an understanding of the many cultures and traditions across our island.

The families and representatives of the victims of the Ballymurphy massacre were before the Good Friday Agreement committee yesterday. They movingly told of their experiences and what happened to them. The actions of the British in murdering its own citizens 50 years ago were those of a rogue state. The British took action to stop people finding out the truth in the intervening time and those were also the actions of a rogue state. The British are now reneging on international agreements that they have signed in the past number of years. Those are also the actions of a rogue state. What legal advice has the Taoiseach got about what this country can do in international law to force the British to adhere to the agreements they have signed with this State and the parties in the North of Ireland? We should be bringing the full weight of international law to bear on the British to make sure they fulfil their responsibilities, especially in providing justice for victims.

Deputy Richmond asked about the specific number of in-person dialogues that have taken place. I do not have a specific number with me but I can refer him to the shared island unit which can give an update and briefing on the matter.

We have been pressing for, and insisting on, full adherence with meetings of the North-South Ministerial Council. We are being told that there is no deliberate policy of non-attendance at some of the sectoral meeting. That is something we will continue to pursue and on which we will engage with the new unionist leadership.

Deputy McDonald mentioned the Royal Irish Academy. We are funding a broad range of research projects and are not committed to any one particular model. Science Foundation Ireland has done a lot of work with the UK research and innovation centre. That is important and it would be good for us to develop and fund expanded levels of research, involving North-South and, indeed, east-west co-operation. We have, for example, already funded a range of projects under the Irish Research Council. We are working with the council, which is obviously separate to Science Foundation Ireland. A funding call is currently open for academic contributions across the strands of political policy and economic co-operation, and civic, social and cultural connection and understanding on the island. Up to ten research projects will be funded, starting this year and concluding in mid-2022, as part of the Irish Research Council's New Foundations programme. That is one area.

The other area is working with the Minister for Further and Higher Education, Research, Innovation and Science on a competition for collaboration between consortia, North and South, around specific research issues that would be of mutual benefit to all on the island. That is also being worked on and a broad-based approach to research is envisaged. The shared island unit and I are open to good quality proposals. We want to see an element of competition for the research funding and a strategic approach must be adopted, considering the value of the research programme. A whole range of topics are under consideration, including cybersecurity, biodiversity, technology and so on.

We are pursuing a meeting with the new unionist leadership and will engage. Deputy Tóibín raised a broader issue about adherence to the Good Friday Agreement and to all strands of it. Dialogue is the most important and effective mechanism, as we have learned over the years. That said, within the European framework, Europe is already taking legal action in respect of unilateral actions taken by the UK Government in respect of the commencement dates around the protocol. Nonetheless, a process is now in place between Maroš Šefčovič and David Frost in respect of the adherence to an international agreement that has been arrived at by the British Government with the European Union, which includes Ireland. In respect of the Good Friday Agreement, we believe that dialogue is the most effective route to deal with any issues.

What about the Stormont House Agreement?

The same point applies to the Stormont House Agreement. There can be no unilateral action under the Stormont House Agreement. There must be full engagement with all of the parties and, indeed, the two Governments. That is the approach of the Irish Government to that matter.

Deputy Tóibín asked about justice for the families of the victims of the Ballymurphy massacre. That is a matter for further discussion, as are a range of other issue across the board.

In response to the questions asked by Deputy Boyd Barrett, I met with taxi drivers last week and had a constructive and lengthy meeting with them. I will be reverting to the Minister responsible and the Government in respect of the issues raised at that meeting.

One can compare like with like in terms of supports in the North compared with the Republic. The Deputy's suggestion that nothing has been given here is wrong. A range of supports has been provided. The issue is the scale, quality and quantity of those supports and whether more can be done. We must work to do more to try to facilitate taxi drivers, particularly as the economy and society are reopening, in order that we can deal with the issues they have that are specific to their industry.

In the spirit of solidarity, Deputy Barry raised the issue of the workers in a bakery in Belfast and crèche workers in Queen's University Belfast. I welcome that the bakers got a resolution and successfully campaigned for improvement in their conditions and pay. We also hope the crèche workers can get a resolution on their issue.

Deputy Conway-Walsh raised the issue of education and ESRI research. The ESRI research covers cross-Border trade in services on the island of Ireland and work on the structure and composition of that cross-Border trade is under way. The ESRI will then compare the primary healthcare systems of Ireland and Northern Ireland and draw implications for policy. The ESRI generally does the analysis and research on implications for policy formulation and it is then up to the Government and other agencies to decide on implementation.

On education, the ESRI will compare patterns of educational participation and attainment in the two jurisdictions and assess what lessons can be learned for the future. One area that has not received the attention it should have over the last decade has been participation rates in third level education in all communities, particularly socioeconomically disadvantaged communities in Northern Ireland, as well as levels of completion of second level education. In some areas of significant socioeconomic disadvantage, progression to further and third level education has been far too low. A very substantive programme needs to be developed by the two Governments, with the Northern Ireland Executive, to deal comprehensively, once and for all, with the issue of educational disadvantage in the North. That will take time.

Some communities that historically relied on traditional forms of employment, whether it was shipbuilding, textiles or whatever, have not quite made the same adjustments that have been made in other areas of Ireland that suffered similar adjustments in an earlier period but managed to bring in technology and other new industries, and also developed educational opportunities. I believe that is key and I look forward to the ESRI report in that regard.

It is not so much about saying we can create an all-island system. There is an education system in the North. We can seek greater complementarity. I put forward proposals seven or eight years ago around curriculum complementarity, for example, the English curriculum and whether we can develop shared narratives around certain areas of historical study, and also around qualifications in terms of facilitating progression, North and South, to various third level situations. That has worked over the years but it can be improved upon, particularly given the changes this year in respect of the costs that will apply to Irish citizens for admission to Scottish universities and third level institutions. That will have implications for third level places here. We are looking at potential tie-ups between colleges, North and South, and having institutions working together on certain programmes and projects, whether that is Ulster University Magee Campus working with Letterkenny Institute of Technology or other institutions or whether it is Queen's University Belfast working with other institutions.

The ESRI is then looking at factors that could enhance the attractiveness of the island as a whole to high-value foreign direct investment, FDI, and identifying opportunities for greater co-operation and policy co-ordination. As part of the shared island fund, we are looking at funding and being part of the city deals project, which is around investing in industrial parks on the Derry side and the Donegal side, with a view to combining the various assets, be it the skilled labour force or the FDI attractiveness of the Southern side. It is about asking whether we can develop more FDI jobs in the overall north-west region and be facilitative of that. The investment in those parks will certainly be a very important development and we look forward to the ESRI's work in that regard.

Cabinet Committees

Cian O'Callaghan

Question:

10. Deputy Cian O'Callaghan asked the Taoiseach when the Cabinet committee that addresses matters relating to equality last met. [28337/21]

Alan Kelly

Question:

11. Deputy Alan Kelly asked the Taoiseach when the Cabinet committee on social affairs and equality last met, and when it will next meet. [26236/21]

Richard Boyd Barrett

Question:

12. Deputy Richard Boyd Barrett asked the Taoiseach when the Cabinet committee that addresses matters relating to the arts and culture will next meet. [26507/21]

Bríd Smith

Question:

13. Deputy Bríd Smith asked the Taoiseach when the Cabinet committee which addresses matters relating to equality will next meet. [26509/21]

Mick Barry

Question:

14. Deputy Mick Barry asked the Taoiseach when the Cabinet committee on social affairs and equality last met; and when it will next meet. [27888/21]

I propose to take Questions Nos. 10 to 14, inclusive, together.

Matters relating to arts, culture and equality are dealt with by the Cabinet committee on social affairs and equality. This Cabinet committee last met on 30 November and will meet again shortly. I have regular engagement with Ministers, at Cabinet and individually, to discuss priority issues relating to their Departments.

In addition, a number of meetings have been held between my officials and officials from relevant Departments since the establishment of the Cabinet committee in July 2020. The impacts of the pandemic across all areas, in particular arts and culture, have been considered by the Cabinet committee on Covid-19 and as the successful vaccination programme allows us to progressively reopen the economy, the economic recovery plan will set out how we will support the full resumption of economic activity and get people back to work. In particular, we will be looking at the arts and cultural sector, which has been a consistent part of the agenda of both the Covid-19 sub-committee and the economic recovery sub-committee of the Cabinet. We have worked on what types of specific supports we can provide to the arts and cultural and entertainment sectors and how we can facilitate their return now as society opens.

The Cabinet economic recovery plan and the Cabinet sub-committee will obviously deal with broader labour market and enterprise supports. We have been clear there will be no cliff edge. As I said, in terms of live events and arts and culture, we will also continue to support those sectors in addition to investing in infrastructure and reforms to enhance our long-term capabilities. In making those considerations, sectors such as live events and arts and culture, which are reliant on mass gatherings, will be given strong consideration.

In respect of the work on equality, I want to ask the Taoiseach about the report just published by the Ombudsman for Children entitled No End in Site – An investigation into the living conditions of children living on a local authority halting site. In that report, Traveller children describe their living conditions as hell and say that because of these living conditions, they feel like garbage. The report exposes severe violations of children's human rights due to insecure, unsafe and uninhabitable accommodation. It lists rat infestation, damp conditions, lack of sanitary facilities and lack of heating among the very serious concerns it details. What action is the Government taking to address the very severe housing problem faced by Traveller families, in particular Traveller children, and the very serious violations of human rights detailed in the report?

Senator Bacik and I have been advocating for quite a while for a catch-up fund for children in the next school year. The Taoiseach will be aware of the scarring and damage experienced by young people and children, particularly disadvantaged children, in the past year or so owing to the lack of in-school tuition. The UK has provided a fund of £1 billion. The Government here has allocated approximately €40 million for a summer programme. Will the Taoiseach speak to the necessity for catch-up funding?

Will he also speak to the need for all schools to retain their current teaching posts? I am aware of a school in Ardfert outside Tralee that is losing a teacher. A number of other schools have contacted me with regard to losing teachers. Is it not time for a moratorium on schools losing teachers in order that we can repair the damage that has been done to children and young people over the course of the last year? That was not the Government's fault, of course, but we must invest to drive down class sizes and overcome and repair the substantial scarring and damage that occurred in the past year.

Income and employment insecurity and, very often, downright poverty are the reality for many people who work in the arts sector in this country, a fact highlighted even more during Covid. My first question is whether the Government is going to do the pilot on basic income for people working in the arts. Second, we have recently had a good news story with the reports about the Disney production, "Enchanted". However, other reports suggest the film might more accurately be called "Disenchanted" when it comes to some of the people working on it. Reports suggest, for example, that many of the performers and dancers found themselves being paid less and being denied the residuals or royalties for their work on the film under a so-called industry agreement that is shocking compared with the position and conditions those performers enjoy in films made in Britain and elsewhere. In addition, stage crew from the Irish Film Workers Association who worked on the first "Enchanted" film - this is "Enchanted 2" - were picketing outside Disney because they have been blackballed by the Irish production company involved, which has received tens of millions of Irish taxpayers' money-----

We are going to run out of time, Deputy.

-----but who have not been employed on the subsequent film because, in essence, they raised questions about their lack of security of employment.

If the Taoiseach drives back and forth from here to Cork, he must frequently pass through Inchicore, which is in the constituency of Dublin South-Central. The constituency is a great area in which to live but also has one of the deepest socioeconomic disadvantages in the country. There has been a service, Hesed House, operating in Inchicore for people with mental health difficulties for 28 years. Approximately 80 to 100 people pass through its doors each week and it is a vital service, particularly for local youth, schools and the provision of family support. It is already in the heart of a deprived area. Yesterday, staff received a telephone call to tell them the service is shutting down as the HSE has withdrawn its funding.

This will be a huge blow to all the people who use Hesed House. In fact, I think it will drive them back years. The staff are deeply concerned for their users but we, as representatives, are deeply concerned for all of them, users and staff. Young and old will be pushed back many years and will lose faith in the system. It has been repeatedly said over the past year that as we go from lockdown to reopening, we have to look at the damage caused by lockdown and what it has done to people's mental health. The Taoiseach and every Minister talk frequently about the mental health of our population. Here is a prime example of a mental health service, staffed by volunteers and workers in the community, that helps people on a regular basis. It has now had the rug pulled from under it. Will the Taoiseach comment on this and will he intervene to save the Hesed House service in Inchicore?

Monday's report from the Office of the Ombudsman for Children on conditions at a Traveller halting site in Cork city found that 66 children at the site were forced to live in conditions that were filthy, overcrowded, damp and rat-infested. The report, undertaken on foot of a complaint submitted by the Cork Traveller Women's Network and the Cork Traveller Visibility Group as a last resort after years of campaigning, concluded that Cork City Council had failed to comply with the minimum requirements of the law, had acted in a discriminatory fashion and had violated the human rights of the children living on the site. The social affairs correspondent of The Irish Times, Kitty Holland, this morning described the report as "the strongest report on children's human rights abuses in Ireland" she had read in two decades in journalism.

Cork City Council is the landlord of the site and has the power to resolve these problems. The Taoiseach's party is part of the ruling group on the council. The message that urgent action needs to be taken must be driven home to the council officials and every elected member. To that end, I ask the Taoiseach to make a statement here on the matter and consider making a visit to the site in question in the weeks ahead.

The Taoiseach might be aware that the Oireachtas disability group has highlighted the data deficit and the limited evidence on unmet needs of people with disabilities. Its concerns are well founded as Departments plan for another budget without the data needed to properly inform budgetary decisions crucial to the lives of citizens with disabilities.

I want to ask the Taoiseach about two reports that are outstanding and would go some considerable way to address this data deficit. The first is the Department of Health's disability capacity review, which was due to be published by the previous Government. The second is research by Indecon commissioned by the former Minister for Social Protection two years ago to consider the cost of disability. That report was due to be completed last year but the current Minister confirmed last week that it still has not been received. The delays in these publications are not academic matters. They are very serious. Can the Taoiseach reassure all of us that both reports will be published, and published in good time, to help inform a budget that I hope, on this occasion, will do justice to, and recognise the very considerable needs of, our citizens with disabilities?

Deputy Cian O'Callaghan made the first point regarding the No End in Site report. First, the report is a shocking indictment of all concerned in terms of the failure to develop plans for both the halting site itself and the housing that will be needed to deal with all of the residents. The site is far too overcrowded and there have been many issues with it for a long time. In my view, the council needs to take actions and decisions and implement them. Not everybody will be satisfied and happy with those decisions. My understanding, and I will be reverting to the council on this, is there have been lots of different initiatives and plans produced over time but they have not brought a resolution. The consequence of that failure to get a resolution to a lot of the issues is children living in absolutely unacceptable conditions in terms of health, hygiene, quality of life and so forth. It is absolutely unacceptable and the local authority will have to move decisively now in response to the ombudsman's report.

On Deputy Ó Ríordáin's point regarding catch-up funding for schools, the €40 million allocated for the summer is a good and expanded initiative primarily dealing with special needs provision during the summer months but also with children who have been educationally disadvantaged because of Covid. The Minister is looking at the next school year with a view to integrating additional supports to help students who may have fallen behind or who need additional supports arising out of the impact of Covid-19. It is a very important and serious issue and the Minister is taking it seriously. The Minister has also taken a benign approach to the reallocation of teachers generally to schools across the country and many of them have retained teachers. Of course, the pupil-teacher ratio was reduced in the last budget, which was a significant move in itself, fulfilling a commitment we made in the programme for Government. It is something we were very anxious to get movement on quickly. Again, we will look at education in a favourable light, notwithstanding the challenges facing us from a budget perspective as we continue, we hope, our cautious and significant reopening of society.

Obviously, education is critical. We showed our prioritisation of education by getting our schools back last September. A huge effort was made by all of the teams in schools, from parents to teachers, special needs assistants, SNAs, school staff, principals and education and training boards, ETBs, right across the board, as well as all the communities wishing them on.

We got hit with the third wave, we got the schools back up again and now we must ensure we can settle it down in the next school year. We must do this in order to give the kids every opportunity we possibly can to grow and develop and overcome whatever negative impact Covid might have had on quite a number of students. I have no doubt it impacted on their development, their overall well-being and their educational attainment itself.

Deputy Boyd Barrett raised the arts sector. In the sector the Minister, Deputy Catherine Martin, is working on the idea of a universal basic income and is doing some other work on that with other Departments including the Department of Social Protection to see what type of scheme could be developed. I do not have the specifics of the working conditions or pay that apply to the Disney production, "Enchanted 2". There may be an alternative view to the one the Deputy articulated and I am conscious of that. Quite a number of times he makes observations and others do not often get the chance to defend themselves or respond. There could very well be an alternative narrative to the one the Deputy has described. Suffice it to say that all the regulatory frames governing pay and conditions should be adhered to and all the basic conditions the State insists on should be adhered to. There is no excuse on productions of this kind for workers, artists or dancers to be left short-changed. That should not happen because the purpose of such investments, of the facilitation of film-making in Ireland, is to provide quality employment to people working in the arts right across the board-----

It is not happening.

-----from sound technicians to those who are acting, dancing and performing. That should apply. I will ask the various authorities and the Minister to investigate that, assess it and make their own analysis of what has happened here.

On the matter raised by Deputy Bríd Smith, I am not familiar with the specific service and the HSE decision to withdraw funding. Again, I am unsure if there are particular local or specific issues for why the HSE is withdrawing funding. We have provided additional funding to the HSE this year for mental health services so it should not be an issue of funding. However, there may be other issues. I will ask the Minister for Health and the Minister of State with responsibility for mental health, Deputy Butler, to check this out and work with Deputies and Senators with a view to seeing what can be done to ensure services can continue for the users of that particular service and to look at what the story is here and why this has occurred right now, in the middle of Covid. We have provided additional funding to mental health over and above - in fact, in one of our earlier announcements this year we allocated an extra €10 million to mental health and particularly for community initiatives. I do not see why this has happened here and I do not have the specific details of the centre, which the Deputy will appreciate.

Will the Taoiseach follow up on that?

I will. I will ask my officials to contact the HSE immediately about it and I will talk to the Minister about it.

Deputy Barry also raised the 66 children living in appalling conditions at a halting site. That must come to an end. All parties to this must agree to the decisions the council takes on this. All parties to this must agree to the various proposals that have been put forward in the past and we now need cohesion and unity of approach to get this issue properly resolved, from a human rights perspective but also just for the basic well-being of the children and families concerned. The initiatives in response to this must be agreed to and brought through because it is not at all acceptable that there be this level of deprivation and lack of access to basic living conditions. There is also a very strong health and safety dimension to this which causes me great concern. We have had very tragic circumstances in the past in respect of loss of life at halting sites where health and safety was just not what it should have been. There is an imperative here to get this issue sorted once and for all because neither children nor anyone else should be residing in circumstances that are so poor for quality of life, but also for health and safety. That is very important.

By the way, I must tell the Deputy there is no ruling group on Cork City Council. Deputy Barry served on the council himself before he became a TD and is well aware of the issue. This is an issue we can all agree should be dealt with.

Deputy McDonald raised the issue of the Oireachtas disability database group. Again, when I was last in government, there was a comprehensive intellectual disability database which provided very good information which informed Government decisions and the allocation of resources. This was likewise the case for physical and sensory disabilities. That was developing at the time and seems to have weakened over the years. We need more proper data to inform the provision of services. We must also look at how services are provided into the future. This should be from both the health and educational aspects, particularly for people with disabilities and children with special needs.

Sitting suspended at 1.56 p.m. and resumed at 2.58 p.m.