1. Deputy Brendan Smith asked the Taoiseach if legacy issues were discussed during his recent meeting with Prime Minister Johnson. [27628/21]
Vol. 1008 No. 4
1. Deputy Brendan Smith asked the Taoiseach if legacy issues were discussed during his recent meeting with Prime Minister Johnson. [27628/21]
2. Deputy Brendan Smith asked the Taoiseach if the need to implement in full the Stormont House Agreement was discussed during his recent meeting with Prime Minister Johnson. [27629/21]
3. Deputy Bernard J. Durkan asked the Taoiseach the outcome of discussions he has had with the British Prime Minister with regard to the impact of Brexit, the Northern Ireland protocol and the degree to which all parties have seen possibilities for resolution of outstanding issues arising from Brexit . [27952/21]
4. Deputy Alan Kelly asked the Taoiseach if he will report on his recent meeting with the UK Prime Minister. [29458/21]
I propose to take Questions Nos. 1 to 4, inclusive, together.
I met with the Prime Minister, Mr. Boris Johnson, in Chequers on Friday, 14 May. We had a constructive engagement across a number of issues. Our discussions focused on ways our two Governments can continue to work together to support all the institutions of the Good Friday Agreement and promote peace and prosperity on both a North-South and east-west basis. We also discussed issues around implementation of the Northern Ireland protocol and stressed the importance of addressing implementation issues in the agreed European Union-United Kingdom framework.
We discussed the long journey of the Ballymurphy families to achieve justice and vindicate the innocence of their loved ones. In that context, I emphasised the importance of the British Government responding to the families in a way that recognises the gravity of the findings of the inquiry, which categorically established that ten innocent people were killed. As well as discussing Ballymurphy specifically, Prime Minister Johnson and I spoke about legacy issues and how best to secure progress and answers for the many families who have been pursuing truth and justice for far too many years. These include the families of those killed in the Dublin and Monaghan bombings on 17 May 1974, the Dublin bombings of 1972 and 1973 and the bombing of Kay's Tavern in Dundalk, as well as that of Seamus Ludlow and the families of those killed in atrocities in Belturbet and elsewhere, all of whom the Government is fully committed to supporting in line with the programme for Government commitment and the three motions passed unanimously by Dáil Éireann.
I was clear with the Prime Minister that every family bereaved in the conflict should have access to an effective investigation and a process of justice, regardless of the perpetrator. The Stormont House Agreement framework allows for the crucial elements we need, namely, investigations, truth recovery, oral history, reconciliation and acknowledgement. While the Government is ready to engage and work with the British Government and the Northern Ireland parties in regard to any concerns around the aspects of the implementation of the Stormont House Agreement, I made clear that this must be a collaborative and collective process. I also made clear that unilateral action cannot be the basis of any sustainable way forward. We will continue to engage with the UK Government on this.
We also discussed British-Irish relations. We are both ambitious for the development of the next phase of the bilateral relationship, framed around a number of areas of common interest, including research and innovation, sport and tackling climate change. We had a good exchange on the response to the Covid-19 pandemic and the value of working together. The Prime Minister and I agreed to remain in close touch over the coming weeks.
I thank the Taoiseach for his reply. I am very glad both he and Prime Minister Johnson committed to supporting all the institutions of the Good Friday Agreement. The agreement must be implemented in all its aspects, with no cherry-picking of its provisions. It is very important that the Taoiseach raised a number of atrocities that were committed, including, unfortunately, some in my constituency, namely, the Belturbet bombing and the Monaghan bombings, as well as the Dublin bombings.
On many occasions in this House and in committees, I have repeated my call for a full, thorough and comprehensive investigation into the Belturbet bombing of December 1972. That appalling atrocity resulted in the death of two young teenagers, Geraldine O'Reilly from Belturbet and Patrick Stanley from Clara, County Offaly. Last September, the University of Nottingham provided information to me, through the work of Professor Edward Burke, which I put on the record of the House. I am very glad the Minister, Deputy McEntee, referred that information to An Garda Síochána for investigation. The work done by the University of Nottingham, involving research into state papers in Britain, clearly shows there was collusion by state forces in Northern Ireland with the UVF and other paramilitaries, which resulted in a bomb being brought across the Border from County Fermanagh into Belturbet that cost the lives of two young people and caused injuries to many more. Unfortunately, the perpetrators have never been brought to justice for that heinous crime. We need a comprehensive investigation in Northern Ireland into the atrocity. It happened nearly 50 years ago but it is never too late to get to the truth. I have campaigned along with the O'Reilly and Stanley families, who have made their case with great dignity despite their terrible grieving for the loss of their young family members. I am very glad the Taoiseach has raised this matter and I sincerely hope the information I put on the record of the House will be thoroughly investigated by the Northern Irish and British authorities.
In regard to the Dublin and Monaghan bombings, it is absolutely reprehensible that the British Government has not responded to the requests of this Parliament in July 2008, May 2011 and May 2016, when we, as a Dáil, unanimously passed motions calling on the British Government to give access to an independent international legal person to all files and papers pertaining to the Dublin and Monaghan bombings of 17 May 1974. The 47th anniversary of that desperate atrocity, when 33 people were killed and hundreds more injured, has just passed. The Taoiseach will agree it is absolutely scandalous that the British Government has not responded to the unanimous calls from this sovereign Parliament on three occasions for Britain to co-operate in a meaningful way and advance the investigation into an atrocity that resulted in the greatest number of deaths in a single day during the era of the Troubles on this island.
I thank the Taoiseach for his comprehensive reply. Does he remain satisfied regarding the sincerity of the British Government in undertaking to ensure that the letter and spirit of the Northern protocol are accepted and implemented in full? There are things happening on an ongoing basis that appear to undermine the protocol. At the same time, the protocol seems to be blamed for any issue that has arisen when, in fact, Brexit is the real reason for those issues. That was pointed out in the beginning to everybody involved. Moreover, the British Government knew full well what the consequences would be before all this debate started. At this stage, it should be mentioned again that the people of Northern Ireland did not vote for Brexit but are being forced to accept it. The economy of Northern Ireland is being forced to accept the downside of Brexit just because it suited the British Government at the time. Will the Taoiseach continue to impress upon his British colleagues the necessity to ensure that any agreement reached is honoured in full, with no exceptions?
It is a month since the Taoiseach met Boris Johnson and vowed to work with him on Northern Ireland's future in the aftermath of the Ballymurphy inquiry report. He described it at the time as a constructive discussion. However, things have deteriorated incredibly since then and there is deep concern across a whole range of issues. Last Sunday, Mr. Johnson said he would do whatever it takes to protect the territorial integrity of the UK, as he recklessly wound up tensions over the Northern Ireland protocol. Following on from that, we have had various loyalists saying they are coming to Dublin with their protests. They are playing with fire, as I am sure the Taoiseach agrees. One thing follows the other and there has been a deliberate stoking of the issue just as the power-sharing institutions at Stormont are at risk.
This is a cyclical process and we have been here before. Now, however, the situation seems to be more sinister and dangerous and the British are all but threatening to trigger Article 16 at the end of the month. Can the Taoiseach give the House an honest assessment of where we are at in this regard? Such a development would be potentially devastating to the peace process. Has he any sense of what is being talked about in terms of the EU applying trade sanctions and tariffs, if that happens? We hope it will not. Has he spoken to Boris Johnson since the weekend and, if not, does he intend to do so? The next month or month and a half is going to be incredibly tense.
Did the Taoiseach discuss the Delta variant with the Prime Minister?
Despite the vaccination programme in the UK being well advanced, the spread of this variant has forced the Government there to delay the reopening. When I raised this issue in the House three weeks ago, we had 70 cases of the Delta variant here and now we have 130-plus cases. There is a real danger of it getting out of control. The variant presents a real danger to people's health, to their lives and to our ability to reopen society, provided it manages to beat us as we race to get people fully vaccinated. This is because it is 50% more transmissible and because one dose of the either the AstraZeneca or the Pfizer vaccine is not very effective against the Delta variant.
We need to take action now before it is too late, before the spread of this variant means that we cannot reopen and before it impacts on people's health and lives. The question is whether the Taoiseach accepts that what he is talking about with respect to extending at-home quarantine does not cut it. Many people cannot quarantine at home. There is also no supervisory mechanism. Will he move to introduce mandatory hotel quarantine for a period of a couple of months to allow us to stay ahead of the Delta variant? Will he act to reduce the time between doses for people in the older and more vulnerable categories so they are not vulnerable to this variant?
Deputy Quinlivan was indicating.
I am deputising for Deputy McDonald. The seventh meeting of the EU-UK joint committee took place recently. It was Lord David Frost's first meeting as co-chair since he replaced Michael Gove, MP. This change in personnel does not appear to have had any material impact on the British Government's approach to the work of the joint committee. From the comments of the European Commission Vice President, Maroš Šefčovič, following the meeting in question, it is clear that the EU's patience is running out and that further unilateral actions by the British Government are a real cause of concern. In light of this, US President Joe Biden's intervention in support of the Irish protocol and the Good Friday Agreement must be welcomed. Despite some of the vexatious public commentary on the flow of trade between the North and Britain, it is opinion of businesses and people in the North that operational challenges can be resolved for access to both the EU and British markets. It is critical therefore that all stakeholders speak with a unified voice to the effect that any further unilateral action by the British Government cannot be tolerated. It is our expectation that this is, and will continue to be, the clear message from the Taoiseach and his officials when engaging with their British counterparts.
I thank Deputies for raising those various issues. Deputy Brendan Smith has been a very strong advocate for the Stanley and Reilly families for many years regarding the murder of their loved ones, Patrick and Geraldine, in the 1972 Belturbet bombing and also in respect of the Dublin and Monaghan bombings. The information about the Nottingham University research which the Deputy referred to has been forwarded, as he said, to the Minister for Justice and may establish that there was collusion with the UVF in the context of that heinous crime. We will continue to pursue those issues. The key point is that the Stormont House Agreement provides us with mechanisms to deal with some of these cases but there must be political will on all fronts. The British Government must also be clearer about providing access to its files. The Irish Government has been open about any assertions of collusion in the Republic in respect of certain crimes and the Smithwick tribunal was an example of this. We continue to be open-minded about co-operating with any allegations or assertions in that regard but equally the British Government and other parties must come forward as well, in the form of giving full access to information and to all the files and papers relating to the Dublin and Monaghan bombings, as Deputy Brendan Smith has articulated. There must also a collective approach to legacy issues; there cannot be a unilateral one.
On issue of the protocol, which was raised by Deputy Durkan and others, the key avenues for resolving this are the Šefčovič-Frost discussions, the joint committee, the mechanisms in place in the Trade and Cooperation Agreement, the withdrawal agreement and the protocol itself. Where there is a will there is a way. I have spoken to Vice President Šefčovič and I have met with the Prime Minister and the Secretary of State, Lord Frost. The issues that are outstanding can without question be resolved if there is a will to resolve them and progress can be made. It is important all sides go at this with a view to, as Deputy Kelly said, defusing tensions and doing the responsible and sensible thing here to deal with the trading aspects of this protocol. The intervention by the American Administration last week, in making it clear that agreeing a sanitary and phytosanitary, SPS, agreement would not impair the capacity of the UK to do a comprehensive trade deal with the US, is significant. An SPS agreement was something the UK had advanced as being problematic. An SPS agreement would potentially remove up to 80% of the issues that have arisen. There are issues to be resolved, but I am convinced of Europe's bona fides in this regard and of its desire to have these issues resolved.
I should say we are not at the stage of trade tariffs, sanctions or anything like that yet. There needs to be serious engagement on the issues. If there is serious engagement, progress will be made. There is no doubt about that. The issue is whether people want progress to be made and whether there is a political will to make progress. The latter must be there on all sides.
I apologise to the Taoiseach but we are out of time. We must move on.
5. Deputy Alan Kelly asked the Taoiseach if he will report on the statement of strategy of his Department. [29457/21]
6. Deputy Richard Boyd Barrett asked the Taoiseach if he will report on the statement of strategy of his Department. [29781/21]
7. Deputy Paul Murphy asked the Taoiseach if he will report on the statement of strategy of his Department. [29784/21]
8. Deputy Bríd Smith asked the Taoiseach if he will report on the statement of strategy of his Department. [29786/21]
9. Deputy Jennifer Whitmore asked the Taoiseach if he will report on the statement of strategy of his Department. [31557/21]
10. Deputy Mary Lou McDonald asked the Taoiseach when the annual report of his Department for 2020 will be published. [31802/21]
I propose to take Questions Nos. 5 to 10, inclusive, together.
My Department's new statement of strategy, published earlier this year, reflects the role of the Department to support me, as Taoiseach, and the Government to develop a sustainable economy and a successful society, to pursue Ireland's interests abroad, to implement the Government's programme and to build a better future for Ireland and all her citizens. The statement of strategy outlines the context and challenges ahead in pursuing this goal and is reflected in the six strategic priorities for the period ahead. These are: support for me, as Taoiseach, and the Government; securing our future by tackling Covid-19, Brexit and climate action; restoring the economy, including an absolute focus on housing; building a better society; strengthening Ireland's place in Europe and the wider world; and building consensus on a shared island, North-South and east-west.
The system of Cabinet committees has already been restructured to reflect these priorities to ensure that Government policy is well harmonised and responsive. The statement of strategy has been developed with particular reference to the immediate challenges presented by the Covid-19 pandemic and Brexit, but my Department will continue to be responsive to new and emerging challenges in the future. In addition to its ongoing work, my Department will undertake new work streams including the new shared island unit, the Future of Media Commission and developing social dialogue. It will also ensure the collective work on housing and climate action is prioritised right across all Departments.
My Department's annual report for 2020 will be finalised and published in the coming weeks and will set out the work of my Department last year, much of which involved supporting the whole-of-government response to the Covid-19 pandemic. Over the past year, officials in my Department have been working night and day on matters related to the pandemic and pulling together the different departmental strands of that, ensuring a collective Government response. I pay tribute to all the senior officials in the Department of the Taoiseach for the extraordinary effort that has been required from the outset of the pandemic right up to today. It has been out of the ordinary in terms of the normal duties civil servants have had to attend to. It has been extraordinary work and speaks well of our public service more generally. The same applies to many other Departments.
Three of the Taoiseach's key strategic priorities for his Department are securing our future after Covid-19, restoring the economy and strengthening our place in the world. I want to refer to two very different issues. The first is something that has been raised continually in the House, namely, aviation. We all know the issues relating to Stobart Air and the loss of 480 jobs, the regional connectivity and the public service obligation, PSO, which I believe will be brought back. There is the issue relating to Lufthansa Technik in Shannon, which is very close to my own area, and a range of other issues regarding aviation.
We clearly need a plan. The Minister for Transport this morning stated there would be a task force for Shannon but will the Taoiseach elaborate on what that will be? Sometimes task forces work and sometimes they do not. I was part of one that worked and I have seen others implemented by various Governments, including those of which I was a part, that may not have achieved as much as desired. The position of chair of Shannon Airport is still vacant. We need a longer-term plan for Shannon, perhaps up to 20 years. Some Government must be brave enough to deal with Foynes, Shannon Airport and the entire area in one go.
With regard to the cyberattack on the HSE, there are two reports, with one commissioned by the board and another from an international agency. When will we have sight of those? We will need to look at them to consider what we must do when we progress our infrastructure for healthcare.
The Taoiseach's statement of strategy makes several commitments to supporting those affected by Covid-19 and assisting their economic recovery, allowing them to plan for a post-Covid future. One of the groups - I have raised this repeatedly with the Taoiseach - with a very uncertain future which has seen a massive and continuing adverse effect from Covid-19 is taxi drivers. After the Minister for Transport's announcement of a so-called package of support last week, taxi drivers wrote to the Taoiseach again to express their extraordinary disappointment at the failure of the Government to meet any of the demands they made. They made five very simple demands to save the taxi industry and their livelihoods. These included a financial package to cover ongoing costs, a moratorium on future licences and, critically, an extension of the requirement to replace a vehicle after nine years to approximately 15 years, given the loss of income and major debts taxi drivers would have to incur in a very uncertain position if they had to finance new vehicles. There were also requests to disband the taxi advisory committee, which the group feels is unrepresentative of taxi drivers, and the provision of access to bus corridors. None of those demands was met.
When the Taoiseach met representatives of the four taxi groups that organised the recent protest, he said he would get back to them about their demands but he did not do it. There was an announcement but there was no response from the Taoiseach and none of the demands was met. It is really not acceptable.
Five years ago, after Clerys left its workers high and dry, the Duffy Cahill report proposed a series of measures to prevent such an occurrence from being repeated. Five years of delay meant the Debenhams workers were left without legal protection when their company did the same to them. The promise was always that the Government would eventually take action.
Last week, the Government announced what it would do about the key recommendations of the Duffy Cahill report, namely, absolutely nothing. The key demand of workers from Clerys, Debenhams and elsewhere - that their collective redundancy agreements would be honoured in a liquidation process - has been rejected by the Ministers of State, Deputies Robert Troy and Damien English. The Duffy Cahill report recommended that companies that failed to provide proper consultation before liquidation should face serious sanctions of up to two years' of pay but the Ministers of State, Deputies Troy and English, want to overrule that recommendation and continue with a greatly reduced four-week sanction, which amounts to a mere slap on the wrist. The Irish Congress of Trade Unions called for Labour Court awards to be given preference in winding up and that has also been rejected, as has the proposal that directors of companies who break workers' rights be restricted from simply moving on to other company directorships.
How can the Taoiseach stand over this whitewash of the report from his Ministers of State? Instead of pushing through with this betrayal of workers from Clerys and Debenhams, will he intervene now to ensure the Duffy Cahill proposals are implemented in full to protect workers?
The Taoiseach said officials should be congratulated for pulling together various strands of all the Departments during the Covid-19 pandemic. I am sure the process has been very challenging. Where in the name of God did the general scheme of the Garda Síochána powers Bill, published on Monday by the Minister for Justice, Deputy Heather Humphreys, come from? It was described by one legal academic as a land grab by the Department of Justice and having read the information about it, I must agree, particularly in light of recent and historical controversies that we have raised here. It is unacceptable when we think of the cases of Dara Quigley, George Nkencho and Terence Wheelock.
We know emergency powers have been used overwhelmingly in working class areas and against young people and there is every chance these new powers will be used in the same way. We also know there is an utter lack of accountability when it comes to Garda actions. Some of the shocking details include the fact that search warrants could be issued by Garda superintendents, as opposed to judges. This reminds me very much of the internment without trial period in Northern Ireland. These powers go too far and are too sweeping. We must ask where the Taoiseach or the Department of Justice believes the need for these powers comes from
Where is the demand for such sweeping powers of the State and police control coming from? We know this started with emergency powers given during the Covid-19 pandemic but will the Taoiseach give us the justification for these powers? It is shocking that the Bill purports to allow a position where the presence of a lawyer at an interview would no longer be guaranteed. The Taoiseach may as well ask Garda Commissioner Drew Harris to introduce internment without trial as pass this sort of legislation.
The Citizens' Assembly on gender equality has, in effect, given the Government a people's charter for change. It has set out in clear terms the enhanced role of the State in protecting and sustaining society and building a fairer economy. Many groups and individuals engaged in the assembly's work were alarmed by the Fine Gael Party's opinion of limiting consideration of the assembly's recommendations to the proposals that require constitutional change. Establishing a special Oireachtas committee to only consider such matters would fly in the face and spirit of the work of the assembly. In addition to the recommendations on the Constitution, the assembly's work has given clear guidance to the Government on policies and leadership; caregiving and childcare; domestic, sexual and gender-based violence; pay in the workplace; and social protection. As Dr. Catherine Day has said, the recommendations agreed by the citizens do not just call for incremental change but big changes that can make Ireland better and a more gender-equal place to live for all of us with changes to the Constitution, new laws and policies and stronger enforcement.
Many of these policies intersect so they cannot be considered or addressed in isolation from each other. Does the Taoiseach share Fine Gael's view that the Oireachtas should limit its consideration to just constitutional recommendations and, if not, will he take responsibility for the implementation strategy that is so clearly needed to deliver gender equality for Ireland?
Unfortunately, there is very limited time for a response.
Deputy Kelly raised the question of aviation and made a very fair point. The Government is very clear about the importance of connectivity for our economy and society. I have said repeatedly that we are a small, open economy and society. Covid-19 has hit us hard. We have provided a direction of travel, so to speak, for resuming travel in a structured way from 19 July, arising from our adoption of the European Union Covid certificate. That gives an indication to airlines of where the country will position itself from approximately 19 July.
Substantial supports have been given to the aviation sector. Many Deputies are standing up to say the Government has neglected aviation and so on but approximately €300 million in supports has been allocated to aviation. That includes the employment wage subsidy scheme and a range of other income supports. Additionally, capital funding has been provided to airports, with approximately €80 million alone in 2021. There has been €21 million provided under the regional airports programme, as well as €32 million for Cork and Shannon through a new one-year Covid-19 regional State airports programme. There is a €26 million state aid scheme to compensate airport operators for the losses caused by Covid-19 and the travel restrictions imposed by Ireland to limit its spread. That scheme augments supports already in place and will help the industry to maintain connectivity and make a recovery from the impact of Covid-19.
Aer Lingus has received very substantial liquidity supports in a loan through the Ireland Strategic Investment Fund pandemic stabilisation and recovery fund.
The bulk of the support to airlines is through the wage subsidy schemes. They were specifically designed to maintain the link between employers and employees. Overall there has been very substantial support given to aviation but unfortunately, travel has been way down due to the impact of the pandemic. This is just the reality.
I am in agreement with Deputy on the Shannon Estuary task force and that it must be broadly based. We want to ensure that the local development plans are developed to stimulate economic activity for those areas where we would expect economic developments arising, for example from fossil fuel infrastructure, but which is not taking place, but where other infrastructures can take place such as wind energy. Offshore wind energy offers substantive opportunities in the Shannon Estuary area. We believe that we need to take on board the wider regional agenda there with regard to economic development across transport, logistics, manufacturing, renewable energy and tourism, and to develop a strategy to achieve this potential with support from the Exchequer. This is the context of the task force. The Tánaiste will make announcements on the personnel shortly.
I am not sure where we are at, but the time is up. Is there something else left?
There were other queries from Deputies, but I can only deal with them within the time I have. Deputy Boyd Barrett raised the taxis again. Through the Chair, I do not believe that what the Deputy has said is fair. A package was announced last week that dealt with the issues as raised with me in a meeting. On the extension of the requirement to replace a vehicle to 15 years, people wanted an extension but as far as I can see, 15 years was a bit higher than-----
It was an extension of ten to 15 years, the same as-----
But 15 years was not mentioned. I stand to be corrected but I do not believe that 15 years was identified at the meeting.
On the access to bus lanes, this has been agreed. I have gone back on numerous occasions to double check. The delegation asked about this in the context of BusConnects. The Minister, Deputy Eamon Ryan, was clear that they will have access on the arterial routes within BusConnects. Those questions were asked. There is a reluctance in the Department around the moratorium on licences but there are elements to the package announced last week that will help financially-----
Paltry. They were absolutely paltry.
-----in addition to the supports already there.
We are way over time now and I ask the Taoiseach to conclude. We will now move on to the last round of questions.
11. Deputy Alan Kelly asked the Taoiseach when the Cabinet committee on education last met; and when it will next meet. [27895/21]
12. Deputy Gary Gannon asked the Taoiseach when the Cabinet committee on education last met; and when it will next meet. [29413/21]
13. Deputy Mary Lou McDonald asked the Taoiseach when the Cabinet committee on education will next meet. [29519/21]
14. Deputy Pádraig O'Sullivan asked the Taoiseach when the Cabinet committee on education will next meet. [29602/21]
15. Deputy Richard Boyd Barrett asked the Taoiseach when the Cabinet committee on education will next meet. [31398/21]
16. Deputy Paul Murphy asked the Taoiseach when the Cabinet committee on education will next meet. [31401/21]
17. Deputy Rose Conway-Walsh asked the Taoiseach when the Cabinet committee on education last met; and when it will next meet. [31791/21]
18. Deputy Mary Lou McDonald asked the Taoiseach when the Cabinet committee that deals with education will next meet. [31828/21]
I propose to take Questions Nos. 11 to 18, inclusive, together. The Cabinet committee on education oversees implementation of the programme for Government commitments in the area of education, including preparing for post-Covid education. This Cabinet committee last met on 13 May and discussed topics including special education policy in schools, the broader legislative framework governing special education and the increased demand for places at third level in 2021 and 2022.
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.
I am surprised at the amount of time left.
It will be helpful to all the other Members.
A report in thejournal.ie website has said that the plan to build 400 multidenominational schools primary schools by 2030 has absolutely no interim targets and that there is no roadmap. Is this true? If not, then perhaps the Taoiseach will tell us it is not. These are so necessary and we in the Labour Party, including Senator Bacik and Deputy Ó Ríordáin, have fought for these for many years. We need to ensure we have a supply of such schools. Why is there no plan and why are the targets and the roadmap for this not in place?
When does the Taoiseach expect to hold the citizen's assembly on education, and especially with regard to the role of religious orders in education?
The Labour Party has raised the issue of an autism empowerment strategy in the Dáil numerous times, including with a motion, and in particular on the volume of autistic spectrum disorder, ASD, units in Dublin 2, 4, 6, 6W, and 12. There have been lots of pledges. Again, Deputy Ó Ríordáin and Senator Bacik have written to patrons to ensure that pledges will be honoured and that there will be resources. There seems, however, to be a lack of urgency. Will the Taoiseach ensure that the Minister, as has been done quite rightly before, use emergency powers to ensure such ASD units are built in time?
I want to talk about compassion within our education and State examinations system. I am no fan of the current leaving certificate model but it worries me gravely that we are moving backwards and not forward when it comes to compassion for students. Compassionate leave was granted for the first time in 2019 to students who suffered a close family bereavement over the course of their written examinations. I believe that this leave did not go far enough, as it extended only to three days' leave from examinations. Almost 50 students availed of this leave in 2019. Almost 50 students who could have lost a parent or a sibling on a Monday were expected to return for their examinations on the Thursday. This is the most compassionate the leaving certificate has ever been but we have removed it for this year. Tomorrow, if a student who is due to take the French paper takes ill or experiences an epileptic seizure or any medical emergency, there is no alternative arrangement in place for the student to take the examinations at a later date. As the Taoiseach has said himself, the current system is too inflexible. We have crossed the Rubicon in respect of the leaving certificate due to Covid. I ask the Taoiseach that we introduce the bereavement leave as offered to students in 2019 and go far beyond what was offered by investigating the accredited grade model in order that a student who experiences exceptional circumstances at any point in his or her sixth year can avail of an accredited grade.
I welcome the Taoiseach's comments that the Cabinet sub-committee on education has met to discuss special education in particular. I have spoken repeatedly with the Taoiseach and with the Minister, Deputy Foley, about this issue over the past months. Following on from what the previous speakers have said, I have a genuine concern about provision for ASD students nationwide. I acknowledge that a lot of resources have been pumped in over the past 12 months but it also needs to be acknowledged that more children than ever before are getting diagnoses and assessments of need. I am concerned that there are areas of this country and of our own county where the education provision for students with ASD is left to the devices of principals in schools. The policy needs to change. The Department of Education and the Government need to take this issue by the scruff of the neck so that where there is demand for provision of such educational services, they will be provided in any school that is publicly funded. I do not believe this to be a major ask. The Government needs to look at this. There has been a dramatic increase in the number of ASD classes provided, even in the short time that we have been in government. That said, the existing demand needs to be addressed. The best way to do that is to do it from a Department point of view, where the Department makes the decisions on where the services are in demand. I welcome the Taoiseach's comments on that.
My party leader, Deputy McDonald, and I have previously raised the issue of the Department of Education's delay in completing the review into the ex gratia scheme for those people who were sexually abused while attending Irish primary and secondary schools. We both have noted the hurt and anger this delay continues to cause the survivors of Creagh Lane National School in my constituency in Limerick and in many other places. Deputy McDonald wrote to the Taoiseach and to the Minister two months ago on behalf of the Creagh Lane survivors and to date has received no response. This is a scandal. The survivors do not even know if they are included in the review system. When Deputy McDonald raised this matter with the former Minister for Education in December 2019, he stated that the ex gratia scheme was being reviewed by his Department. It would appear from questions asked of the current and previous Ministers that little progress has been made in the intervening period. This is completely unacceptable. It must be remembered that the only reason there is a scheme is down to the heroic efforts of Louise O'Keeffe, who was fought by the State at every turn in her campaign for justice. Even then, the Government sought, wrongly, to limit its responsibility to many of the survivors.
Almost two years have passed since the former Taoiseach publicly committed to reopening the ex gratia scheme. Earlier this year, the current Taoiseach told the Dáil that he is keen to see the review concluded. People who were in Creagh Lane do not even know whether they are included. Will the Taoiseach tell us the reasons for the protracted delays in the review and what actions will be taken to ensure its conclusion?
If my constituency is anything to go by, there is a real problem with the Department of Education delivering school buildings, autism spectrum disorder, ASD, units, which we know are needed, and school facilities. The latest in a long line of examples is St. Mary's Boys National School in Booterstown. I met representatives from there this week. They have made a request of the Department of Education for the acquisition of an existing building. Nothing needs to be built. It has a parish hall available to it for an ASD unit and for the additional school facilities it lacks. There is an acknowledged need for a unit in the area but the Department of Education seems to be incapable of making a decision. When I ask questions on the school's behalf I cannot get an answer. Will the Taoiseach look into this? This special needs provision is desperately required.
This speaks to a larger problem. Sallynoggin Educate Together National School has no temporary site for a school this September and no permanent site. Gaelscoil Laighean is moving between one temporary site and another and is still uncertainty about a permanent site. Dún Laoghaire Educate Together National School is moving from one temporary site to another. For years, The Red Door School has been in a completely unsuitable temporary site. Gaelscoil Phadraig in Ballybrack has been in a temporary site for years. Does the Department understand the meaning of planning for schools that exist or for ASD units where there is an acknowledged need, and the urgent decision-making required to give people certainty about the provision of facilities and school buildings?
Yesterday, the Taoiseach was quoted in The Irish Times as stating that the leaving certificate is fair but does not measure the breadth of a person's ability. We could debate this. The Taoiseach is using a very narrow definition of what is fair and unfair. Yesterday, there was another story in The Irish Times on something that even in this narrow definition appears to be very unfair for a select group of students. This is the fact that, according to the newspaper, significant numbers of leaving certificate students have ended up being marked down in their oral examinations this year, through no fault of their own, due to shortcomings in the way interviews were conducted, according to some examiners. The newspaper states one examiner for the German orals marked 78 candidates and estimated that a majority lost marks due to omissions on the part of the teachers who conducted the interviews. The examiner stated that to penalise students for no fault of their own is not fair nor is it candidate-centred. This is absolutely correct. The idea any student should be penalised as a result of mistakes made by the person doing the interviewing is absolutely horrendous. Will the Taoiseach tell us how many students have been affected by this? Will he confirm there will not be a cover-up of this? The newspaper story seems to suggest there was some attempt at a cover-up. Will the Taoiseach please give a commitment to those students affected that no one will lose out due to mistakes, which presumably were genuine mistakes, made by the interviewers and that the students will not pay the price for them?
I want to ask the Taoiseach about future planning for the use of technology in post-primary schools. The Taoiseach may not be familiar with the independent review group in Ratoath College in County Meath, which is shining a light on the problems emerging with a policy that has no uniformity and no structure across the board to deal with technology and the provision of iPads and other digital equipment for students. The independent review group's report shows that in this situation the question of digital poverty and device inequality looms large. There are many cases where parents and teachers struggle to pay for devices for post-primary children need in order to learn. If we want to move to a system that is now commonplace throughout Europe we need some uniformity across the education structure. Whether it is access to the Internet inside or outside school is a separate debate. What type of technology we use is also a separate debate. The point is whether the Department is about to fund the provision of technological devices for post-primary schools so that no child is left behind and everybody is treated the same. The report looks at the school prior to Covid and during Covid. It shines a light on the problems and, of course, these problems intensified during the pandemic and lockdown. Will the Taoiseach comment on this? Would he care to highlight the glaring gap in poverty, digital poverty and digital inequality that exists throughout secondary education?
I recall that it was the Labour Party many years ago which stated that there would be 500 multidenominational schools. That was without a plan at all and had to do with the amalgamation of existing buildings. Be that as it may, I am very committed to the provision of multidenominational schools. When I was Minister for Education and Science in the late 1990s, I was responsible for the first breakthrough in taking away the contribution that had to be made up until then. It was impossible for new schools and new patrons to finance new buildings and purchase land. The demographics and the locations dictate. We now go out to communities to invite them, through plebiscites, to decide what form of school patron or school they want and they vote accordingly. Progress is being made in respect of this.
Deputy Pádraig O'Sullivan and others raised the issue of autism and special needs more generally. Approximately €2 billion is now being spent on special needs education, which is 50% more than in 2011. There is huge provision of special needs assistants, with approximately 18,000 provided for in 2021 and they deal with well over 40,000 students. No school will suffer a reduction in its allocation for the school year 2021 to 2022 and this is an important point. As Deputies know, we have thousands of other provisions in special education.
With regard to Deputy Pádraig O'Sullivan's point, I am anxious to ensure that there is a more structured approach to ensuring that there are places in given areas for students so that well parents will know well in advance that there is a place for their child the following September and will not have to go through the struggle of going from school to school trying to secure places for their children, which is unacceptable. In this respect, we need to look more broadly at ownership and patronage more generally. Very often, we go to certain providers who state they do not have any more capacity to add a school or a class or take extra places. This is not good enough any more, particularly when the State has to fulfil a constitutional obligation to make sure children have access to education. A special needs child has an equal right to access education as children in mainstream situations and I am very clear about this. There may be an increased role for education and training boards where there are gaps and where people do not come forward quickly and speedily in order that the State enters quickly and speedily and provides additional places, builds schools and gets on with it. We had a meeting of the Cabinet sub-committee, to which Deputy Pádraig O'Sullivan and others alluded, to examine the legislation. The legislation in place was introduced some years ago.
We are going over time and there are three questions left. I will allow an extra minute.
To respond to Deputy Gannon's point on compassion, I have a lot of sympathy for this. When I was Minister for Education and Science 20 years ago, I tried to introduce an alternative approach for someone who suffers an appalling bereavement or trauma in the middle of the leaving certificate examination. To be fair, at the time the view of the examinations section was it could undermine broader marking schemes. It was considering this with a view towards fairness. That said, unfortunately, some people suffer a terrible trauma and students are expected to go through exams in the middle or aftermath of such a trauma. There is a big legitimate issue and I will ask the Minister for Education to look at it again not just with regard to 2019 but more broadly given the experiences we have had during Covid.
In response to Deputy Pádraig O'Sullivan regarding special needs and genuine ASD needs and provision, and Deputy Quinlivan in terms of the review, I have been in touch with the Minister for Education in relation to that and I am pursuing that. I myself have been involved in that for quite some time and I am anxious that that review would come to a conclusion. The Minister will be back to me, hopefully, within a short time.
Deputy Boyd Barrett mentioned some individual specific schools which I can relate back to the Department. I do not have the operational details on specific schools.
In response to Deputy Paul Murphy, I am not aware of that given situation in terms of examiners and the assertions the Deputy made. I am sure the Department will respond to those assertions and we will seek replies on those.
In terms of technology in post-primary schools, for many years Governments have been supporting technology in post-primary schools. The latest economic recovery plan - we have applied to Europe for substantial funding for a recovery and resilience plan - involves very substantial investment in technology in schools of up to €60 million, if I am not mistaken. That would take a variety of forms in terms of both increased connectivity for schools and the deployment of technology devices etc.
In fairness, there has always been a policy to discriminate in favour of Delivering Equality of Opportunity in Schools, DEIS, schools or schools where there are considerable socioeconomic disadvantage.