Saincheisteanna Tráthúla - Topical Issue Debate

Passport Services

The Acting Chairman will know that one of the most bizarre aspects of Irish politics is the engagement that elected representatives often have with the passport service and it is not something that I am terribly comfortable with. I should make it clear that people should not have to contact their Deputies to get their passport on time. In my experience, those who do get in touch with me on passport inquiries generally do so out of desperation. Their stories in recent days and weeks have been disappointing, to put it mildly. They have recounted their engagement with a system that can only be described as dysfunctional over the past number of months.

In April, the Minister for Foreign Affairs, Deputy Coveney, told the House that the then backlog of 89,000 applications would be cleared by the end of June. A fortnight after that deadline had passed the backlog had grown to 95,000. As of late September, the backlog had increased to 130,000. I hope that the Minister of State will be able to provide us with up-to-date figures this evening.

I am sure that the staff in the Passport Office have been working exceptionally hard through all of this but there is a serious systems failure that has led to this point. It seems incredible that the Department claims that more than one in five applications is incomplete or requires further information. I wan to put on the record the experience of one of my constituents. This gentleman and his wife were due to travel to Meugorje yesterday and were going on their own personal pilgrimage. They submitted their passport applications on 15 September.

In his wife's case, it was a simple renewal. She received an estimated issue date of 14 October. As his passport had expired 11 years ago, which shows how unique this trip was, his was treated as a new application and he was told his passport would not issue until 23 November.

He contacted me to plead that something be done. On 1 October, I sent an urgent passport query, attaching his flight details, and did not receive any response. Following numerous attempts to call the Passport Office phone line, I re-sent the urgent passport query on 13 October - again, no response. On 15 October, I contacted the Minister's office and a very helpful official undertook to contact the Passport Office on behalf of this man. Only then did I receive an acknowledgement by email, which just told the applicant to monitor his phone and emails. Both my constituency secretarial assistant and I again tried numerous times to contact the Passport Office in regard to this case.

On 19 October, the day before the couple's trip was due to begin, we once again contacted the Minister's office. On this occasion, we were referred back to the public phone line, which we had not been able to get through to up to that point. My secretarial assistant eventually got through to the public line, at 4.25 p.m. on the day before the scheduled flight, but the person who answered would not provide any information and, in fact, terminated the call. The man did not get his passport in time, while his wife, who had been provided with an estimated issue date of 14 October, did not receive hers either. They still have not received their passports. It is difficult to describe the upset this ordeal has caused the couple without detailing their very personal reasons for wanting to travel to Medjugorje. I can only say their upset and hurt is very real and will be long standing.

What is the Minister of State's proposal to ensure no other family will have to go through such an ordeal in the coming days and weeks?

I sympathise with the family's circumstances. It is a very difficult case. I offer the following response on behalf of the Minister for Foreign Affairs.

As the Deputy will be aware, the operations of the passport service were severely disrupted by the Covid-19 pandemic, as were many other Government services. Emergency passport services were maintained during the pandemic, which required staff to be on site to process and issue passports. On that basis, and taking account of the Covid protocols in place at the time, 67,000 passport books and cards were issued between January and May of this year. Since May, more than 400,000 passports and passport cards have been issued, meaning that in total almost 500,000 passports and cards have been issued to date in 2021. Almost 45% of passports for simple online adult renewals issue within one business day, while more complex applications take a bit longer.

As regards turnaround times, the current passport processing times, provided that all required documentation has been provided and is in order, are ten working days for simple adult renewals, 15 working days for complex renewals, 40 working days for first-time applications on Passport Online and eight weeks for An Post's mail-in Passport Express service. The passport service is experiencing high demand for first-time passports. Of the 140,000 applications on hand, more than 65,000, or 45%, are first-time applications. These first-time applications take longer to process than a renewal application. To protect the integrity of the Irish passport, first-time applications require careful processing to validate the identity of the applicant and his or her entitlement to Irish citizenship for the first time. Additionally, in the case of children, the consent of guardians must be validated.

In line with the continued scaling-up of services, the Passport Office, in Mount Street, Dublin 2, opened its urgent appointment service for the renewal of passports on 27 September 2021. This service is available to people who require passport renewal at short notice and opt for this fee-based service to do so. To avail of this service, members of the public can visit the website of the Department of Foreign Affairs. The urgent appointment service ensures that for those who unexpectedly require an urgent turnaround or a passport renewal, an option is available that is transparent, predictable and clear. It means applicants can book their appointment, safe in the knowledge they will have their passport within a day or a few days.

Turning to staffing, the Department of Foreign Affairs has assigned 126 officers to the passport service to date in 2021. In addition, 50 officers were internally reassigned to the passport service during the period of peak demand in the summer. The requirement for social distancing in the workplace continues to have a significant impact on the capacity of the service to operate at normal levels. The Department is currently focused on recruiting additional staffing to meet expected demand for passports in 2022 and ensuring adequate staffing levels in the passport service. This work takes account of evolving requirements related to Covid restrictions and includes engagement with the Public Appointments Service and a number of internal HR processes. Budget 2022 included an investment of an additional €10 million in passport services in response to the increasing demand for passports both at home and abroad.

I urge citizens to check their passport well in advance of any planned travel to ensure they can apply for a passport in plenty of time. The Passport Online service continues to be the fastest and most efficient channel for passport applications.

I am disappointed the Minister, Deputy Coveney, is not here. I thank the Minister of State for his response, although it was not even up to date. I am dealing with a family who are due to travel on Thursday next. They have been told their baby's passport will not issue in time, even though it will have been in the system for eight weeks. My office was told earlier by the special helpline that has been set up at the Department that the current timeframe is actually ten weeks.

I have been listening to the excuses relating to Covid since April, when the Minister gave that commitment in respect of the then backlog. This is not happening anywhere else in the western world that I am aware of and I have checked with former colleagues in the European Parliament. No other European state is dealing with such a backlog. It is unfathomable to most of the colleagues I spoke to that people would have to contact their elected representative to find out when their passport will issue.

In respect of the information the Minister sent us earlier about a Department helpline, that helpline will be pointless if cases such as these cannot be addressed. If the responses to queries are simply a rehashing of information on the website, it will be a waste of resources and will only add to the frustration people are going through. The purpose of such a line must be to assist the Department in receiving details of urgent cases and then being able to act accordingly.

The Minister of State, on behalf of the Minister, stated additional staff were assigned to the Department during the summer. Will he tell the Minister to reassign them to the Passport Office to clear this backlog? These are tragic human stories. It might sound mundane, given we are, in some cases, talking about holidays, but there are reasons behind all this and people should be able to expect a reasonable service, which they pay for in terms of their passport delivery. Will the Minister of State bring that message as forcefully as he can to the Minister?

The Passport Office continually examines how to improve processing times, including by examining the process for the verification of supporting documentation for first-time applicants and addressing delays that have been experienced by customers as a result of the Covid-19 pandemic and the high demand seen in recent months as international travel has resumed. There has also been an ongoing process of reform within the Passport Office since 2016. Enhancements over recent years mean that Passport Online can now be accessed by first-time applicants, both children and adults, in Ireland, Northern Ireland, Great Britain, Europe, Australia, Canada, New Zealand and the US. All Irish citizens, including children, can use the online system to renew passports from anywhere in the world.

The Irish passport is one of the most secure in the world and one of the most effective in granting our citizens visa-free access to most countries. Recent reforms have improved our fraud detection capacity following the introduction of new facial recognition technology, which improves the efficiency and integrity of the passport system. In addition, the passport card has recently been upgraded with a SealCrypt barcode strip on the back. The next major element of reform in the programme is to replace the core technology underpinning the passport service. The current system was launched in 2004 and will be replaced by a more modern integrated system. Detailed design-----

With respect to the Minister of State, he is not answering the question.

Detailed design and implementation will begin in the coming months-----

That is a joke. It is not answering the question I asked.

The Minister of State to continue without interruption.

He is talking about facial recognition. I am talking about families who are waiting for their passports.

No, that is outrageous. It is not what I asked about. A Deputy has raised genuine questions and he is getting an answer to a question he did not ask.

Deputy, if you do not allow the Minister of State to answer, I will move on and there will be no answer.

I ask the Deputy to allow me to conclude. I know the response I am giving in my concluding remarks does not give him the answer he requires. Certainly, I will take these matters back to the Minister and the Department. The Deputy made his case very well on behalf of the applicants. It is deeply upsetting for families when they are making plans and travel arrangements. I said in my opening remarks that it is very important that people make their plans early and ensure their passports are in date.

With regard to the specific case, the backlogs are there and it is vital that they are cleared. The staffing issue is one I will refer back as well. It is vital that all resources are put in place to ensure that members of the public have access to their passports in the time that has been directed and set out in the recommendations. However, I take the point the Deputy is making about this specific case.

Local Authorities

Gabhaim buíochas leis an Aire Stáit as teacht isteach cé go bhfuil díomá orm nach bhfuil an tAire Tithíochta, Rialtais Áitiúil agus Oidhreachta anseo anocht. The problem with the current system of distribution of the equalisation fund is that it is neither open and transparent nor equitable. Persistent questions from me over the years have failed to get the rationale behind the current system. This has left a number of councils underfunded, even with the distribution under the equalisation fund, and they now have an ensuing crisis in services and staff levels, which is seriously inhibiting their work.

The report of the expert committee established by the previous Minister to examine the amalgamation of Galway City Council and Galway County Council came to the conclusion that both local authorities in Galway were underfunded and that this issue needed to be addressed forthwith. In fact, even though it was in favour of amalgamation, it said the funding crisis had to be dealt with first. In Galway County Council, where the crisis is more extreme, it has left virtually no staff to look after planning enforcement throughout the county. It has resulted in a situation where the planning officers dealing with planning applications have to deal with twice as many applications as equivalent planning officers in the neighbouring county deal with. There are no staff, or a totally inadequate number of staff, to deal with housing adaptation applications, mobility aids and so forth. While the Department is offering an increasing number of grants to local authorities under various schemes, both rural and urban, other sections are finding it very hard to progress their applications in a suitable way, thus stymieing the development of the county.

County Galway stretches from Ballinasloe - on my way home tonight I will be halfway home when I get to Ballinasloe - to Inishbofin, Cleggan, Clifden and Ballyconneely, which are 160 km apart. In fact, uniquely, when one is driving there one has to go through another local authority to get to the western half of the county. It also stretches from Milltown and Dunmore in the north to Gort and Portumna in the south. A huge area of land is losing out, and it is creaking under the current system. I pay tribute to the staff who have soldiered on, but who are now at breaking point. The reality is that it is sometimes very hard to contact the staff, through no fault of theirs. They are just too busy trying to fire fight in getting planning permissions and planning decisions dealt with.

I am sure the Minister of State has been given a very fancy script. I received a reply to a parliamentary question today which gave me a lot of twaddle about 15%, the local property tax, LPT, and so forth. I am telling the Minister of State to go back to the Department and examine how it arrived at the system for distributing the equalisation fund. If he cracks that one, he will have cracked a greater mystery than I have ever seen anywhere else. Agatha Christie, Sherlock Holmes or the whole lot would not crack the mystery of the equalisation fund distribution, which dates back about ten years and has left Galway strapped for cash.

I thank the Deputy for giving me the opportunity to outline the Government's supports for local authorities, with particular reference to Galway county. As the local authority budgetary period will shortly be under way, my Department has notified Galway County Council and all other local authorities of local property tax allocations for 2022 and of a separate allocation as a contribution towards the additional costs that will arise in 2022 as a consequence of the national pay agreements and the unwinding of the financial emergency measures in the public interest, FEMPI, legislation. The allocation in respect of Building Momentum - A New Public Service Agreement 2021-2022 is €4.44 million for Galway County Council and its objective is to reduce the cost of pay and pensions next year. In light of the Deputy's concerns about staffing, I trust it will be welcomed.

Turning to the funding position more generally, LPT was introduced to provide a stable and sustainable funding base for the local authority sector, helping to provide greater levels of connection between local revenue and associated expenditure decisions. LPT broadens the tax base by reducing the level of central funding required by local government. Local retention of the LPT began in 2015 and since then the overall principles and allocation methodology have broadly remained the same. Currently, 80% of LPT is retained in the area in which it is collected, with the other 20% supporting equalisation for local authorities with LPT bases lower than their funding baseline. The programme for Government, Our Shared Future, commits to bringing forward LPT reforms, including providing for all money collected locally to be retained within the county. This will also be done on the basis that those counties with a lower LPT base are adjusted via an annual national equalisation fund paid from the Exchequer, as is currently the case.

Across all schemes and funding sources my Department provided €51.1 million in 2019 and €82.9 million in 2020 to Galway County Council. The increase in 2020 was due to an increase in capital funding for housing as well as funding in respect of the Covid-19 commercial rates waiver and for additional expenses and lost income linked to the pandemic. Galway County Council also received a once-off allocation of €1 million for 2021.

This money was linked to the operation of municipal districts and was subject to a small number of requirements, including that the funding be divided equally among the municipal districts. My Department is currently reviewing correspondence issued by the council in respect of this funding to determine if each of the conditions have been complied with.

In the Local Authority Times, a publication of the Institute of Public Administration, IPA, two researchers came to the following conclusion:

Equalisation is a key element of a country’s inter-governmental fiscal arrangements where functions and funding are decentralised to subnational government. Although Ireland is a highly centralised country with limited responsibilities and powers devolved to local authorities horizontal fiscal imbalances exist and persist. Ireland has a system of equalisation transfers but we believe that the current model is not fit for purpose.

They continued to construct a more equitable and logically based fiscal model. The Minister of State seems to be saying today that we know it is unfair and that there is no justification. No justification has been given to me today as to how the equalisation fund was arrived at. However, it is proposed to blackmail people in Galway with the same value of house to pay more money before we undo an objective injustice. That is what the Minister of State is telling me and it is totally unacceptable. In addition, this would not solve the problem of the inequity because it is much deeper than that.

The second point is that this mechanism of raising it was actually meant for extra services, all other things being equal, not as a mechanism to cover up for an unfair system coming from the Custom House. At the end of the day, it will not address the fundamental issue which is that there is no basis in logic to the present system. If an individual suffered in this way, a case would already have been taken to the Ombudsman and the inequity would have been put right.

A Programme for Government - Our Shared Future commits to reform in funding of local authorities. What has been done to date other than tinkering at the edges? The LPT reform has nothing to do with funding local authorities; it is about how much the public pays. We need comprehensive reform now and not at some date in the future that is constantly deferred. The cumulative damage done to Galway County Council is already very serious.

As has been set out in the circular from the Department, when additional information on the updated LPT is available the process will be re-examined. While it is unfortunate that the process cannot take place in advance of the local authority budget process in November, the timeline involved takes account of the needs of property owners and the Revenue Commissioners in conducting re-evaluation. As part of this process, my Department will review relevant material, including the report compiled by the Whitaker Institute of the National University of Ireland Galway and other reports on local authority funding which have been published in recent years. The Department will also engage with relevant stakeholders. Notwithstanding that, any examination of funding following the LPT re-evaluation exercise is not intended to be a substitute for the statutory role of elected members and their responsibilities under the Local Government Acts.

The Deputy has raised a critical point about the future funding of local government and revenue-raising abilities as seen in other countries, where local authorities have the ability to set up energy supply companies and be involved in revenue-raising activities. I cannot give an update of the work of the Minister of State, Deputy Peter Burke, within local government on those elements.

Why is he not here?

I am here on his behalf.

If the Minister of State, Deputy Noonan, cannot answer, why is he here?

It is important that we consider those issues.

We should be giving consideration to participatory budgeting where members of the public have a say in how their LPT revenue is spent. All those elements are critical in taking ownership of the revenue that is raised by local government and giving people a say in how it is spent in their own communities. My own local authority issues a newsletter to every household to inform members of the public how their money is being spent, and the projects and other important work it is doing in communities. I will take back the Deputy's comments to the Minister of State, Deputy Peter Burke.

Special Educational Needs

First, I welcome that the Minister of State, Deputy Madigan. At the beginning, I thought that the Minister of State, Deputy Noonan, was going to answer all the questions. It is becoming a feature that Deputies are submitting their questions and are not getting the replies and a Minister of State-----

The Minister of State, Deputy Madigan, is always here for any of her issues that are being dealt with.

That is why I welcome her being here. That is why I said it.

I am not here to have a go at the Minister of State. I want to express the frustration of parents whose children are losing special education hours. One parent who contacted me said that her son lost two days of special education teaching this week. The loss of one-to-one teaching to help him with social skills and extra reading will leave him further behind and regressing. This parent makes a strong point that mainstream autistic children are often forgotten about. Special needs assistants and special education teaching hours make it possible for them to get to school.

Another parent this week told me that a special education teacher was put in to cover for five days for a full-time teacher who was out sick, meaning that this young boy missed five days of special education teaching. Normally, these hours would be banked for future use if the special education teacher could not fulfil the hours that week. It is a seriously worrying trend in mainstream schools at present due to the shortage of substitute teachers or where teachers are absent and a special education teacher is used to teach the class.

During the peak of the pandemic when this used to occur, the school was allowed to bank these missed hours when a special education teacher was in a classroom to ensure that the hours lost were not at the expense of the children who rely on the special education teacher for resource hours. This practice now appears to have been revoked and I seek clarification on that. Vulnerable children are losing out on vital resource hours with no option to make up lost time.

I thank the Deputy for raising the issue. I will always endeavour to respond Topical Issue matters that are relevant to me. This matter is partly the responsibility of the Minister for Education, Deputy Foley. The special education element comes under my remit.

I recognise the challenge that schools are facing regarding the wider issue of substitution. I will come to the special education issue in a minute. The Department has put in place a range of measures to provide enhanced substitute cover in the context of the Covid-19 pandemic. These include a major expansion of the primary schools substitute teacher supply panels, which now employ almost 380 teachers and provide substitute cover to over 2,500 primary and post-primary schools across the country. Further work is under way to enhance the operation of the panels to help with substitute teacher supply.

The national substitution portal service for primary and post-primary schools, subseeker.ie, is operated by the Irish Primary Principals Network. The Teaching Council and the Minister, Deputy Foley are working closely on this. The council has emailed 111,000 teachers asking if any of them are available for substitute work. I understand that 70,000 of those 111,000 teachers work full time and 40,000 work part time. Therefore, there should be capacity among those 40,000 teachers for some of them to be available to work. They have also allowed for teachers who were on a career break to carry out unlimited substitution work. That provision did not exist previously.

In addition, those who are job sharing will be in a position to carry out substitute work on the days of the week when they are rostered off. That is another new measure that has been introduced. There are also some new initiatives relating to student teachers completing their professional master of education studies.

They may be in a position to fulfil short-term substitute vacancies.

All of those measures are extremely important but specifically around special education teachers, there has been a bit of misperception and there has been no withdrawal of any provisions. Effectively, special education teachers will be used for the purposes for which they should be used. During Covid-19, as a measure of last resort, where teachers were in a difficult position, a special education teacher could be used to cover teacher absences and where teachers were unavailable. We now have a successful vaccine roll-out and there should be a reduced level of absenteeism compared with the past. We should see those teacher absence levels reduced and there should not be an issue around using special education teachers in that way. It is really important to me as Minister of State with responsibility for special education that those special education teachers are only used for the hours for children with additional needs, as the Deputy has said.

In the recent budget we allocated 980 new special education teachers, with 620 of those for mainstream, new and developing schools, and 360 of them for special classes. They have a pivotal role in looking after children with additional needs.

I thank the Minister of State. I am aware there is a problem and a bit of a crisis in the 3,300 schools around the country and they are finding it very difficult to get substitute teachers to cover absences. I raised the matter last week with the Tánaiste. A particular school had cover for one absent teacher and could not get other cover. This is happening in many schools. The Tánaiste spoke to colleagues in Blanchardstown and Castleknock, where the same thing was happening and there was a possibility of closing classrooms because a teacher could not be procured. I do not know if the special education teachers are moving to cover that problem.

Will the two boys I spoke of get those hours back or get resources from a special education teacher? One boy lost five days this week and two days last week. It is a key issue. Will the Minister of State confirm that will happen?

On the question of substitution in general, I have outlined the measures being taken. There is the question of hours being lost. One of the schemes we introduced is the Covid Learning and Support Scheme, CLASS, at €56.2 million, which is to help children who lost time during Covid-19. That is in addition to the summer provision and the supplementary scheme at Easter. If children with additional needs have lost hours, as the Deputy mentions, although I will not comment on individual cases, it should first be brought to the attention of the principal of the school. He or she could liaise with the Department if there is an issue and they cannot work it out internally within the school. The case could also be brought to the attention of a special education teacher.

As I have said, there should be sufficient substitutes. The Minister, Deputy Foley, has looked at this in terms of expanding substitution and the substitute portal so as to make teachers who are job-sharing, those on career leave and in other schemes available. It is about getting more people, and particularly those part-time teachers, to register on the substitute portal so they can assist. No child should be losing hours.

There must be a way of working this out. I suggest the people affected contact the school and if there are any issues, the Deputy can let me know so I can follow up also. The National Council for Special Education has local special educational needs organisers on the ground. I know the matter is very close to the Deputy's heart and I heard her bring it up with the Tánaiste. If there are any issues, she could speak to me again about it.

I thank the Deputy and Minister of State for dealing with that important matter.

Primary Medical Certificates

This matter has been raised a few times, although I am not sure if it was raised very recently in the Oireachtas. The primary medical certificate is primarily about adapted vehicles. That is the most common reason people require it. It is relevant where people have a disability or suffered a long-term or permanent injury that means they required a specially adapted vehicle. It is crucial to people's independence, dignity and quality of life.

The Minister of State knows there have been developments in this area. A Supreme Court decision in June 2020 caused the Department of Finance to suspend planned assessments and appeals until further notice, pending legal advice. That pause lasted until January this year, if I recall correctly. Covid-19 also had an impact. The combination of these two events meant both the initial hearing and appeals processes saw very significant delays. I know there have been efforts to clear the backlog but I have heard from people on the ground and those working in the system that there is a backlog of initial applications but the backlog for appeals is very lengthy. I know one case from the west of Ireland was told in recent months that a cancelled appeal would not be rescheduled until some time in 2022. The waiting list for applications is several months in Cork and appeals are between seven and eight months.

People with disabilities should not have to wait a year or two to know whether they can afford to have their card adapted or to purchase an already adapted car. That is not right and this has a major impact on their quality of life. It can hold back their independence. In many cases the disability could emerge quickly, such as in the case of injury or rapidly progressing illness. All of a sudden, a previously completely independent person has to wait for this process and there is nothing to be done to speed it up. All the actions such people can take they would have discharged and the process has been taken from their hands.

What is the latest information? I have an anecdotal sense of it from on the ground in Cork and cases I have heard about in other parts of the country. I have also heard from people working in the service. Will the Minister give a picture of where we are nationally and the progress in clearing the backlog not only in applications but also in appeals? What is the plan to ensure that big backlog of appeals in particular can be cleared so these people can get their primary medical certificate, get on the road and get to shops or visit relatives? That is what this is about. We are talking about their independence, dignity and ability to get on with their lives.

It is a very important matter.

I thank the Deputy for raising this very important matter today. I am glad to take the opportunity to set out the position regarding the assessment process for primary medical certificates.

A primary medical certificate is a requirement for the disabled drivers and disabled passengers (tax concessions) scheme. This scheme is underpinned by statute and comes under the remit of the Department of Finance and the Revenue Commissioners. The extent of the involvement of HSE community medical doctors in the scheme relates to making a clinical determination as to whether an individual applicant meets the specified criteria.

Following a Supreme Court decision of June 2020, the assessment process for primary medical certificates was suspended at the request of the Minister for Finance. On the enactment of the Finance Act 2020, which provided for the medical criteria in primary legislation, the Health Service Executive, HSE, was informed that assessments could recommence from 1 January 2021. This has proceeded in the context of restoring services in a Covid-19 environment.

The Health Service Executive community services has developed a prioritisation framework, which enables staff to be deployed where necessary. The ability to hold assessments for primary medical certificates has been affected by, among other factors, the key role played by community medical doctors in the national Covid-19 response.

The Health Service Executive has confirmed that community medical doctors and their teams were predominantly deployed to the Covid vaccination roll-out in residential care facilities and other healthcare settings. Community doctors were also required to undertake school immunisations, which were identified as a priority for the HSE.

If an applicant's case clearly meets the strict criteria that govern the primary medical certificate, a community medical doctor may be in a position to grant it, with supporting documentation from a consultant, without an in-person assessment. However, the majority of applications are not clear cut and need an in-person medical examination to make an adjudication. The HSE has informed me that progress on assessments has been made, with more than 1,270 assessments undertaken up to the end of June this year. I am glad to outline the background and current position on this important matter to the House today. I acknowledge what the Deputy said in that these people want to get on with their lives, get into their cars, do their shopping, meet their relations and travel again. I hope this may be of some assistance.

I suppose there is good in that response, but it does not deal with all the issues. This process does not seem to be running at full steam. While there has been some progress made in the backlog, the community medical doctors are also doing many other jobs which puts demands on the resources. The other issue which has not been addressed is the delay in the appeals, which is a key part of the process. People are waiting lengthy periods of time for their appeals to be heard, which is also holding them back, and many of these appeals can be successful.

We have come across cases in my constituency office where the criteria might be too severe. I have come across cases involving people with fibromyalgia, and as a result have mobility difficulties, but who do not currently qualify. There are parents of children with profound learning difficulties and related conditions, who do not qualify even though the children, in some instances, are at risk of rapid movements or require a large amount of space to get out of a car. I wish to flag that they do not always qualify either.

I ask that the Minister of State to take my primary concern back to his Department. While I understand there are significant delays with the initial applications, there is also an issue in regard to the appeals, which needs to be addressed. I ask that the Minister of State take that point back to his Department so we can get this issue addressed. I acknowledge the objectives are not wrong. However, the issue is about the urgency at which it is being addressed. It does not involve the most enormous category of people, but the impact it has on their lives is enormous and it holds them back.

I accept the impact it has on people's lives and I hope the appeals will be dealt with more urgently than they have been. As I said, some 1,270 assessments were undertaken up to the end of June this year. I assure the House that if an applicant's case clearly meets the strict criteria that govern the primary medical certificate, a community medical doctor may be in a position to grant it, on the basis of supporting documentation from a consultant and without an in-patient assessment. This may go some way in providing clarity and help. However, the majority of applications are not clear cut and need an in-person medical assessment to make an adjudication. In the context of providing health services within a Covid environment, and the related public health restrictions, the HSE is continuing to make progress with the assessment process for primary medical certificates. As the Deputy said, perhaps it is not going at full steam. Now that many people have been taken off Covid duty, perhaps we will be in a better position to get the process up to full steam.