Saincheisteanna Tráthúla - Topical Issue Debate

School Admissions

I have raised this issue with the Minister before. There is a crisis for many families. I do not use that word lightly. It is not just an issue in north Dublin. Many of my colleagues across different constituencies in Dublin, Wexford and in Drogheda tell me the same thing. Colleagues of mine, John Nisbet, in Dublin North-West, Senator Marie Sherlock in Dublin North-Central, Deputy Duncan Smith in Dublin Fingal, and people in my constituency, Dublin Bay North, are talking about it. My colleague, Senator Mark Wall, from Kildare, raised it in the Seanad yesterday. There is a crisis with access to second level school places. Primary level is an issue too. We have discussed the provisions in the Education (Admission to Schools) Act 2018 for 25% of places to be kept aside for children or grandchildren of past pupils. That has now gone to Committee Stage in the Oireachtas education committee and we can discuss that.

It has been suggested to me that the level of social mobility around the time of the housing crash 12 or 13 years ago is part of the issue here because many families moved into areas they were not originally from. Their children are now reaching second level school age and so this problem is arising. For whatever reason, my office has never had the level of contact we have had in recent months about issues of accessing second level schools across the northside. These children have to be taught and to go to second level. We are now at a stage where panic is creeping in. The Minister can appreciate that being in primary school for the past years has been difficult with the pandemic. Young people want the security of knowing what secondary schools they will attend. Parents want to know too. It is becoming an acute problem in my constituency. Unfortunately, I do not have answers for these parents who contact my office. I suggest they go through the enrolment policy of the school and try to engage with the school in whatever way they can, but they tell me they are on different waiting lists for different schools.

I am also told there can sometimes be a general data protection regulation, GDPR, issue with sharing data about who is on which list. A number of parents may have their children on a number of different lists. It is not always obvious how many places are necessary for a cohort of young people. There is a parallel issue with the choice of patronage. If people have been educated through Irish until sixth class and would therefore choose an Irish-language medium second level school, that has its own challenges. If people have been taught with the Educate Together ethos until sixth class, they will prefer that type of schooling. Either way, my constituents face the crisis of not having any notion of where their children will go for first year of secondary school next year.

What analysis has the Department done of this issue in north Dublin or farther afield, in areas I have referred to? What measures is it putting in place to address it?

I thank the Deputy for raising this matter. It gives me the opportunity to set out for the House the position with regard to post-primary places in north Dublin for September 2022 and onwards. To plan for school provision and analyse the relevant demographic data, my Department divides the country into 314 school planning areas and uses a geographical information system, using data from a range of sources, to identify where increasing school place requirements and associated accommodation needs will arise. However, it is important to note that where local enrolment pressures emerge, it may not be as a result of lack of accommodation but may be driven by a number of factors, individually or collectively. One is duplication of applications, where pupils have applied for a place at a number of schools in the area. Another is school choice, when pupils cannot get a place in their preferred school while there are places in other schools in the town or area. Some towns or areas have single-sex schools, and while places are available in the school, they are not available to all pupils. There is also the external draw, with pupils coming from outside the local area. One or a combination of these factors may be involved.

The Department is working with relevant school authorities to establish the extent of enrolment pressures. In that context, similar to the process adopted in advance of the current academic year, the Department is engaging with patron bodies, including those of schools in north Dublin, to identify particular capacity requirements for the forthcoming years which may necessitate further action to that already in train. Where it is determined additional provision is required, the delivery of such additional provision is dependent on the particular circumstances of each case and may be provided through utilising existing unused capacity within a school or schools, extending the capacity of a school or schools, or provision of a new school or schools.

Under Project Ireland 2040, the Department continues to make progress to increase the infrastructural capacity in the school sector to meet demographic and other demands. The capital programme details the school projects that are being progressed under Project Ireland 2040. It is expected the enrolment pressures in north Dublin and in other areas will reduce in the short term as such planned additional capacity comes on stream and as demographic demand moves past its peak. With regard to projects, there has been significant investment under the major capital programme in the north Dublin area in recent years. Bremore Educate Together, Balbriggan has a new school building for 1,000 pupils, which was completed in 2018. Coláiste Ghlór na Mara, also in Balbriggan, was completed in 2019 and also has accommodation for 1,000 pupils. In addition, there are 13 other major projects at post-primary level in the north Dublin area, including at Belmayne, Malahide, Portmarnock, Swords, Dublin 15 and Rush, which are at various stages of the design and build process and will greatly contribute to the supply of school places in the area.

The capital programme also provides for devolved funding for additional classrooms, including accommodation for pupils with special educational needs, if required, for schools where an additional enrolment need has been identified. Included among additional accommodation projects are Dominican College, Drumcondra, Coláiste Dhúlaigh, Coolock and Santa Sabina Dominican College, Sutton. Clonturk Community College has had a significant amount of modular accommodation approved to cater for its needs. St. Aidan's, Whitehall has been approved for a significant project, which has been devolved to the school authorities for delivery. The Department is also engaging with school authorities at Castleknock Community College and Luttrellstown Community College to consider their accommodation needs. I can assure the Deputy that the Department is working intensively to ensure there is sufficient post-primary school accommodation available throughout the country, including in north Dublin, to meet school place requirements in every area.

I thank the Minister for her reply. I appreciate she and the Department recognise there is an issue. We often raise issues in this House and get the sense from the Department or the Minister that this is not really a concern. I can tell from the Minister's response and previous responses that she acknowledges there is an issue.

There is a push locally for a new Educate Together second level school in that catchment area, which could cater for a number of primary schools of that ethos. That would benefit the area and also release some of the pressure. I note that some of the schools mentioned by the Minister have additional accommodation projects. At what point will the Minister be able to respond to me as to the nature of the intensive work the Department is undertaking and what point will she be able to share with local Deputies the outcome of that work to ensure that we can then tell all of the constituents who contact us that there will be adequate places for their children in September? As the Minister will appreciate, this is not something that anybody can take lightly. If there is insecurity or uncertainty in a family in regard to where a young person will be attending school in September, particularly if that child is the oldest child at school, one can appreciate the anxiety that creates. If it has not been resolved by this stage, it is going to dominate issues over Christmas and into the new year, etc. While I appreciate the Minister is acknowledging the issue, can I get an assurance from her that the Department will liaise with local Deputies and representatives in the Dublin Bay North area as to the results of this intensive work being done by the Department so that we can then relay that information to our constituents who are making contact with us?

As I previously outlined, in quantifying the specific requirements for September 2022, the Department is assessing its nationwide demographic exercises to determine where additional school accommodation is needed at primary and post-primary levels across the 314 school planning areas through a geographical information system. The GIS uses data from a range of sources, including information from the Department of Social Protection, the Department of Education school enrolment databases and much more to identify where pressures for school places across the country will arise. In line with a strengthened approach in recent years, the process involves specific initiatives such as enhanced engagement with local authorities, which is hugely important, and information on residential development because clearly, as the Deputy will appreciate, where houses go education goes as well. There is additional engagement with patron bodies in regard to their local knowledge on school place requirements and with education and training boards, diocesan offices, national patron bodies such as Educate Together and An Foras Pátrúnachta, etc. They can also be an important source of knowledge. This will add to the information also provided to the Department by local authorities or individual schools. Utilising the information gleaned from schools under the national inventory of school capacity completed by individual schools last year as part of the PPOD returns process is also significant.

I assure the Deputy that the Department will continue to engage with patron bodies in identifying specific September 2022 capacity pressure points, prioritise those pressure points going forward and put in place the necessary and very specific actions. As the Deputy will appreciate, the demands in one school are not necessarily mirrored in terms of demands in other schools. I assure the Deputy that I am very happy to engage with him in regard to the specific issues he raised in regard to his own area.

Medical Aids and Appliances

I thank the Minister of State, Deputy Butler, for dealing with this matter. I was advised over six weeks ago that there were 28 children on a waiting list for vital medical devices such as wheelchairs and, in one particular case, a device required to assist a young person in regard to speech development. My understanding was that there were a total of 28 children on that waiting list as of the start of October 2021. In October, I tabled a parliamentary question to the Minister for Health. As a result, funding was made available, as I understand it, for devices to be provided for ten children.

In the parliamentary question I asked specifically about CHO 4 and CHO 5. CHO 4 is the Cork-Kerry region and CHO 5 is the Carlow-Kilkenny region. The reply I received from the HSE was to the effect that there is no waiting list in CHO 5, but in regard to CHO 4, the Cork-Kerry area, the reply states that the HSE sincerely regrets that there can be a waiting time for important equipment such as wheelchairs, in some cases, but that this is due to circumstances beyond its control, such as long lead times when ordering from manufacturers and that in other cases, the funding available to it does not meet the demand. Why is there discrimination between children who are living in, say, Mitchelstown and children living in, say, Cork city? If one is living in Mitchelstown one could be waiting for up to 12 months for equipment whereas if one is living in Cahir there is no waiting list. That is total discrimination. I have raised this here with the Taoiseach as well in the past two weeks. He advised that there is adequate funding within the HSE. I understand that there is an underspend in some departments and that €60,000 would resolve the problem for the medical devices that are required for the remaining 18 children. I ask the Minister of State to clarify that this funding will be provided prior to 31 December.

I thank Deputy Burke for the opportunity to address the issue of the provision of medical aids and appliances, including wheelchairs, by the Health Service Executive in the Cork-Kerry region. I heard the Deputy raise the issue with the Taoiseach the week before last.

The HSE provides a wide range of medical and surgical aids and appliances, including wheelchairs, free of charge to eligible persons such as medical card holders and people on the long-term illness scheme following assessment by a relevant health professional. These appliances and aids are provided by the HSE through community services known as community funded schemes. These products and services play a key role in assisting and supporting people to maintain everyday functioning and to remain living in their homes and their local communities. They also avoid the need for a hospital presentation or admission when facilitating early discharge from hospital back into the community.

Each community health organisation, CHO, operates processes for the allocation of funding for medical and surgical aids and appliances. Each application within a CHO is assessed for eligible persons by the local resource allocation group. A determination is made regarding approval based on priority and funding available within local budgets. At times, due to the demand for resources exceeding the available capacity, waiting lists may apply for some categories of items provided through the medical and surgical aids and appliances budget in a particular CHO. CHOs undertake a range of initiatives to ensure optimum use of resources, including, for example, through the efficient recycling of stock items such as wheelchairs and walking aids.

In CHO 4, the Cork-Kerry area, there is currently a waiting list in place for the purchase of some wheelchairs. While additional funding was recently allocated in CHO 4, to which the Deputy alluded, the effects of Brexit and the global issues with the supply chain have further impacted the sourcing of appropriate wheelchairs for some applicants. The HSE is currently trying to resolve these issues and to source the wheelchairs in as timely a manner as possible. It should also be noted more generally that the waiting times vary depending on the priority rating and that the rating is made by healthcare professionals based on clinical risk. Priority is given to individuals with the greatest level of clinical need.

At national level in the HSE, a national service improvement programme has been established with the aim of improving the quality and sustainability of the community funded schemes through the establishment of national standards. These standards will be based on evidence-based rationale and will include a list of approved items, national prescribing guidelines and clinical criteria for each.

This should improve equality of access, value for money and functional processes. Unfortunately, the Covid-19 pandemic has delayed progress on this programme but, as the situation improves, it will gather pace. It is important to note that section 6 of the Health Service Executive (Governance) Act 2013 bars the Minister for Health from directing the HSE to provide a treatment or personal service to any individual or to confer eligibility on any individual.

I thank the Minister of State for her reply. I am aware that equipment has been ordered for ten children, leaving 18 for whom equipment has not been ordered. My understanding, from the Taoiseach's reply to my question, is that there is adequate funding for this provision within the HSE. I am concerned that if the funding is not directed to the Cork-Kerry region before 31 December, we will move into the 2022 budget and the money will have to go back to the Department of Finance. The money is there and there are 18 children for whom equipment has not been ordered. They have been assessed and it has been decided they require the equipment.

These children are located throughout all of counties Cork and Kerry, not in any one place. This is why it is very difficult for parents. I spoke to one last week who saw the article on this issue in the Irish Examiner. Her child was number three on the waiting list but no one from the HSE had called to tell her the equipment for her child was ordered. I advised her to contact the HSE. When she did so the following morning, she was advised that the equipment was ordered. This was the first she heard of it, even though she had been waiting since last March. To reiterate, there is equipment ordered for ten children and another 18 for whom it is not ordered. If it is not done by 31 December, we are going into next year's budget and the children will be back on the waiting list. There is a serious discrepancy between what is happening in CHO 4 and CHO 5. That is why I put down the question to the Minister in October about the comparison between the two areas. I am asking that the issue be resolved.

I could read out the script I have been given but it more or less reiterates what I have already said. I heard the Deputy raising this issue with the Taoiseach two weeks ago and what the latter said in reply. There are 28 children who are in need and, as far as the Deputy is aware, appliances will be provided for ten of them, leaving 18 without. I will take this issue back to the Department of Health and the Minister to see whether we can make some progress on it.

I thank the Minister of State.

Covid-19 Pandemic Supports

Gabhaim buíochas leis an Cheann Comhairle as ucht an deis seo a thabhairt dom an t-ábhar seo a phlé anocht. I acknowledge the message I had from the Minister, Deputy Catherine Martin, that she could not attend the debate.

In the context of the current wave of Covid infections, our hospitality and night-time entertainment sector is once again at the forefront of the response. Many people are changing their plans, as has been acknowledged today by the Chief Medical Officer, CMO, and the sector is bearing the brunt of that. To give an example, I am aware of a small restaurant that has had 2,324 cancellations in the past two weeks. That is being replicated right across the country in restaurants, hotels, nightclubs, theatres and music venues. A specific response is needed to the situation they face in the coming weeks. These are not just any weeks; the weeks that make up the Christmas period sustain the hospitality and night-time entertainment industry through the quiet months of January, February and March. The money that is earned now pays the bills during that time and allows businesses to build up again. The current situation requires a specific response, including a commitment to extend the employment wage subsidy scheme, EWSS, and the Covid restrictions support scheme, CRSS, to sustain businesses through the period.

There is also a need for a firmer discussion around the response to where hospitality finds itself at this stage in the Covid crisis. Are we serious about hospitality in Ireland or are we taking it for granted? Are we gong to invest in training for the industry to provide the skills that are needed? Is the view prevailing, as has been expressed by some members of the Government in recent times, that there are loads of jobs in the industry, even though that does not recognise the skills needed within the sector? People cannot simply be moved around and skills are being lost to the industry. Employees are moving out of hospitality, tourism and late-night entertainment into other areas of the economy. Their skills will be lost and cannot easily be replaced. When international and domestic travel comes back, when we eventually put Covid behind us and once again look to tourism, hospitality and late-night entertainment to rebuild our lives, those skills will be gone.

We need a specific, tailored package in place for late-night entertainment specialists, including sound and music technicians. We also need a package of key employee supports in order that restaurants and hotels can retain employees such as chefs, whose skills are limited but necessary. They need to be retained within the hospitality industry. I know of chefs who have moved into catering in manufacturing, manufacturing itself or retail because there is certainty around employment. There must be an immediate response to the particular crisis being faced by hospitality and night-time entertainment, which is occurring as we speak. I referred to cancellations for the Christmas period, which include cancellations of late-night events. We also need a whole-of-government response that will put hospitality on a new setting, make it ready for a post-Covid world and ensure the skills are in place to make it an attractive sector in which to work. The industry also must respond by providing certainty and offering wages that are fair, decent and reflective of the modern economy. However, it cannot do that on its own. A partnership approach is needed.

I have been saying for a long time that we need some sort of specific training mechanism, such as that provided in the past by CERT. In its time, it did a wonderful job of providing training, preparing people for careers and offering life skills for workers in the hospitality and night-time entertainment industry. It is time we had a commitment once again to a body such as CERT. I look forward to a response from the Government. We will not have instant solutions this evening but there needs to be an awareness of how urgent the situation is for the many thousands of people employed in the industry.

I thank the Deputy for the opportunity to address the House on this matter this evening. As he is aware, the Minister, Deputy Catherine Martin, was unable to attend and asked me to stand in on her behalf. I want to start by acknowledging on a personal level that the challenges being faced by our hospitality and entertainment sectors, both currently and over the previous months, are severe. It is a difficult time for many, particularly those working in these industries. As a Government, we recognise the difficulties and are doing everything we can to support these important industries. While the ongoing public health situation is continually evolving and a recent deterioration saw the introduction last week of a requirement for Covid-19 passes for cinemas and theatres, as well as a midnight closing time for all on-licensed premises, we are optimistic these measures will allow businesses to keep operating and keep people at work.

Throughout the pandemic, the Minister, Deputy Martin, and the Tánaiste and Minister for Enterprise, Trade and Employment have been actively working with the tourism and hospitality sector to ensure it is properly supported. The significant additional funding secured for tourism services in budget 2022 will help to address immediate survival-related concerns while also enabling further resilience and recovery across the industry as we reopen to international tourism and transition to a more sustainable future. The Deputy referred to the situation for the domestic tourism sector by instancing the case of a single restaurant having nearly 2,400 cancellations. That is a phenomenal blow to any business. The funding for tourism in budget 2022, amounting to €288.5 million, represents an increase of €67.6 million over the 2021 allocation. It includes €50 million for further tourism business continuity supports to assist strategic tourism businesses with their survival and recovery. The 2022 funding is in addition to the €55 million in tourism business continuity supports that were made available this year. By the end of the year, hundreds of tourism businesses will have received vital funding to help them survive the impacts of the pandemic and hundreds more will again receive support in the coming year. In addition, a further €35 million increase in the tourism marketing fund has been secured in 2022 to enable Tourism Ireland to support the delivery of a marketing strategy to restore inbound tourism to Ireland. A sum of €36.5 million is also being provided in capital funding for tourism product development for the delivery of enhanced visitor experiences, in line with the objectives of the national development plan.

The supports for tourism also include a range of cross-government measures to assist the sector.

Tourism enterprises continue to benefit from measures such as the continuation of the employment wage subsidy scheme, EWSS. Every hotelier and person operating restaurants whom I have met has said to me that the scheme was a lifeline for their business over the previous months. It kept employees connected to the business. It helped them to be able to continue. Some of them mentioned the rates rebates they received when they were closed as a key factor for those who had a rateable premises. The tax warehousing for commercial rates and the 9% VAT rate for hospitality remain in place until September 2022.

We also had a number of other programmes in place, such as the €25 million live performance support scheme, the €16 million events sector Covid-19 support scheme, the €10 million local private performance support scheme, the €4 million music and entertainment support scheme, the €5 million commercial entertainment capital grant and the €1 million provided for the St. Patrick's Day festival. There are no certainties with this virus, but the Government will continue to engage with stakeholders in a positive way to ensure the relevant concerns are addressed in the decision-making process. The Government wants to continue to support this sector and ensure it is given the opportunity to thrive again.

I acknowledge the Minister of State’s response. Many of the commitments are welcome. The sector acknowledges the support that has been received and the importance of that support. Many commitments the Minister of State mentioned are macro. They are for the overall industry. It is essential that we have commitments very soon that the EWSS and the CRSS will be continued after 1 December at their current rates. The VAT level changes on 31 August ahead of September. It seems rather silly to have two different VAT years for one calendar year, particularly in tourism and hospitality. Ireland is growing a reputation for autumn and early winter tourism. The industry does not have the certainty to market that. It needs certainty. As I said, no small business could sustain 50% cancellation rates in two weeks. The cancellations had begun before the restrictions to which the Minister of State referred were announced. They began with the overall messaging that was coming from NPHET in particular. The cancellations affect restaurants, pubs, Christmas parties, events and concerts. The musicians to whom the Minister of State referred are being absolutely hammered because their ticket sales have been cancelled. They need an urgent response in the coming days and weeks. Many of the supports the Minister of State mentioned are macro. The industry may not be there to benefit from them unless we get a response in place.

Finally, the EWSS should be expanded to protect key employees within hospitality, such as a chef, a particular barman or a skilled technician within an events company. The link between that company and the employee, as the Minister of State said, should be protected. The link between a company and a particularly valued employee should especially be protected. That is the basis on which we regrow and rebuild the industry. This industry is crucial not just for cities, but for revitalising our towns in our rural economy post Covid-19.

I want to acknowledge what the Deputy has said. I outlined the provisions that were made at national level across the sector. Each one of them worked its way down to individual people who are involved in the industry. I mentioned the global name for each of the schemes, but every one of them had a positive impact on many people on the ground. It takes time for those schemes to work their way down through the system, but this has been done.

Everybody now recognises that many people are back at work. Some 90% of people who were on the PUP earlier in the year are now back at work. In the days, weeks and months ahead, the focus has to be on the specific sectors that are now affected more than others as a result of Covid-19. Everything we talk about now has to be geared towards specific sectors. Large sections of the economy are back to normal again. I met many business owners in the last couple of weeks who said that despite everything, they have had a reasonably good year. However, that certainly does not include this sector. That is why it has to be has supported specifically.

The Deputy mentioned issues such as the key employee support scheme. Such issues, along with training for the industry, need to be examined to make sure core people are in place such that when tourism fully reopens next year when Covid-19 is behind us, we are not short of staff and we are not looking outside the country for people to come in and give people their céad míle fáilte.

The tourism VAT rate does not hold for the full year. However, it is designed to get us over the tourism season, which was the main element. I am sure that topic will come up for discussion in the period ahead again. I thank the Deputy for raising that. The people had commenced the cancellations before the Government made the announcement. Many people would have been hesitant about going out, regardless of whether the Government closed down or introduced the midnight restriction. I will talk directly to the Minister, Deputy Catherine Martin, in the morning in light of our debate this evening.

Mental Health Services

The final Topical Issue matter is in the name of Deputy Ward, who wishes to discuss a report published by the Mental Health Commission entitled Access to Mental Health Services for People in the Criminal Justice System.

I thank the Minister of State, Deputy Butler, for taking the time to stay back at this late hour to take this Topical Issue matter. I commend the Mental Health Commission on its stark report, Access to Mental Health Services for People in the Criminal Justice System. When I first submitted this matter to the Ceann Comhairle, I was asked to clarify which Department it was going to. I was not sure if it would go to the Department of Health or the Department of Justice. Therefore, some of my questions and input will be related to the Department of Justice. This highlights the fact that there needs to be a cross-departmental approach when it comes to mental health. The Minister of State probably knows that better than anybody.

I attended the launch of the report, along with the Sinn Féin spokesperson on justice, Deputy Martin Kenny, last week. It is clear that what we have heard anecdotally over the years has been solidified in the report by the inspector of mental health services, Dr. Susan Finnerty. In fact, what is contained in this report is far more serious than any of us imagined. Those who commit crimes while acutely mentally ill are essentially being warehoused in our prison services, often in solitary confinement with little or no supports to rehabilitate them. This failure, in turn, is having a negative impact on rates of reoffending. If a serious mental health difficulty, such as acute psychosis, is the root cause of an offence, what hope is there for rehabilitation when the prisoner cannot access basic mental health services?

The end results often lead to reoffending upon release, which also leads to an increase in victims. This vicious cycle has been perpetuated by successive Governments' lack of investment and resource planning in both the Irish Prison Service and mental health services in the wider community. As part of our alternative budget, we called for a significant investment in prison services, which would allow for additional spending on staffing, rehabilitation and health services. We need reform for the safety of staff and prisoners and to reduce the potential for reoffending. Ireland has one of the highest reoffending rates across Europe. Much of that is due to low levels of funding for basic services.

I am interested in Dr. Finnerty's call for diversion programmes for people who offend as a direct result of serious mental health difficulty. My Sinn Féin colleagues and I wholeheartedly support this call, which brings me to my first question. Does the Government have any plans for diversion programmes for people with mental health issues who find themselves in the judicial system?

We speak to the stakeholders in community all the time. We are well aware of the faults in the system. We will continue to support communities to correct the wrongs in a broken system that criminalises a person who is unwell. For too long, the Irish justice system has been the gatekeeper for those experiencing mental health difficulties. An Garda Síochána is often the first group to respond to someone who is having a mental health crisis in our communities.

I welcome the pilot project that will begin in Limerick in the new year. It is mentioned in the report. It will see the establishment of a crisis de-escalation team that will treat someone who is having a mental health difficulty in the community. Along with my Sinn Féin colleagues, I have been calling for this approach to be adopted. We would like to see it replicated across the State.

Some of the conditions that mentally ill people are experiencing in our prisons at present are inhumane. There is no parity of esteem between a prisoner’s mental health and his or her physical health. For example, if a prisoner is suffering from a physical health issue, he or she will be removed from the prison and treated accordingly. This report has proven that the same treatment is not given to prisoners experiencing mental health problems. We will continue to support calls for diversion programmes for people who are mentally unwell. We will support communities that experience these issues and have clearly been forgotten by successive Governments. What learnings have been taken by the Government from this report? Will it start taking a cross-departmental approach? Are there any plans for diversion projects for those in front of the judicial system?

I thank Deputy Ward for raising this important matter. I was happy to stay late tonight to answer it because it is so important. The Deputy was not wrong when he said it was a stark report and it does require a cross-departmental approach. There is no doubt about that.

The Government and I welcome this recent report by the Mental Health Commission, recognising the vital role it plays in supporting and assisting us in developing and improving our mental health services overall. The report presents a realistic picture of the various challenges faced by people with mental health difficulties in the criminal justice system. These include issues that extend beyond the capacity of specialist mental health services and require input from other sectors, such as primary care, addiction and homeless services. I met with Dr. Susan Finnerty, the author of the report, and John Farrelly, the chief executive of the Mental Health Commission, earlier this month prior to the report's publication. We had a constructive discussion on many of the report's findings.

Importantly, the Government remains firmly committed to continuing to improve forensic mental health services, as reflected in various commitments under the programme for Government, Sharing the Vision and in the significant new investment that has been provided to the development of the National Forensic Mental Health Service. Both the opening of the new forensic mental health facility in Portrane and the development of a high-level interdepartmental task force to consider the mental health and addiction challenges of people in the criminal justice system are specific commitments under the programme for Government. That task force has been up and running for the past six months. It is chaired by Kathleen Lynch, who was formerly a Minister of State with responsibility for mental health. The task force will develop a report in early 2022 and will propose a high-level implementation plan for any required actions arising.

The issues under consideration by the task force include diversion of individuals with addiction and mental health difficulties away from the criminal justice system. Three subcommittees have been set up to look at the issues of diversion, the capacity of the Irish Prison Service and the National Forensic Mental Health Service, and community issues, including throughcare from custody. When I met with Kathleen Lynch, we discussed the fact a person might be exiting prison on a Friday evening with nowhere to go. He or she does not have a medical card. If that person has mental health difficulties, we will be recommending, or I hope we will be recommending, that he or she has some place to stay and has, at minimum, a medical card and an apportionment with a mental health consultant or medical person within seven days. That is what we need to stop the revolving door. That high-level interdepartmental task force has been operational for the past six months and is doing a huge amount of work.

As the Deputy may be aware, everyone who is committed to prison is subject to a comprehensive medical assessment by the prison healthcare team, which can include, as appropriate, a mental health assessment. This is used to develop an individual healthcare plan for the person while in custody. Where necessary, individuals are referred to a forensic clinician or prison service psychologist, or both. In-reach mental health services are provided by the HSE's National Forensic Mental Health Service, involving the provision of weekly forensic mental health sessions. However, we heard from Dr. Finnerty that these services are a postcode lottery and can be better in some areas than others, so that is something we have to look at as well. The Deputy is quite right in what he said. The Minister for Justice could be answering these questions as well but I am looking at it purely from a mental health perspective, and that is the side of it we are trying to drive on.

I understand that. It is one of those things that falls between a couple of stools. There is not a debate in this Chamber where mental health is not mentioned. There is not a decision made at the Cabinet table, good, bad or indifferent, that does not have an impact on people's mental health. Good decisions will impact people mentally and bad decisions will have an adverse effect. When I was thinking about this earlier, I wondered where this debate could go. We could bring in health, justice, social protection, education and housing. The reasons people end up in the judicial system go right across the spectrum, so a cross-departmental approach is worth looking into.

I did not see this mentioned in the report but there is a service within the prison system called the community prisons links programme. Workers are sent in to help people who have addiction issues and mental health issues or a dual diagnosis. It is like what the Minister of State was calling for, where they make sure that when people leave, their payments are set up, they have somewhere to go and have their basic needs met so they are less likely to reoffend and go back in. Maybe that is something that could be expanded as part of the report.

On the report itself, prisoners and those in the community who have a forensic history must have the same access to quality mental healthcare as the general population. That needs to be a must as part of the report. The report also stated the commission welcomed the pilot crisis intervention team that is going to be rolled out in Limerick. I am looking forward to it. It could be a game changer in access to 24-7 emergency mental healthcare. Is that still on track for early next year? Will the Minister of State give me an update on what it will entail? I also ask her to elaborate on this cross-departmental approach between the Departments of Justice and Health.

I appreciate the constructive approach the Deputy has taken to this matter. Sharing the Vision is clear that people with mental health difficulties in the criminal justice system should have access to mental health services equal to that of the general population. Everybody is agreed on that. Many of the recommendations made in this report are reflected in Sharing the Vision and Sláintecare. Sharing the Vision recommendations include opening the new forensic mental health unit in Portrane, the development of intensive care rehabilitation units and psychiatric intensive care units nationally, and improving diversion, which is very important, to reduce the number of people with mental health difficulties within the criminal justice system. Implementation of Sharing the Vision is being driven by the independent national implementation and monitoring committee.

In line with Sharing the Vision, I have requested, and am committed to, an acute bed capacity review for mental health services. This review has commenced and will help address the capacity issues in our forensic mental health services. It will provide us with the necessary data on forensic mental health capacity, as well as data for communities and departments of psychiatry throughout the country. I am looking forward to that report. It is being worked on by the national implementation and monitoring committee and three subcommittees have been set up, so I thank them for the work they are doing in the background. There is a lot of work under way at the moment. We have one subcommittee on the bed capacity review, one on child and adolescent mental health services, CAMHS, and the waiting lists, and one on support for minority groups, the Traveller and Roma communities and women with mental health issues. A lot of work is under way.

On the Deputy's specific question, my understanding is that pilot is on target and a cross-departmental approach is being taken. I will check that out for him.

The Dáil adjourned at 10.58 p.m. until 9.12 a.m. on Wednesday, 24 November 2021.