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Dáil Éireann debate -
Thursday, 28 Apr 2022

Vol. 1021 No. 3

Saincheisteanna Tráthúla – Topical Issue Debate

Domestic Violence

I welcome the Minister of State, Deputy Browne, to the House to deal with this Topical Issue matter.

I thank the Ceann Comhairle and I thank the Minister of State for being here to discuss this issue. I do not believe there is any dispute. It has been recognised and acknowledged, and the Government is taking action on the geographical lottery in the context of refuge spaces.

I am fortunate enough to represent one of the constituencies with the fastest growing population and our need is very great. I recently visited the Aoibhneas Day Service in Swords, which does absolutely fantastic work. It is working away but it is really under a serious amount of pressure. The nearest refuge to us is in Coolock and, again, that is under pressure. There is, therefore, a very real need.

The reason I raise this issue today is on foot of a response I received from Fingal County Council in which it referred to my representation, which is fair enough, and advised me that the homeless service team is not aware of any vacant properties that may be renovated for a refuge. The need has, therefore, been established. The Tusla review has prioritised Balbriggan as being the place for nine permanent beds plus a multipurpose room. My issue, and the reason I want to put it on the Minister of State's radar, is that accommodation is going to be required given that Fingal County Council has not identified any property. That means that process is now going to be a somewhat protracted. In an ideal world, the council would have written back to me to say it has the property and I would be standing here saying the property is there and we want to move ahead really quickly. What I am hearing from Fingal County Council leads me to understand that this may add to the length.

What I am saying to the Minister of State and the Minister, Deputy McEntee, which I hope the Minister of State will convey, is that we really cannot forward any delays. We need the refuge space now. I am conscious there is a lead-in time where the need has already been identified. I welcome the fact that the Government and Tusla have identified the need. I know there is a commitment to move on this. My fear is that we are about to enter into a very long and protracted process. I want to put on the Minister of State's radar that this is a very serious issue that is placing an awful lot of pressure on services that are already extremely stretched. Women in my constituency have to leave when they are fleeing domestic and gender-based abuse. They have to leave their constituencies and local areas. We know that just adds to the trauma. In an ideal world, obviously, we would be talking about where exactly this is going to go and we are not at that stage yet.

My concern is that Fingal County Council does not have an appropriate site at the moment. I would be grateful for an update on whether the Government is looking at HSE sites or looking to buy property. What stage are we at in terms of the provision of the services? We have happily or unhappily, I suppose, reached the stage where we recognise there is a very real need for this. The Government recognises it and we know it. Certainly, the women working in Aoibhneas will tell the Minister of State that if they had the spaces, unfortunately, they have people to fill those spaces who are in desperate need of that accommodation. We have recognition. We know that we need the spaces. We know the Government has committed to do this. I am looking for a timeline from the Minister of State and also assurances that if Fingal County Council cannot provide the properties, the Government will be in a position to look beyond that.

I thank Deputy O'Reilly for raising this very important matter around the lack of domestic violence refuge accommodation provision in north County Dublin. It is the stated goal of my Department and this Government that everyone who needs a refuge space will get one. I know the Minister, Deputy McEntee, is deeply committed to working with partners in the sector and with Government colleagues to achieve this.

Tackling domestic, sexual and gender-based violence, DSGBV, in all its forms is a priority for this Government. We are focused on ensuring that people, particularly women and vulnerable people, feel safe and are safe in our communities. As the Deputy will know, the Minister, Deputy McEntee, is currently leading work on a new whole-of-government strategy to combat domestic, sexual and gender-based violence. This new plan will set an overall goal of zero tolerance in our society of domestic, sexual and gender-based violence. The Minister is currently working to finalise the strategy for submission to Government in light of submissions received in the final consultative phase, which ended last month. The Minister intends to bring both the finalised strategy and the accompanying action plan to Government in the coming weeks. It has also been agreed that the Department of Justice will assume responsibility for services for victims of domestic, sexual and gender-based violence, in addition to policy responsibility and overall cross-Government co-ordination of implementation. A detailed plan setting out how this will work is in preparation.

On the specific issue of refuge spaces, earlier this year, the Minister, Deputy O'Gorman, and the Minister for Justice published the review by Tusla, the Child and Family Agency, of accommodation for victims of domestic violence. The review highlights gaps in geographical coverage and inadequate provision of safe accommodation, including refuges, to meet population needs. It recommended an approach to address gaps highlighted in geographical coverage and inadequate provision of safe accommodation with immediate, medium- and long-term actions required. It also provides a list of priority areas where additional services would address the most immediate need. A minimum of between 50 and 60 new refuge places were identified by the review as a priority, while further analysis has identified ten locations nationwide where the delivery of 82 family refuge spaces would have the most impact if prioritised. These locations and refuge needs have been chosen on the basis of required proximity to a refuge as well as a need for refuge spaces per head of population in densely populated areas. These represent areas with the most significant underprovision and represent a starting point to increased refuge spaces comprehensively and in every county across the country. The initial areas identified include Fingal-north Dublin, specifically Balbriggan, where ten family places are suggested as a starting point for prioritisation. As the Deputy pointed out, this includes nine spaces plus a multipurpose room. I understand from Tusla that there ongoing discussions and engagement with key stakeholders locally and Tusla has been available to assist as needed.

I thank the Minister of State for the response and update. I would be very grateful if he could take on board and convey to the Minister, Deputy McEntee, that we really need to start planning for this now. The need has been established. As the Minister of State said, my area specifically, that is, Balbriggan, represents an area in which there is a significant underprovision and this is the starting point for an increase in refuges. We have not been prioritised for nothing. We have been prioritised because there is a very significant need. I want to convey to the Minister of State and put on his radar the need for practical planning as well. The need is established. Tusla has established that and I know it is working with the stakeholders. I know that some work is ongoing. My concern is about when we come to a physical space and how that may delay things. It will be no harm for that work to start as well as the other work with Tusla.

When we talk to organisations like Aoibhneas, they will tell us. Aoibhneas goes above and beyond. The Minister of State will be familiar with its work in his own area. The staff really they stretch themselves, their services and the resources they have. The need is already there. I want to convey to the Minister of State the need for planning to start now for where this will be physically located. It would be different if we were having discussion about whether we needed it or whether the Minister of State was convinced the numbers were required. That discussion has been had, however. We need to move very swiftly now into the planning phase, which will involve finding a premises. It is the really practical issue of finding a premises in a town that has a high population and a fair amount of building work going on. The fact is that Fingal County Council does not have anything. My concern would be that maybe there is a belief that it might be able to come up with something. It said it cannot so the need would be to look elsewhere.

I again thank Deputy O'Reilly bringing up this very important matter. As the Deputy rightly pointed out, the need has been identified, as has the prioritisation. We now need to get to the implementation and delivery side of this. I will certainly raise the Deputy’s concerns with the Minister, Deputy McEntee, when I am talking to her about this situation.

In my own county of Wexford, a tender has now been agreed for 12 spaces for the Wexford Women's Refuge. The sense of confidence that has given to the voluntary group down there has been phenomenal. It has been welcomed by the Wexford Rape Crisis centre as well. Both of those organisations provide phenomenal support. I know not every constituency in every country has been lucky enough to have that support in place. It can be very challenging for voluntary groups and organisations to be able to get up and going with that type of service despite the real need and the will and determination. As I said, I have certainly heard the Deputy's concerns around delivering these refuge spaces for Balbriggan. They are absolutely needed. I will raise those concerns with the Minister, Deputy McEntee, about how to get those spaces delivered as quickly as possible. The real win here will be when these can be delivered and provided on the ground in those areas.

It is traumatic enough when people, in most cases women, have to flee domestic violence, but if they then have to leave their area, perhaps to one they do not know and are not familiar with, it will only add to that level of trauma. I will convey the Deputy's concerns to the Minister.

School Curriculum

I thank the Minister of State for taking this matter on behalf of the Minister for Education. This week we heard reports of a school that, in correspondence with the parents its students, stated its relationships and sexuality education, RSE, programme will not include contraception or LGBTQI+ relationships, or what it called "same sex friendships". I will quote from the letter that was sent from that school to the parents, although I do not want to personalise the issue. While this school made the newspapers in this instance, similar issues are happening in schools throughout the country. The letter states:

Teachers do not cover topics such as contraception and same sex friendships. Children who ask questions in class on content outside the designated curriculum are encouraged to discuss the issue with their parents.

I reiterate this is not an isolated problem. Schools are caught between the power of their patrons and the needs of their students.

We have a role as legislators and we are failing to support schools to prioritise the needs and rights of their students to access adequate, age-appropriate RSE, not to mention the right of staff members in schools to be able to teach without fear and without feeling at odds with the patron of their school because of their sexual orientation. The Irish National Teachers Organisation's, INTO, equality survey report of 2020 found that only 18% of respondents from the Republic of Ireland and 12% of respondents from the North were able to be out to their school communities in terms of whom they love and engage with over the weekends.

In 2017, the Council of Europe Commissioner for Human Rights published an issue paper on women's sexual and reproductive health and rights. It included recommendations for the provision of comprehensive sex education that was mainstream, mandatory, standardised and scientifically accurate. This is not happening in our country. Instead, poor sex education has become a rite of passage in Ireland, with seemingly little political will to change that or to vindicate the rights of our young people.

I expect the response of the Minister of State will highlight the work of the National Council for Curriculum and Assessment, NCCA, over recent years in respect of RSE, but that work will be redundant if we do not address the issue of school ethos. Every student in the country has a right to, and deserves, accurate and age-appropriate RSE, and every teacher has the right to be able to express himself or herself in the staff room in terms of instructions. We in the Social Democrats brought forward a Bill last year seeking to standardise relationships and sexuality education in our schools, in response to which the Minister for Education told us it would be brought back before the House after nine months for a Second Reading, although I am not confident that will be the case. While I fully appreciate it is not a matter for the Minister of State's Department, I will be interested to hear his response in that regard.

I thank the Deputy for raising this issue and allowing me to address the matter. The Minister for Education regrets being unable to attend the debate because she is fulfilling a long-standing commitment to speak at the annual conference of the Joint Managerial Body Secretariat of Secondary Schools.

Access to relationships and sexuality education is an important right for students. This is reflected in the programme for Government, which states the Government will develop inclusive and age-appropriate curriculums for RSE and social, personal and health education, SPHE, in primary and post-primary schools. Social, personal and health education is a mandatory curriculum subject in all primary schools and in the post-primary junior cycle, while RSE is required at all levels in schools, from primary through to the senior cycle. All schools are required to have an RSE policy that has been developed in consultation with the school community, including school management, parents, teachers and students, as appropriate. A school's programme for RSE is developed and taught in the context of the school's RSE policy. In addition, schools are required to teach all aspects of the RSE programme, including family planning, sexually transmitted infections and sexual orientation. The ethos of the school should never preclude learners from acquiring knowledge about these issues.

The NCCA was requested to conduct a review of RSE provision in our schools, focusing on a range of topics including healthy and positive sexual expression and relationships and LGBTQ+ matters. The NCCA published a report on the review of relationships and sexual education in primary and post-primary schools in December 2019. This report resulted in the NCCA establishing two development groups, for primary and post-primary, to oversee the work of the developing and updated curriculum materials in this area and supporting the development of guidance materials for schools. The immediate focus of the NCCA’s work has been on creating support materials for teachers as part of an interim guidance toolkit. This toolkit aims to support effective teaching and learning of SPHE and RSE and to deepen teachers' understanding and skills in addressing important and sensitive topics. The NCCA toolkit will be expanded in 2022 to include further age- and stage-appropriate guidance for teachers on how to address these topics within the SPHE classroom.

In tandem with this work, preparation for the broader redeveloping and updating of the SPHE curriculum has begun. Updated curriculums will be developed for primary, the junior cycle and the senior cycle. A draft revised junior cycle specification is due to be agreed at the NCCA council in early summer, with a public consultation to follow when schools return in September. The final revised specification is due to have been completed by the end of 2022 and rolled out in schools from September 2023. In redeveloping the SPHE curriculum, the NCCA will make explicit the importance of fostering young people's self-awareness and self-esteem and developing the foundational skills and dispositions needed for building caring and healthy relationships, including respectful communication, showing empathy and appreciating difference.

Before I comment on the Minister of State's response, which was in line with what I had expected, I might ask him a question in respect of his role in the Department of Justice. Where does he foresee the provision of RSE in the combating of gender-based violence? In the cross-departmental work being carried out by the Minister for Justice, the fourth pillar is education. Does the Minister of State foresee that being implemented through the RSE programme? I raised this issue yesterday with the Taoiseach, who replied that the key solutions related to the provision of continuing professional development, CPD, and the updating and modernisation of the curriculum, which I welcome, but there will be a massive oversight if we do not address the issue of ethos and the ability of patrons to dedicate what kind of RSE is taught within their school. That is where the issue lies. It is why there are programmes such as Flourish, why some teachers cannot express the manner in which they love and are fearful in the staff room, and why events keep taking place in which it is highlighted schools are not providing the appropriate level of RSE.

The issue that happened in a school in Wicklow, which was reported in the media this week, is the exact same as the issue highlighted by the NCCA in its report on the review of RSE in schools from 2019. The report states:

[In primary schools] school ethos was seen to pose challenges in opening up discussion about different kinds of families and same-sex relationships, or in responding to questions that arise about contraception in the context of learning about conception. Principals expressed this as a disconnect between what they felt was expected of them based on their school ethos and addressing the reality of the classroom and the needs of their pupils.

Summarising the issue in the report, a primary school principal was quoted as stating:

Ethos is used as an excuse (not to teach certain topics/areas). We have a pastoral Christian ethos and teach within that framework.

This will continue to happen if we do not balance the rights of children to access fact-based, health-led and inclusive RSE against the power of school ethos.

As I mentioned, the Social Democrats brought forward a Bill in November 2021 that aimed to do just this. The Bill, developed with the Oireachtas Office of Parliamentary Legal Advisers will not affect ethos but balance it against the rights of the child in order that in the first teaching of RSE, it will be from a standardised curriculum that takes an “evidence-informed approach” based on UNESCO’s international technical guidance on sexuality education. The Bill was not opposed by the Government or the Minister but was delayed by nine months. It is essential she stick to her promise and allow that Bill to come back before the House.

In respect of the Department of Justice, the Minister, Deputy McEntee, is leading the work on a new, whole-of-government approach to develop a strategy to combat domestic, sexual and gender-based violence. As the Deputy will be aware, that plan has set an overall goal of a zero-tolerance approach. The Minister is working to finalise the strategy for submission to the Government in light of the submissions received in this final consultative phase, which ended last month. She intends to bring both the finalised strategy and the accompanying action plan, which will set out her Department's perspective, to the Government in the coming weeks.

In respect of the Minister for Education, I will certainly relay the Deputy's concerns to her attention as soon as she returns. The work in redeveloping and updating the RSE and SPHE curriculums is being undertaken within the curriculum development structures of the NCCA, and there will be opportunities for public and stakeholder engagement in this process. As part of the review of RSE, an extensive consultation occurred, feedback was facilitated through an online survey, written submissions, round-table meetings and large events, and the adjustments that were made to the final report reflected a stronger focus on the issues stakeholders wished to see highlighted. These included gender discrimination, sexual violence and pornography. The report did not set out an exhaustive list of the topics that will be included in any future SPHE-RSE curriculum or details on how any specific topic might be taught or contextualised.

The Department of Education and the NCCA welcome further stakeholder engagement in that process, particularly when the updated curriculum becomes available for public consultation in September. The Department of Education continues to work closely with the NCCA to determine the approach that would best give effect to the commitment in the programme for Government on this important issue. Should this work identify legislative changes as being needed, the Government is committed to making these changes, as set out in the programme for Government.

Traveller Accommodation

The Traveller community faces many challenges and inequalities in employment, in education and in health in particular. Irish Travellers' level of access to healthcare and life expectancy estimates are shocking, with figures suggesting that Irish Travellers die 11 to 15 years earlier than members of the general population. The statistics relating to their mental health are strikingly worse than the equivalent figures for the general population. It is an unfortunate reality that members of the Traveller community face discrimination every day at many levels of society. Their experience of interactions with Government, local government and the community at large is often negative and can make them feel both excluded and marginalised. It is a reality of Irish society that the Traveller community is often treated in a way that would not be tolerated anywhere else.

In 2010, the United Nations declared that access to clean water and sanitation is a basic human right. This was already a right for children under the UN Convention on the Rights of the Child. In 2016, the UN said that Ireland needed to make sure that sites where Traveller communities live have proper water and sanitation facilities, including toilets and showers. The UN and the WHO estimate that each person needs 20 l to 50 l a day for their basic needs. Those needs include water for drinking, cooking and cleaning.

A serious situation has been ongoing for more than a year at a Traveller site on the Ratoath Road in Finglas, which is in the Final County Council area. Up to 16 men, women and children are living on this site. Their ages range from two years to 78, and a woman living on the site is due to give birth shortly. The families have been living on this site for 40 years and, to date, they have no shower facilities or proper sanitation and, because the site has no direct access to an established water supply, they rely on people to carry buckets of water to each household. Imagine having to wash yourself, your children and your clothes using buckets of water. This is not something we should be seeing in the Ireland of the 21st century. Unfortunately, almost every individual at the site has tested positive for Covid. When coping with the virus, they had no access to proper sanitation or a normal water supply. Today, there are two people fighting cancer and another has a serious heart problem.

During the past year, the council has been delivering tanks of water to the site once or sometimes twice a week. This was supposed to be a temporary measure but, more than a year later, it is starting to look more like a permanent solution. I am thankful that, when I first raised these concerns, Fingal County Council responded but I have also been working to get it to put in place a more permanent water supply. I understand that certain issues and legal matters have been raised with regard to the ownership of the site but such concerns should be separated from the implementation of measures to provide basic human necessities. In an attempt to resolve this long-drawn-out issue, I have exhausted every avenue to find a solution for these families. This is why I ask the Minister of State and his Department to intervene as a matter of urgency with a view to resolving this issue and bringing to an end the terrible situation these families find themselves in.

I thank Deputy Ellis for raising this very important matter. The Housing (Traveller Accommodation) Act 1998 provides that local authorities have statutory responsibility for the assessment of the accommodation needs of Travellers and the preparation, adoption and implementation of multi-annual Traveller accommodation programmes in their areas in order to meet the identified accommodation need. The role of my Department is to ensure that there are adequate structures and supports in place to assist the authorities in providing such accommodation, including a national framework of policy, legislation and funding.

Traveller-specific projects and developments are focused on group housing schemes and halting sites. This includes meeting Traveller-specific housing needs through a range of mechanisms, including the provision of mobiles and caravans, the provision and refurbishment of halting sites, the provision of refurbishment and extension of group housing and the return to use of vacant group housing. The 2022 budget provision is €18 million, an increase of €2.5 million on 2021. The full capital provision of €15.5 million was expended in 2021 providing Traveller-specific accommodation, delivering new group housing and refurbishing existing halting sites and group housing, including acquisitions.

As a response to the Covid-19 pandemic, a range of measures are funded by the Traveller accommodation support unit of my Department under the terms set out in a 2020 circular which remains in place and which is being kept under review given that the Traveller community is still facing the challenges arising from the disease, as are we all. The range of measures introduced were designed to reduce the spread of Covid-19 and lessen the risk of infection, especially among vulnerable groups. Some members of the Traveller community, particularly those living on sites with limited facilities, may be particularly vulnerable and extra measures needed to be put in place to protect Travellers living in Traveller-specific accommodation in each local authority area.

My Department continues to support local authorities in delivery of the Traveller accommodation plans and ongoing Covid mitigation measures. My officials understand that the Fingal County Council is engaging families on the site in question and will continue to work with the families to meet their housing needs. Meeting the needs of all Traveller communities continues to be a priority for the local authorities and my Department, under my leadership.

In respect of this specific case, my officials have sought a response from Fingal County Council and are exploring options available to provide a solution in this instance. While there is no public water connection to this unofficial site, Fingal County Council is continuing to deliver drinking water to the unauthorised site regularly. Officials from Fingal County Council have been in ongoing engagement with families on this site. I have spoken with officials from the council and understand that they are happy to meet with Deputy Ellis at the site or, if he chooses, in their offices to discuss the matter and to brief him on the current position including the accommodation needs of the families in question, access to safe drinking water and ongoing legal and internal issues.

I thank the Minister of State. The Gavin family lives on the site in question. There are 16 in the family. This has been going on for over a year. I have met with everyone in Fingal County Council, including the CEO. They know the situation. They are getting themselves bogged down in a certain legal issue. At this stage, I honestly do not care about that legal issue. This is a matter of health, proper sanitation and the delivery of a basic need, water. This has to be sorted out. The Minister of State has said that special funds were made available during the Covid pandemic. This is a classic example of where such funds should go. They should go to this family to sort out this water issue and get them connected to the mains system. The problems in respect of the legal rights and wrongs of who is on the site can be worked out then. If anything happens to any of these people, they have to take it on the chin. I ask the Minister of State and his Department to step in and get a resolution. I do not want to go to meeting after meeting. I have done that already. I am sick of being told that people will come back to me. I want an answer now. I want this dealt with. It is a terrible shame that there are people sick with cancer on this site. A woman there is pregnant and about to have a child. She is going to have to carry water up to clean herself and so on. These people have no showers. It is all well and good to deliver tanks of water. I do not even know what that is costing. I shudder to think how much it has cost Fingal County Council over the last year or so. This happened in the middle of the Covid pandemic and a lot of people on this site got Covid. I raised this issue at the time and asked that the funds the Minister of State was talking about be used for this purpose, but that was not done. I want answers. I want the Minister of State to get on to the county council and demand action.

I thank Deputy Ellis for his comments. I was very clear in my answer in that the responsibility for Traveller accommodation lies solely with the local authority. That is why, when the Deputy raised this issue today, I immediately got on to the local authority. It is now aware that this great concern has been raised in this Parliament and I will follow up with it.

I want to be very clear in terms of the work we have done in the past two years. For the first time in decades, each year for the past two years the Department has spent the budget. Second, we have increased funding for very vulnerable groups, including our Traveller community. We had 250 inspections nationwide throughout Covid to try to put remedial solutions and funding in place to keep the Traveller community, many of whom are very vulnerable, safe from the effects of Covid-19.

Issues such as the Carrickmines incident weigh very heavily on my shoulders in terms of this responsibility. That is why we need to work together to bring about solutions in cases like this. Especially when there are communities on sites that are unauthorised, it can be difficult to get solutions. We have to work together to do it and the will is there.

Issues such as trying to increase the funding for Traveller-specific bays has been granted and it is there now. The Traveller caravan loan scheme is approved. It is in place and being rolled out. Schemes such as these are so important in giving the Traveller community an alternative.

All I can say is that I will get back to the local authority. As I said, we want solutions. It is very easy to identify the issues, but we need concrete solutions. The Deputy spoke about a pregnant lady and people suffering from cancer. Those are the most vulnerable people in the community and they absolutely need to be front and centre in terms of supporting them. I assure the Deputy we will raise this again with the local authority.