Adjournment Matters

Child Care Services Provision

I welcome the Minister of State. The shocking revelations on the RTE "Prime Time" programme about the inspection procedures in crèches and child care facilities throughout the country appalled the nation. The Minister for Children and Youth Affairs, in the immediate aftermath of the programme, promised a great deal of reform and I have tabled this matter in that context. As chairman of Leitrim county child care committee, I am aware of a vacancy and, by extension, an inherent flaw in the inspection system in the county, which is also the case in other counties. In this instance, there has been a public health nurse vacancy for some time. The reason, I understand, is the Government embargo. If the Government parties are serious about ensuring an open, transparent and effective inspection regime, they need to move rapidly to appoint people to fill these vacancies. The Irish Nurses and Midwives Organisation recently announced that it would not allow any of its members to be reassigned to these positions where they were required. It is asking the Government, as I am, to take the necessary steps to ensure the appointments are made.

The public health nurse inspections are serious and significant. They complement those of the environmental inspection officers by ensuring there is proper liaison between the children and child care workers. They also ensure there is discussion and liaison on the curriculum. All of these issues have come to the surface in the aftermath of the television programme. I will not labour this matter, as it is self-explanatory. I would like to establish when the Government will make these appointments and its policy on them.

I thank the Senator for raising this issue. The delivery of a sustainable community nursing service that effectively meets the health needs of the population within a primary care setting is the primary aim of the public health nursing service. Public health nurses in County Leitrim provide services across all care groups within the designated area and include universal, maternal, child health and child welfare services, focusing on the health and well-being of mothers and children and developmental screening of children from birth to preschool age; services for older people and people with disabilities, involving work with individuals-families-carers to carry out an assessment of need to plan, co-ordinate, deliver or monitor a range of nursing, personal and social care services; and primary care nursing services for people under 65 years of age, which involve assessment and the provision of essential clinical nursing care, as required; health education and health promotion activities for all care groups providing advice and support.

The public health nurses work in collaboration with other professionals within the primary care team and also link and work with voluntary and statutory agencies in providing a range of health education and health promotion programmes that support families and communities in the promotion and maintenance of healthy lifestyles within their geographical areas, as required. The public health nursing complement for County Leitrim is 13 whole-time equivalents, WTEs. One post is vacant owing to the promotion of the previous post holder. I am advised that this post only became vacant recently. The HSE has advised that cross-cover arrangements are in place and all essential public health nursing services are being provided. Arrangements are under way to recruit a replacement to fill this vacancy.

While I accept fully what the Minister of State said and I am pleased that arrangements are under way to recruit a replacement, the reply is not focused on my query in the context of child care inspections. He has referred to what the HSE is doing in the context of the overall complement of public health nurses. This matter is about child care and inspections of facilities. I hope in the light of the Minister of State's reply that the recruitment process will focus exclusively on child care inspections, not necessarily to add to the existing complement. I would be grateful if he at least conveyed the essence of what I am attempting to establish. I am grateful for his time and reply.

I understand the issue raised by the Senator and will consider it. The key aspect of my reply is that the post only became vacant recently and arrangements are under way to recruit a replacement.

I understand the vacancy is not recent in the context of child care inspections. It may have become vacant recently in the overall context and I would be grateful if the Minister of State conveyed that point.

Care of the Elderly

This issue relates to St. Joseph's Community Hospital in County Donegal, which provides respite and long-term patient care for elderly people in the greater Finn Valley area. Currently, following a number of Health Information and Quality Authority, HIQA, reports, it is under increasing pressure to maintain the complement of respite care within the hospital together with catering for the long-term patient care.

HIQA has identified a number of issues which the hospital must deal with, but these issues primarily pertain to the high level of admissions into the hospital last year, at over 700. Approximately 80% of those admissions were for respite care and HIQA is of the view that, given the high level of admissions and discharges, the hospital needs additional staffing to meet the demands of the long-term stay patients in the hospital. To cut a long story short, additional staff are required at the hospital. However, the moratorium on recruitment in the public sector is causing difficulties in this regard. Unless that is dealt with in the community nursing homes throughout the country, these difficulties will continue indefinitely. Obviously there are issues regarding the structure of the building and the need to develop it, but that can be done at a later stage. The most urgent matter at present is the need to lift the moratorium on recruitment for the nursing units in community hospitals throughout the country, including St. Joseph's, as well as those in Carndonagh and Dungloe in Donegal which were discussed in this Chamber last night.

I hope the Minister will give an indication of whether he is willing to consider lifting the moratorium on recruitment or providing some level of flexibility in the moratorium for the community hospital sector. According to the Health Service Executive, HSE, approximately 2.4% of the population aged more than 65 years is currently in nursing units. That will increase to almost 4% in ten years. If that is the case, what plan does the Department have in place to meet the increasing demand? There will be a requirement for additional staff if that demand is to be met. In addition, there will be a need for additional capacity in terms of new beds and facilities. However, the issue tonight is the need to lift the moratorium on recruitment. I thank the Minister for attending to reply on this Adjournment matter.

I thank the Senator for raising this issue. Government policy is to support older people to live in dignity and independence in their own homes and communities for as long as possible. Where this is not feasible, the health service supports access to appropriate quality long-term residential care, including the provision of financial assistance under the nursing homes support scheme. In 2012, with a budget of almost €1 billion, financial support was provided to over 22,000 people in nursing homes.

The Health Service Executive is responsible for the delivery of health and personal social services, including those at facilities such as St. Joseph's Community Hospital in Stranorlar. As the Senator is aware, these are challenging times for the HSE in respect of all services. In the case of community nursing units, these include challenges regarding staffing, funding and the age and structure of its units. In this regard, all developments have to be addressed in the light of the current economic and budgetary pressures and Government policy to reduce the numbers employed in the public sector. This policy requires that by the end of 2013, the health service achieves a workforce of 98,955 whole-time equivalents. Staff appointments may be made only where an inescapable service need has been identified and which cannot be addressed by other means, such as the redeployment of staff or reorganisation of services. The recently concluded Haddington Road agreement has increased the working week of nurses to 39 hours from 37.5 and also provided for increased hours for all other staff who were working less than a 39 hour week. This will have the effect of increasing the overall staff capacity available to management to deploy in service delivery.

St. Joseph's Community Hospital was registered with the Health Information and Quality Authority in June 2012. The registration period is for three years and the current capacity is 75 beds. The hospital provides a range of services, including respite, rehabilitation, palliative and intermediate care and there are 27 beds available for long-term residential care. Day services are available from Monday to Friday and this supports the discharge planning processes at the hospital. Older persons can avail of personal care, assistance with medical care and meal provision. This provides respite to relatives and carers on a sessional basis up to five days a week.

The hospital was last inspected by HIQA in April 2013. Concerns were expressed regarding the complexity of the mix of residents and the level of activity within the unit. While the inspectors observed that staff provided care in knowledgeable, competent and respectful manner, there was a concern that this complex mix of residents can make it more difficult for the staff to meet the needs of long-term residents. To address this issue, the Barnes View ward has now been designated for long-stay residents only. Dedicated staff have been assigned to the ward, which opened on 10 June last. I am confident that this response will facilitate improved compliance with national standards.

Arising from this reconfiguration, staff reassignments and revised rosters were required. These changes have been agreed and the revised rosters implemented with effect from 24 June. When all changes have been completed St. Joseph's will have an operational capacity of 67 beds, including the 27 long-stay beds. Residents and their families can be assured that management and staff will continue to work to provide the highest standards of care at St. Joseph's. The HSE has asked me to assure the House that the residents are receiving a safe and quality service. Bed capacity across all community hospitals in Donegal will be kept under ongoing review. However, although the moratorium on recruitment remains in place, there are no current plans to further reduce bed capacity.

To be honest, whoever drafted that response does not answer the question. The line, "Bed capacity across all community hospitals in Donegal will be kept under ongoing review", is an insult to the communities in Donegal. Every community group in Donegal that is connected to a hospital is already doing that. Anybody can keep the bed capacity under review. The Minister said the moratorium on recruitment will not be lifted, therefore the problem will not be resolved. I realise the Minister is new to the Department and that he has conviction and passion, but I plead with him to look again at this issue. It is a train coming down the tracks that will go off the rails unless it is dealt with. The Minister should meet with the troika and tell it in no uncertain terms that there must be flexibility here. Otherwise, elderly people will be let down.

There is no intention to insult anybody, be it the people of Donegal or the Senator. I am simply giving a response in straight, clear terms. The moratorium on recruitment must remain in place, regrettably, and everybody is aware of the reasons for it. If I can do anything else to assist the Senator regarding specific details of the issue he raised, I will do that. However, as regards the Senator's specific question about the moratorium, there are no proposals to raise the moratorium.

Irish Language Issues

Cuirim céad fáilte roimh an Aire Stáit agus gabhaim buíochas leis an gCathaoirleach as ucht an deis seo a thabhairt dom an cheist seo a chur ar an Aire Stáit.

An t-am seo an bhliain seo caite, is dóigh go raibh muid ag coraíocht le chéile maidir le Bille na Gaeltachta mar ní raibh muid ar aon intinn faoi na forálacha agus mar sin de. Ach ar an 25 Iúil 2012, shínigh Uachtarán na hÉireann Bille na Gaeltachta agus tháinig sé i bhfeidhm. Mar chuid den Bhille sin, bhí sé i gceist: go n-ainmneofaí limistéir pleanála teanga Gaeltachta; go gcuirfí i bhfeidhm bailte seirbhíse Gaeltachta, na bailte sin atá cóngarach do na ceantair Ghaeltachta, a bhfuil cuid mhaith de phobal na Gaeltachta ag tarraingt orthu agus a bhfuil aeráid faoi leith iontu ó thaobh cúrsaí Gaeilge agus Gaeltachta; na líonraí Gaeilge, is iad sin na pobail Gaeilge taobh amuigh de na ceantair Ghaeltachta ina bhfuil pobal measartha de dhaoine a labhraíonn Gaeilge agus a úsáideann Gaeilge ó lá go lá agus gurb í an Ghaeilge an teanga oibre gur mian leo a úsáid, a chothú; agus na critéir phleanála teanga maidir leis an dul chun cinn atá le déanamh taobh istigh de na ceantair Ghaeltachta ó thaobh phleanáil teanga a chur chun cinn i gcomhthéacs an Straitéis 20 Bliain don Ghaeilge.

Táimid bliain chun cinn agus is léir ón mBille go mbeadh roinnt ionstram reachtúla nó forordaithe le tabhairt isteach ag an Aire le go dtiocfadh an ceithre rud atá luaite agam, ar a laghad, i bhfeidhm. Tá sé fógartha ag an Aire Stáit in áiteanna eile, ó thaobh bord Údarás na Gaeltachta de, go bhfuil sé i gceist 26 limistéir phleanála teanga a ainmniú sa Ghaeltacht, ach nuair a déanaim scrúdú ar an glár atá ag an bPríomh-Aturnae Stáit, ní fheicim ach dhá ionstraim reachtúla feidhmithe go dtí seo. Baineann an péire sin leis an fheidhm a thabhairt don Aire Stáit cúrsaí gnóthaí Gaeltachta a dhéanamh thar ceann an Aire.

Baineann an cheist atá agam anocht leis an obair atá déanta ó thaobh na Roinne de, go háirithe sa chomhthéacs go bhfuil sé ráite sa staidéar cuimsitheach teangeolaíochta i 2007 nach bhfuil ach 20 bliain ag an Ghaeilge le maireachtáil muna gcuirtear plean cuimsitheach i bhfeidhm - sin sé bliana ó shin; mar sin níl fágtha ach 14 bliana. Tá straitéis 20 bliain don teanga againn agus tá bliain caite ó tháinig Acht na Gaeltachta i bhfeidhm. Cén dul chun cinn atá déanta ag an Roinn maidir leis na h-ionstraim reachtúla seo a thabhairt chun cinn? Cén uair an bhfeicfidh muid na h-ionstraim reachtúla seo ós comhair na Tithe agus cén uair an dtosnófar i ndáiríre ar an obair atá riachtanach má tá muid leis na moltaí ar fad atá sa staidéar cuimsitheach teangeolaíochta agus sa straitéis 20 bliain a chur i bhfeidhm ar an talamh.

Fáiltím roimh an deis labhairt faoin ábhar tábhachtach seo. Mar is eol don Seanadóir, síníodh Acht na Gaeltachta 2012 ina dhlí ar an 25 lúil 2012. Tá tábhacht ar leith ag baint leis an Acht seo, os rud é go dtugtar aird i reachtaíocht don chéad uair ó 1956 ar an riachtanas atá le sainmhíniú nua a thabhairt don Ghaeltacht, a bheidh bunaithe feasta ar chritéir theangeolaíocha le hais an tsainmhínithe a bhí bunaithe ar limistéir shonracha thíreolaíochta go dtí seo. Ina theannta sin, déantar foráil reachtúil faoin Acht do bhailte seirbhíse Gaeltachta, is iad sin bailte ina gcuirtear seirbhísí ar fáil do cheantair Ghaeltachta. Déantar foráil reachtúil fosta faoin Acht do líonraí Gaeilge, is iad sin ceantair a bhfuil a bhformhór acu lonnaithe i bpobail uirbeacha agus a bhfuil cnap bunúsach criticiúil de thacaíocht phobail agus Stáit acu don Ghaeilge.

Leagtar síos bunús reachtúil faoin Acht don chóras pleanála teanga taobh istigh agus taobh amuigh den Ghaeltacht agus tugtar ról lárnach maidir leis an phleanáil teanga d'Údarás na Gaeltachta agus d'Fhoras na Gaeilge maidir le cúnamh a thabhairt don phobal sna ceantair eagsúla i ndáil le hullmhú agus le feidhmiú na bpleananna teanga ar an talamh. Ón uair gur síníodh Acht na Gaeltachta ina dhlí, ní miste a nótáil go raibh cruinnuithe ag mo Roinn agus ag Údarás na Gaeltachta le coistí pobail agus le comharchumainn ar fud na Gaeltachta chun iad a chur ar an eolas faoin phróiseas pleanála teanga faoin Acht. Ina theannta sin, bhunaigh mo Roinn agus Foras na Gaeilge fócasghrúpa le heagraíochtaí pobail i gceantair áirithe taobh amuigh den Ghaeltacht maidir leis an phróiseas pleanála teanga faoin Acht. Mar is eol don Seanadóir, tá reachtaíocht istigh cheana chomh fada agus a bhaineann sé leis an próiseas pleanála teanga faoi Acht na Gaeltachta agus tá roinnt céimeanna idir lámha chun na riachtanais reachtúla sin a chomhlíonadh.

Ar an chéad sul síos, shínigh mé an t-ordú um thosach feidhme faoi Acht na Gaeltachta ar an 16 Aibreán 2013. Is ar an lá sin a tháinig Acht na Gaeltachta 2012 i gníomh a mhéid agus nach raibh sé i ngníomh cheana féin. Tá ballchríoch á chur ag mo Roinn ar na rialacháin faoi Alt 12 d'Acht na Gaeltachta, faoina ndéantar na critéir phleanála teanga a fhorordú. Beidh na critéir seo riachtanach chun measúnú a dhéanamh amach anseo ar na pleananna teanga a ullmhaítear do na na limistéir phleanála teanga Gaeltachta, do na bailtí seirbhíse Gaeltachta agus do na líonraí Gaeilge. Tá mo Roinn ag obair chomh maith ar na fógraí faoi Alt 7(3) d'Acht na Gaeltachta, a dhéanfaidh sainiú ar na teorainn éagsúla a bheidh i gceist le 26 limistéir phleanála teanga Gaeltachta.

D'fhógraigh mé i mí Bealtaine go mbeadh 26 limistéir phleanála teanga Gaeilge faoi leith ann chun críche an phróisis pleanála teanga sa Ghaeltacht. Bunaíodh a leithéid de dháileadh ar staid reatha na teanga sna limistéir éagsúla Gaeltachta agus d'eascair sin as plé a bhí ag Údarás na Gaeltachta leis na heagraíochtaí pobail atá maoinithe acu agus a bheidh freagrach as na pleananna teanga a ullmhú agus a fheidhmiú sna limistéir éagsúla. Tá Údarás na Gaeltachta ag leagan amach córas trédhearcach i gcomhréir le halt 7(6) d'Acht na Gaeltachta faoina roghnófar eagraíochtaí pobail chun pleananna teanga a ullmhú agus a fheidhmiú sna limistéir phleanála teanga Ghaeltachta.

I ndeireadh báire, tá mo Roinn ag obair ar threoirlínte, i gcomhar le hÚdarás na Gaeltachta agus le Foras na Gaeilge, a leagfaidh síos próiseas trédhearcach d'ullmhú, d'fheidhmiú agus do mheasúnú na bpleananna teanga sna limistéir, sna bailte agus sna líonraí, rud a chabhróidh leis na heagraíochtaí pobail agus iad ag tabhairt faoin phróiseas pleanála teanga ar an talamh.

Mar thoradh ar na céimeanna seo atá idir lámha, níl aon amhras orm ach go mbeidh na pleananna teanga a n-ullmhófar agus a bhfeidhmeofar faoi Acht na Gaeltachta ag teacht leis an chur chuige is fearr ó thaobh na teangeolaíochta de. Ní miste a lua fosta go bhfuil saineolas Acadamh na hOllscolaíochta Gaeilge sa réimse phleanála teanga ar fáil do mo Roinn agus muid ag tabhairt faoin obair seo uile. Mar fhocal scoir, tá súil agam go mbeidh cuid mhaith den réamhobair thábhachtach seo déanta faoin fhómhar agus go mbeidh Údaras na Gaeltachta agus Foras na Gaeilge réidh le tabhairt faoi chúnamh a thabhairt don phobal sna ceantair eagsúla i ndáil le hullmhú agus le feidhmiú na bpleananna teanga ar an talamh.

Gabhaim míle buíochas leis an Aire Stáit faoin soiléiriú sin. An aontódh an tAire Stáit liom go bhfuil sé ag tarraingt na gcos ar an cheist seo i ndáiríre? Shínigh sé an t-ordú um thosach feidhme an Achta ar 16 Aibreán, beagnach 11 mhí tar éis don Acht a bheith curtha i bhfeidhm. D'fhéadfadh an Ghaeilge a bheith básaithe agus curtha faoin am a dtiocfaidh cuid de na hionstraim reachtúla chun cinn ó thaobh na limistéir, na bailte agus na líonraí Gaeilge i ndáiríre píre. Is beag dul chun cinn atá á dhéanamh ag an Aire Stáit. Deirim sin i gcomhthéacs an rud a dúradh i 2007, nach raibh ach 20 bliain fágtha ag an Ghaeilge muna bhfeidhmeofaí an tAcht go sciobtha. Nach n-aontódh an tAire Stáít liom nach bhfuil an obair seo á déanamh leath chomh sciobtha agus is gá?

Tá mé cinnte go n-aontódh an Seanadóir, ón gcúlra as a dtagann sé, go dtéann pleanáil teanga agus forbairt pobail le chéile. Sílim go bhfuil níos mó gníomhaíochtaí, níos mó oibre agus níos mó saothair ag dul ar aghaidh i mo Roinn, in Údarás na Gaeltachta agus i bhForas na Gaeilge maidir le cur chun cinn na straitéise ná mar a bhí le blianta fada. I gceantar an Seanadóra féin, sa Cheathrú Rua, tá an pleanáil teanga le feiceáil aige ansin nuair a bhíonn sé sa bhaile, mar shampla, an rud atá ag dul ar aghaidh san ionad tacaíochta teaghlaigh ansin, comharchumann Mhic Dara, a bhfuil breis agus €1 milliún curtha isteach ann. Tá sár obair á déanamh ansin agus is sampla é sin den rud atá i gceist le pleanáil teanga.

Nuair a bheidh an Seanadóir ar a bhealach isteach go Gaillimh agus nuair a bheidh sé in Indreabhán, is féidir leis dearcadh isteach ar chomharchumann Sailearna agus an ionad tacaíochta teaghlaigh atá ansin. Sin an phleanáil teanga ar an talamh agus sin an rud a mbeidh muid ag cur dlúis leis sna míonna amach romhainn, ní hamháin i gceantar an tSeanadóra, ach ó thuaidh agus ó dheas chomh maith. Tá pleananna againn don Ghaeltacht i gCúige Mumhan agus don Ghaeltacht i mo cheantar féin i nGaoth Dobhair. Tá seo uilig ag dul ar aghaidh.

Ní aontaím ar chor ar bith leis an Seanadóir. Tuigim go gcaithfidh sé an rud a dúirt sé a rá. Tá sé de dhualgas air é a rá, ach caithfidh mise diúltiú chomh maith nach bfhuil duine ar bith ag tarraingt na gcos. Táimid ar sodar. Táimid ar chos in airde ag iarraidh na straitéise a chur i bhfeidhm.

Visa Applications

I would like to thank the Minister of State for coming to the House to discuss the issue I have raised today, the issue of visitor access from China and the visa regime for Chinese visitors.

Over the past few years, great emphasis has been put by the current Government and the previous Government on improving relations with China and on the effort to encourage more Chinese people to visit this country as tourists, students or to make business investments. I know some efforts have been made to change the visa regime, which has for a long time caused difficulties for Chinese people who wanted to visit Ireland.

Unfortunately, better systems in the United Kingdom have the consequence of putting people off from coming here, reducing investment in the country and tourist numbers. Efforts have been made to reform the system and there has been much bilateral contact between Ireland and China, to which the Cathaoirleach recently led a delegation, of which my colleague, Deputy Dara Calleary, was part. Some work has been done to change some of the more restrictive systems and make sure Chinese visitors to the United Kingdom are able to travel onwards to Ireland without applying separately. However, there is still huge room for improvement. Up to 2 million Chinese tourists visit Europe each year, of whom only 10,000 come to Ireland. Given the attractiveness of this country, its sites and the rave reviews, it is a shame more visitors do not come here. In a poll in The China Post Chinese visitors who had visited Ireland rated it the most attractive destination in Europe.

I understand there are difficulties with the visa regime which put people off. Chinese nationals living in Ireland have difficulty in arranging for family members to visit them. I was recently contacted by a Chinese businesswoman who runs a business in Drumcondra. She has been here for 11 years and has an Irish passport, as do her husband and children, yet she has difficulty in arranging for her parents to visit her and see their grandchildren. They are retired and have sufficient resources to travel anywhere in the world and would like to see their grandchildren in Ireland. However, every time they wish to do so, they must go through a cumbersome visa application process involving many documents and delays while waiting for an answer. Just because one has been approved once does not mean the same will happen the second time. This causes difficulties in booking flights, making arrangements and knowing the dates they will be in Ireland.

I have written to the Minister for Justice and Equality and the immigration office about the case. I know the Minister of State cannot comment on individual cases, but I wanted to highlight the general difficulty because Ireland has a huge Chinese population. We need to look at the arrangements made in other countries to make it easier for family visitors to come to visit family members and children who live in Ireland or for people to come as tourists and spend money here. People applying for visas are well able to look after themselves and will make a major economic contribution here for a few weeks. We should be doing everything possible to encourage them to come here. We need a robust immigration system, but it appears to be overly cumbersome, which is a shame. I ask the Minister of State to impress on the Minister the need to address these points.

I am grateful to the Senator for raising this issue. It gives me an opportunity, on behalf of the Minister for Justice and Equality, to update the House on the numerous positive developments that have taken place in the Irish visa regime since the Government came to power and, in particular, developments in respect of visitors from China.

The commitment of the Government to the facilitation and growth in the number of visits to Ireland from China is shown by the fact that the Irish Naturalisation and Immigration Service of the Department maintains a dedicated visa office in Beijing. In general, business visas are processed within two to five working days of receipt of applications, while visit visa applications for Chinese nationals are processed within one to three weeks. The approval rate for visa applications lodged in China for travel to Ireland is 95%, which compares favourably internationally. Application guidelines for all visa categories are published on the Irish Embassy website in English and Chinese. Applications for visas for Ireland are made online using a user-friendly web-based form. This is in contrast with many visa regimes which require the completion of lengthy paper application forms.

There is no evidence that the visa process is a barrier to tourist, business or family visits from China to Ireland. In fact, the latest report of the European Tour Operators Association which examined the effect of visa obligations on tourists from India and China covering the year 2010 showed that the figure for cancellations owing to perceived visa delays reflected very favourably on Ireland, with only 15% of clients reporting cancellations, as against 21% for the Schengen area and 24% for the United Kingdom. This demonstrates that Ireland is not at a disadvantage against its main competitors owing to any issue with perceived delays in visa processing. The Minister is advised that the checking procedures and processes in place are at least on a par with those in the United Kingdom, with which we share a common immigration area, and less onerous than those in place for many other EU member states. Of far greater impact on both tourist and business visits is the lack of a direct air link between the two countries. If the Senator has a particular case in mind or has suggestions to further improve the situation, while maintaining sensible immigration checks, the Minister would be glad to receive them.

The Minister launched the short stay visa waiver programme, the first of its kind in the history of the State, on 1 July 2011. This allows visitors or business people, including those from China, who have lawfully entered the United Kingdom, including Northern Ireland, on a valid UK visa to travel on to Ireland without the requirement to obtain an Irish visa. CSO figures for the numbers of trips by Chinese nationals to Ireland show that there was a 24% increase in the 12 months following the introduction of the waiver programme compared to the 12 months before. This demonstrates the positive impact of the Government's initiative.

With effect from 1 August 2012, a more liberal multi-entry visa regime for business travellers and other visitors was implemented in the Irish visa office in Beijing. The regime has been extended to regular family visitors with a good immigration history. The Minister has asked his officials to examine how this regime could be further developed. In recognition of the growing number of affluent and independent tourists from China, a scheme to enable independent Chinese travellers to come to Ireland was introduced in November 2011. The category was formally launched by the Taoiseach during the course of his official visit to China in April 2012. The visa application requirements for independent tourists are minimal and I am informed that Tourism Ireland has welcomed this initiative. This category of visa application is processed within ten working days.

With regard to Chinese nationals visiting Ireland for study purposes, in 2012 a pilot programme in respect of English language study was developed jointly between the Irish Naturalisation and Immigration Service and Marketing English in Ireland, the umbrella body for English language schools, for the Chinese market. The programme seeks to target high quality, motivated English language students and aims to develop the market in a sustainable way. The programme is designed to significantly contribute to the development of Ireland's reputation as a premier destination for Chinese students to achieve a high standard in English language education. The programmes are at an early stage and it is important that they be given sufficient time to grow and develop before a final review is undertaken. However, progress under these programmes is reviewed on an ongoing basis.

All of these positive developments must be balanced against protecting the country's vital national interests by maintaining an effective immigration regime, which is a feature of all visa regimes worldwide. All visa applications must be assessed carefully to determine, as far as possible, that applicants will abide by the conditions of their visas and will not become a burden on the State. These concerns apply most pertinently in cases where elderly relatives are seeking to visit their relations in Ireland, a common feature of visa applications from China. Such applications are not straightforward and present difficult issues that all countries must address. Nevertheless, the 95% approval rate for visa applications from China demonstrates that the checks and safeguards in place allow, in the long run, for the vast majority of persons seeking to visit their relatives to do so.

I thank the Minister of State for his reply on behalf of the Minister for Justice and Equality. It is welcome that a new, more liberal multi-entry visa system was put in place last year and that the Minister will examine how we can develop it further.

I appreciate that it is new, so there are probably some teething problems in rolling it out. As I said, I have written to the Minister to provide details of the individual case I am referring to. I will follow that up. It is important for us to facilitate as much as possible bona fide visitors who can afford to look after themselves. They should be able to visit. We should not make it overly cumbersome for them to do so. I appreciate the opportunity to have this debate. I note that there have been many positive developments over the past couple of years. Indeed, the last Government put a great deal of effort into improving relations with China. I ask the Government to prioritise the few aspects of this matter that remain to be addressed.

I agree with the Senator. As I said in my initial reply, we have a very vibrant Chinese community in this country. They are very industrious people. When I come here every morning, I pass through a part of the city that is rapidly becoming Dublin's Chinatown. Most cities in Europe and other parts of the world have a Chinatown. A number of initiatives in this area have been introduced by the present Government and its predecessor. They are monitored regularly and constantly to see if there is room for improvement. All of this work is leading to better understanding and co-operation between two ancient countries, Ireland and China. I am absolutely delighted that the Taoiseach and others have been to China. The leader of China has been here as well. There are cultural, educational and language exchanges between the two countries. There are many positives in this respect.

The Seanad adjourned at 6 p.m. until 2.30 p.m. on Tuesday, 9 July 2013.