Commencement Matters

Human Rights Issues

I welcome the Minister for Foreign Affairs and Trade, Deputy Charles Flanagan. I thank him for the work he has done to date on this case, of which the family is appreciative.

As the Minister is aware, Mr. Ibrahim Halawa has now been in an Egyptian prison for 554 days. For any teenager to be locked up for that length of time is not easy. It is bad enough being locked up in one's own country, but it is much more difficult in a foreign country. This week, for the fourth time, his trial has been postponed. This is intolerable for him, first, being in prison in Cairo and, second, being so far from home. In fact, his home place is not far from where I live in Templeogue. It is outrageous that his trial has been postponed once again.

Mr. Halawa is a prisoner of conscious and was detained solely for peacefully exercising his rights. However, he was in the wrong place at the wrong time. Given that 493 others are involved in the same trial, one has to ask how, in the name of God, will anybody receive a fair trail in such a system. He was only 17 years old when he was put in prison. He was arrested with his three sisters who are now home. With the whole family, they have played a huge role in trying to have him released. I will keep the issue on the agenda until such time as he is released because I cannot see why he should remain in detention. According to the case file seen by Amnesty International Ireland, most of the 100 witnesses who are due to be called at the trial are police officers or government officials. One has to ask what kind of trial he will receive.

I acknowledge the work the Minister has done on this case, on which I have been keeping an eye. I am aware that he has been very active on it, as has the Irish ambassador. Is there is any other avenue we could explore, or is there a need to go down the same avenue again to keep the issue on the agenda with a view to having Mr. Halawa released? Perhaps the Minister might state what has been done to date and what action could follow. Mr. Halawa's family is very grateful for the efforts made by the Minister to date but thinks more could be done. This is a most deserving case. As Amnesty International Ireland has stated, the most Mr. Halawa could be accused of is being in the wrong place at the wrong time. He has been locked up for crimes he did not commit. I am not judge and jury, but such incidents happen when one is in the wrong place at the wrong time, particularly in that country's system of justice. We must do everything we can to get him home.

I thank the Senator for raising this issue.

Mr. Ibrahim Halawa, an Irish citizen, and his three sisters were detained following incidents at the Al Fateh Mosque on Ramses Square in Cairo on 17 August 2013. His sisters were later released, but he remains in detention. His case is a source of concern for me, as I know it is for the Senator and many others. From my first day in office, I have taken an active role in progressing matters. In my first week in office I spoke to Egyptian Foreign Minister Shoukry to set out my concerns about Mr. Halawa's detention. I have spoken to him on a number of other occasions, including twice in person, to stress the fact that Mr. Halawa was only 17 years old at the time of the alleged offences and ask for his release in order that he might return to his studies and family in Ireland.

Senior officials in Dublin and Cairo have been in ongoing and sustained contact with the Egyptian authorities, including senior officials at the foreign ministry, the Ministry of Justice and the office of the prosecutor general. Mr. Halawa has received 34 consular visits from Irish Embassy staff, including Ambassador Moylan, approximately one visit every two weeks, the most recent being on 7 February. It is the Government's view that he should not be tried in a group trial involving a large number of defendants and on the basis of group charges but solely on the basis of specific evidence. The concern is that the Egyptian authorities continue to consider his case to be part of a group trial, but the fact remains that he was only 17 years old when the alleged offences took place.

I also recently raised the case with EU High Representative for Foreign Affairs and Security Policy Mogherini who undertook to raise it with the appropriate authorities.

She stressed that we can count on all the assistance that the EU institutions can provide. I am concerned that, for the fourth time, this trial was once again delayed on 8 February. The trial is now scheduled to take place on 29 March.

I have maintained ongoing contact with the Halawa family since August 2013. My understanding is that senior officials have been in regular contact, as I have been. I am due to meet members of the Halawa family again later today and I will discuss the postponement of the hearing and possible next steps with them.

The Egyptian President has issued a decree in respect of foreign nationals in Egypt who have been sentenced or who are awaiting trial. I am aware of the recent deportation from Egypt of the Australian Al Jazeera journalist. However, there are few, if any, details available as to the exact scope and practical operation of the decree. In particular, it is unclear what the decree may mean in practice for those whom Egypt regards as dual nationals, as is the case for Ibrahim Halawa. Officials in my Department remain in ongoing contact with the lawyers in the case and continue to highlight his Irish citizenship and to seek further information from the Egyptian authorities about the practical operation of the decree. This is a difficult case in a complex and challenging context. While Ireland cannot interfere with the judicial process in Egypt, our concern at the continued and lengthy period of detention has been raised with the Egyptian authorities in a clear and sustained manner, as has the critical importance of due process in this case.

Ireland will continue to seek a review of Ibrahim Halawa's case, his release and return to his studies and family and, in the meantime, to provide all possible consular assistance for him in Egypt and his family in Ireland.

I do not think there is anything extra for me to say. I thank the Minister for what he has done and his commitment to keeping up the pressure. I hope it will not take too long, that the trial will not be postponed again and that Ibrahim Halawa will be released before the trial.

This matter is very much on the agenda and I look forward to meeting members of the Halawa family this afternoon and members of Amnesty International.

Housing Adaptation Grant Funding

The RTE investigations unit this week raised the issue of disabled person’s grants and housing adaptation grants. For the past few years these have been in very short supply in County Meath. There have been long delays. I have seen people lying in beds who cannot leave their homes because essential work cannot be done to their houses. According to the RTE investigations unit, Meath receives the lowest amount of disabled person's grants per head of population. It receives €3.11 per head compared with Mayo which receives €17.5 per head and Limerick, the home of the Minister of State at the Department of the Environment, Community and Local Government with responsibility for housing, of the time, €16.79 per head, while Kildare which has a lower age profile receives €8.65 per head, almost treble what Meath receives.

People are housebound or may not be able to go upstairs, use a bathroom properly or shower themselves because they cannot step into a bath. Those are the practical difficulties people in Meath face because it is starved of funding. Why does Meath get such little funding? Is it the Government’s fault? Does the local authority have a role? Should it give more matching funding? I would like to know in order that I can make the case to it.

Edlderly and disabled people are prevented from being fully mobile in their homes or living properly because there is a severe shortage of these grants. In one house a man has lain in bed for some time due to his illness. Adaptation works were due to be done to make it possible for his family to take him out of the house with relative ease. That has been going on for at least year and work started recently. In another case a person had both legs amputated and the work took a long time although the council did regard that as a very serious case. That is the level of seriousness that qualifies one for an adaptation grant. The people of Meath and I would like answers from the Minister of State. If he is going to blame the local authority, I will tell the local authority it needs to put in more matching funding.

I thank the Senator for raising this matter and I am happy to clarify it for him. Exchequer funding of over €37 million was provided in 2014 for the housing adaptation grants for older people and people with a disability. This was combined with a contribution of an additional 20% by individual local authorities, to give an overall spend of €46.3 million.

I am pleased to confirm that at national level, the 2015 amount will increase by some 10% to give a combined spend of €50.5 million. Individual allocations to local authorities will be made shortly. Allocations in 2014 were made on the basis of the level of grant activity by local authorities in 2013, and taking account of population statistics with a weighting applied in respect of the numbers of persons aged over 65 years. Also in making 2014 allocations, the Department ensured that no local authority received less funding than its 2013 allocation.

Historically, allocations have been based on the level of contractual commitments notified to my Department by each local authority. Local authorities were encouraged to maintain continuity in approving and paying grants and, therefore, commitments carried forward into the new financial year always had first call on the available funding.

This system rewarded those local authorities which kept the schemes open and continued to approve eligible applications. In other cases, local authorities adopted a more cautious approach and closed schemes when applications reached a certain level. The Department, therefore, sought to ensure those applicants who had been approved for grant aid would receive it. In the past two years we have moved further towards a method of allocations which takes more account of the population of each county, with a weighting towards those aged over 65 years, as the majority of applicants are in this category. My intention is that the 2015 capital allocations for the grants will be made in a way that continues to take account of the population figures in each local authority.

At local level, the detailed administration of these schemes, including the assessment, approval and payment of individual grants to applicants, is the responsibility of the relevant local authority. However, between the Exchequer contribution and its own funding, the amount available to Meath County Council in 2014 under the scheme was 73% higher than in 2013 and I anticipate a further increase in the full amount of funding for 2015.

The Minister of State makes the case that the age profile is relevant and while it is important, the one constant in the figure RTE has released is that if there is a Minister in the area, no matter what the age profile or level of disability in the area, it will do well out of this scheme. The home of the Taoiseach receives the most, the home of the then Minister of State at the Department of the Environment, Community and Local Government with responsibility for housing comes second, Cork city is number four. There is no surprise that Kilkenny, the home of the former Minister for the Environment, Community and Local Government, Mr. Phil Hogan, is number five. Carlow follows close behind, although it has a relatively young age profile. Meath is bottom of the list. Sligo which has a very high age profile but no political influence is also near the bottom of the list.

The Minister of State seems to be saying the counties that adopted a more cautious approach and closed schemes when applications reached a certain level seemed to do badly out of the funding. That certainly happened in Meath. For a long time there were opening and closing dates for applications. Has Meath lost out because of the way that process operated in the past? What can be done now that Meath has changed that approach? What can be done to bring it up?

Is it the Department's or the council's responsibility? How will we change this arrangement because disabled people and the elderly badly need this funding for adaptations to their houses?

I have outlined in detail to the Senator the manner in which the grant allocations have been made. We need to acknowledge those local authorities that have been more proactive and kept these schemes open, for which they have been rewarded. Others, however, closed them. A local authority, essentially as the housing authority, is ultimately the responsible authority for how the scheme is administered.

The Department is conscious of the need to prioritise the grants in areas in which the age demographic is higher. In areas in which there is a higher percentage of over 65s and the populations are larger such as in County Meath there should be an adequate weighting in the grant allocations to meet that demand. Commitments had already been made to people under the grants scheme, including in County Meath and other local authorities, that we had to see through once approvals were made. Allocations were made on this basis. The amount available to Meath County Council in 2014 under the scheme was 73% higher than in 2013. I anticipate a further increase in the full amount of funding for 2015. I accept that the grant is essential and important to those who need it most. That is why the Government continues to support the scheme and wants to increase allocations in 2015.

Court Accommodation Provision

I thank the Cathaoirleach for selecting this Commencement matter which concerns a matter of grave urgency. No town should have to endure the terrifying scenes visited on Portlaoise’s main street on Thursday last. They have led to a local outcry and I have been inundated with hundreds of representations. For many, the incident was the last straw. Up to 60 people were involved in a wholesale chaotic brawl, fisticuffs and dangerous scenes of violence along the town’s main street outside the courthouse.

I raised this matter with the former Minister for Justice and Equality, Deputy Alan Shatter, on numerous occasions in this House. I was told that, in the first instance, there was a question about money and then one about finding a suitable site. In this day and age, the town's main street is not a suitable location for a courthouse operating on a daily basis. All of the smaller courthouses around the county have been closed owing to rationalisation and are now centralised in Portlaoise.

What we had on Thursday last was a fracas which reached a new low, but this is not a new phenomenon. It is a daily occurrence, to the point where the people of Portlaoise, senior citizens, shoppers, others going about their business, students, mothers and parents with buggies, cannot move up and down the main street safely owing to anti-social behaviour by gurriers and gougers who hang around in large groups. It is chaotic and has now reached the point where it is no longer safe to move up and down the main street. It is pointless to talk about the revival of the town centre and business and the relocation the library while the courthouse remains at the heart of the town in the hub of what should be the social and shopping centre. It is no place for a courthouse and I have appealed on numerous occasions to have it relocated.

What happened last week was the last straw. I do not want to exaggerate the dangers. However, what will it take for the courthouse to be relocated? Will somebody have to be seriously injured or worse? Unfortunately, we saw the tragic events that unfolded elsewhere in the country yesterday. We are on the cusp of such a terrible tragedy happening in Portlaoise. The local newspapers have splashed headlines such as, “Mayhem on Main Street”. How can one run a town or a business or go about one’s business in that scenario? The Garda, prison officers and local businesses want the courthouse relocated. Everyone in the community knows the main street in Portlaoise is not a suitable or safe place for a courthouse. For decades, the town was promised a new Garda station. Gardaí in the town are working in substandard conditions, but the solution is in our own hands. The courthouse must be co-located with the new Garda station. The Office of Public Works and the Department of Justice and Equality must expedite this matter as a matter of urgency to ensure the new Garda station is built on a suitable site and co-located with a modern courthouse off the main street.

I am taking this matter on behalf of the Minister for Justice and Equality, Deputy Frances Fitzgerald.

Under the provisions of the Courts Service Act 1998, management of the courts is the responsibility of the Courts Service. Section 4(3) of the 1998 Act provides that the Courts Service is independent in its functions, including in the provision, maintenance and management of court buildings. The Minister had inquiries made about the current arrangements for Portlaoise Courthouse. It should be noted that the courthouse situated on Main Street is a neoclassical building built in 1805. It was last refurbished by the Courts Service in 2001 at a cost of €2.75 million. More recently in 2010, minor works were carried out to relocate staff to the former grand jury room in the building.

The Courts Service does not agree that the courthouse building is unsafe. However, there is limited scope for development within the existing building and site. The location of the courthouse in the centre of the town also poses issues for access and security, as the Senator outlined. It was proposed, therefore, as part of the Courts Service courthouse refurbishment programme, to provide a courthouse on an alternative site. In 2007 the Courts Service, in co-operation with the OPW, began a search to find an appropriate alternative site in the town for a new courthouse development. Several potential sites were considered during 2007 and 2008. However, no site was acquired at the time.

Since 2008 the Courts Service, in common with all other public service organisations, has been operating in a difficult and challenging economic environment. Despite the limited funding available, the Courts Service has continued its search for a new site for a courthouse. The OPW is actively looking for an appropriate site, but, as yet, no suitable sites have become available. In the absence of a suitable site, it is not possible to bring forward specific proposals for the replacement of Portlaoise Courthouse. The availability of a suitable site and funding will dictate the timeline for the provision of a new courthouse. In the meantime, the Courts Service is aware of the ongoing disquiet about the appropriateness of the location of the courthouse in Portlaoise and the cell facilities it contains. The Courts Service works closely with An Garda Síochána and the Irish Prison Service on the best management of court days in the town. In addition, the Courts Service has included the provision of additional holding cell facilities in its programme of works for 2015. Consultation has taken place and the OPW is progressing the matter. This work will impact positively on security and traffic flow around the court, as prisoners will not have to be held elsewhere and transported to and from the court, to the Garda station or prison vans, as cases are called.

Since the establishment of the Courts Service up to 2011, a substantial programme of investment in court facilities amounting to €250 million, with over 50 venues being newly built or refurbished, has been carried out. Many others were substantially upgraded. This level of investment has enabled the Courts Service to greatly improve the standard of accommodation available, including facilities for people with disabilities, jury facilities, custody cells, consultation rooms, etc. There is also an ongoing programme of investment in technology at court venues. In this period 41 court venues were refurbished, 13 new courthouses were built, the Criminal Courts of Justice were completed as a PPP, public private partnership, project, while many smaller venues were upgraded. The Courts Service is procuring seven new courthouses nationwide as part of a €135 million capital PPP programme included in the Government’s infrastructure stimulus package announced in July 2012 in Cork, Limerick, Wexford, Waterford, Mullingar, Letterkenny and Drogheda.

The Courts Service is working with the Department of Justice and Equality, the Office of Public Works and the National Development Finance Agency to progress these projects and substantial preparatory work has already been carried out. It is expected that contracts will be signed in October this year with the projects being delivered in 18 to 24 months depending on the project.

I have listened to the Senator's comments in regard to Portlaoise. In the context of the work being carried out by the Minister of State at the Department of the Environment, Community and Local Government, Deputy Ann Phelan, to regenerate towns and villages across the country, it is important to provide a safe and secure environment for residents and visitors alike. I suggest the Senator should convene a meeting between the local authority, the OPW and the Courts Service with a view to identifying a suitable site in the town. It appears that the location of the site will be key to solving the issue and an intervention from someone as familiar with the town as the Senator could offer a way forward. If there is anything I can do to help, I would be more than happy to oblige. I will be in Portlaoise in the near future and if the Senator wants to show me the problem in person, I would be happy to meet him.

I appreciate the personal interest shown by the Minister of State and his receptive response to the concerns of people of Portlaoise and County Laois. I am heartened that there is agreement in principle that the courthouse is in the wrong place and must be moved. If the main impediment is identifying and securing a suitable site, all stakeholders and interested parties should work towards that end. I hope the investment in new holding cells will not make the new courthouse a more permanent fixture and will instead be an interim arrangement to allow safe and secure passage of vehicles through Main Street. No town should see its citizens and residents fearful of visiting their main street in broad daylight. This has to stop, and the court is the heart of that problem. It is welcome that the Department and the Courts Service accept that the courthouse needs to be moved and that it will be moved as soon as a suitable site can be found.

All Departments have to operate within certain financial constraints but I am sure the Senator will work hard to remove the obstacles. The Government is aware of the value provided by the excellent courts system and we continue to provide substantial resources for the Courts Service. I acknowledge that Main Street in Portlaoise is probably not an area in which crowds should be gathering. The incidents he outlined should not be occurring in a vibrant rural town, where people like to go shopping and where new library facilities are being developed. I am more than happy to do anything I can to facilitate the Senator and his local colleagues in identifying a new site.

Sitting suspended at 11.05 a.m. and resumed at noon.