Commencement Matters

Community Policing

I welcome the Minister of State, Deputy Paudie Coffey.

I thank the Minister of State for attending. In recent times, one of the most consistent problems that we have been told of is the lack of Garda manpower. To its credit, the Government has reopened the college in Templemore and garda training is ongoing, but we are running to stand still, that is, to keep the number of gardaí at 13,000. It would make sense for retiring gardaí to be kept on on a part-time basis as community gardaí as a cost-effective way of policing communities. Often, retiring gardaí are young compared with the average age of retirement and could augment community policing structures, giving us the benefit of their expertise while improving the perception of community policing on our streets and making people feel safer.

There is no question of a perception of there being fewer gardaí on the streets. It is certainly something that I hear about in Dublin. I have noticed it. This would be a great way to balance that perception through tangible examples of gardaí on the beat in their communities. Even if just 500 retiring gardaí - one or two per station - were employed on a part-time basis, it would cost between €7 million and €15 million per annum. The money would be well spent and have a useful effect. I would be interested to know the Minister of State's thoughts on this suggestion in the light of the number of low-cost measures that have been implemented, for example, the successful text alert scheme. If this proposal were implemented, it could have a positive impact on urban and rural communities.

I thank the Senator for tabling this Commencement matter. The Minister for Justice and Equality, Deputy Frances Fitzgerald, also wishes to thank her and regrets being unable to attend for the debate. However, I am happy to take it on her behalf.

Community policing is an important part of policing. It is a central feature of current policing policy and members of community policing are encouraged to engage with the local communities to which they are assigned. Policing policy is predicated on the prevention of public order offences and crime, including violence against persons and property, and the maintenance of an environment that is conducive to the improvement of residents' quality of life. This strategy will continue to be central to the delivery of a quality policing service.

Community policing deserves dedicated and motivated gardaí who are willing to give 100% to protect the communities they serve. On that basis, all members assigned to community policing units operate on a full-time basis and there are, therefore, no plans to retain retiring gardaí on a part-time basis as community gardaí.

It is, of course, the case that all gardaí have a role to play in addressing community policing issues as and when the need arises. In that sense, community policing involves far more than a single unit within An Garda Síochána, a point highlighted by the Garda Inspectorate in its third report, Policing in Ireland: Looking Forward. The inspectorate states in the report that community policing is a fundamental policing philosophy and that there is a strong foundation for it in Ireland. An Garda Síochána now operates a new model of community policing which aims to build on and enhance progress so far. The Minister has said she fully supports this renewed emphasis on community policing, particularly in light of the priority given to it in the programme for Government. The model is about renewing, reinvigorating and restructuring the community policing function within An Garda Síochána to deliver a consistent national structure to the community policing function, a more co-ordinated and efficient Garda service to the community and a spread of good practice and quality of service in community policing on a national basis. The model is providing a structured and cohesive approach to community policing nationally. The national strategies for neighbourhood watch and community alert, both of which were launched in 2007, also inform the organisation on how best to implement future crime prevention and community policing programmes. The model is built around ten core components, or pillars, which serve to inform everything gardaí do in their interactions with the community. The ten pillars are: partnership, enforcement, problem solving, crime prevention and reduction, accountability, visibility, accessibility, collaborative engagement, empowerment and improved response.

Community gardaí will be proactive in building positive partnerships through initiatives such as Neighbourhood Watch, Community Alert, Garda clinics, Supporting Safer Communities campaigns and Garda station open days. Flexible engagement practices are required to cater for community groups and can ultimately lead to a community being empowered. The establishment of partnerships at local level should be seen as a co-operative effort to facilitate problem solving. A national community policing office has been established within the Garda community relations section to develop and oversee the implementation programme and the Garda national model of community policing report is available on the Garda website. Guidelines for the delivery of a community policing service are being developed to enhance and update the national model of community policing. They will take into account feedback on the implementation of the national model in the context of a changing landscape across Garda divisions and districts. The guidelines offer a renewed focus on the delivery of a community policing service under the pillars of law enforcement, crime prevention and community engagement using existing resources.

The Senator may be aware that members of An Garda Síochána who joined the force prior to 1 April 2004 may retire on full pension once they have served for at least 30 years and reached 50 years of age. Members who joined the force on or after 1 April 2004 may retire on full pension once they have served at least 30 years and reached 55 years of age. In both cases, members must retire once they have reached 60 years of age. There is no barrier to retired members joining the Garda Reserve once they meet certain eligibility criteria such as the age limit of 60 years and have received an exemplary, very good or good discharge from An Garda Síochána. As the Senator will be aware, the Garda Reserve was established to enhance the links between An Garda Síochána and local communities through the deployment of locally recruited volunteers who operate in support of full-time colleagues. There are currently 1,064 attested reserve gardaí, with a further 43 at various stages of training. Garda Reserve members make a real and tangible contribution to policing right across the country and I am fully supportive of its continued development. Recruitment to the Garda Reserve and the training of new reserve gardaí is ongoing. The Minister would be delighted to see retired members of An Garda Síochána using their knowledge and expertise as Garda Reserve members.

I note the Minister of State's response and the fact that it constitutes a useful explanatory memorandum on community policing. I hear from where the Minister is coming from in the sense that we deserve dedicated and motivated gardaí who are willing to give 100% to protect the communities they serve. The Garda Reserve was mentioned and I gather that is on a part-time basis in any case.

The Garda Reserve could be deployed to be more involved in community policing. I appreciate the response, which is perhaps something on which I could have a word with the Minister when I see her later.

I again thank the Senator. It is a very topical issue. The Minister has considered it, but she has said that at this time consideration is not being given to keeping on retiring gardaí on a part-time basis as community gardaí. It is important that members who are assigned to community policing units operate on a full-time basis and are fully dedicated to the very important work. However, I take on board the points the Senator has made which I will convey to the Minister who I am sure will have further engagement with the Senator.

Nursing Staff Recruitment

I welcome the Minister of State. We have a serious problem within the nursing home sector in retaining and recruiting nursing staff. This has been brought about by the current Health Service Executive, HSE, recruitment plan drive. As we know, nursing homes are central to our health service and in one nursing home last October they had 12 nursing staff. Six of them have now left, two are set to leave and two are due to leave later in the year, leaving the operators in the lurch. In addition, the HSE is looking for two weeks notice from those staff who are employed in the nursing home sector and the operators of the nursing home require four weeks notice. It is leaving them in an impossible position. They cannot recruit locally and we have the ridiculous situation where it takes over a year if they try to employ an Indian or a Filipino nurse. They must undergo an international language test, even if English is their first language, and in most cases they fail it. On the other side of the coin, one can employ European Union nurses who might have no English and there is no requirement for them to have it. The only problem is that the Department aims to process their visa applications within 90 days, but it takes four months for them to get a PIN. That is a serious anomaly.

We need to consider, first, as a matter of urgency, fast-tracking Indian nurses' visa applications. Second, we need to retain Irish nurses for at least two years post-registration. Third, Indian nurses have to complete an adaption period, which is normally done in a general hospital, but there is no need for that as it can be done in nursing homes. These Filipino nurses have the same degree as Irish nurses. Why is this six week adaption period necessary?

All of these issues have serious Health Information and Quality Authority, HIQA, implications for nursing home operators, and some may be forced to close unless we can address the shortage of nurses in the system.

I thank the Senator for raising his concerns about a very topical issue. I am taking this debate on behalf of my colleague, the Minister for Health, Deputy Leo Varadkar, who is on Government business elsewhere and sends his apologies. However, I am happy to respond on his behalf.

The nursing home public and private sectors are collaborating with the Department of Health and the HSE in sourcing several solutions to meeting the issues arising in regard to nurse recruitment and retention. There are two areas under active review regarding these recruitment and retention issues. First, there is the issue of recruitment of nurses educated and trained in Ireland. The HSE office of the nursing and midwifery services director has been supportive in allowing the nursing home sector meet graduate students in the universities to discuss employment opportunities. In addition, the chief nursing office in the Department has been engaged with the public and private nursing home sector in promoting nursing the older adult as a career choice. The office has facilitated ongoing discussions, spoken at conferences and engaged with third level colleges on seeking solutions to the recruitment and retention issue. These discussions have involved exploring and reviewing career pathways within older people services to encourage more staff into this area of nursing practice.

The second area under review relates to the undertaking of initiatives for the recruitment of global nurses. The background to this issue is that nurses who trained in a country other than Ireland and who wish to work in Ireland are required to apply to register as a nurse with the Nursing and Midwifery Board of Ireland.

The board, following assessment of qualifications by an applicant, may require an applicant to undertake a six to 12-week period of adaptation and assessment. A period of adaptation is designed to make up for differences in education and to ensure competence for working in the Irish health service. If this adaptation is required, it must be successfully completed as a prerequisite to registration.

There are two remaining HSE adaptation courses available this year in June and August. These courses are six to 12 weeks in duration. They facilitate the integration of global nurses into nursing in an Irish context. It may be of interest to the Senator to learn that since the nationally co-ordinated pilot adaptation programme commenced in June 2014 as many as 151 candidates have completed the programme, 58 candidates are undergoing assessment and 126 candidates are due for assessment up to the final programme in August 2015. Outside of the current provision for placements in 2015, there are 293 requests for placements by employers. These numbers do not reflect a national total as some hospital sites have also run independent adaptation programmes.

There is a collaborative group which includes representatives from the Department of Health, the HSE and Nursing Homes Ireland, NHI. The group continues to explore options to facilitate adaptation. In this regard, some hospitals will respond to local needs from local nursing homes and this has been encouraged within the hospital group structures. Some hospitals will continue to support placements pending funding from NHI though not at peak undergraduate student times. Some are withdrawing from the provision of clinical placements in order to facilitate their own internal international recruitment initiatives. It was also agreed in these discussions that NHI would consider options for it to co-ordinate the adaptation programme. This depends on and awaits the NMBI's approval of such a decision. NHI has also been advised to contact some private hospitals to explore options to assist with facilitating such courses. In addition, options are being explored with an Irish university to offer a one day programme of assessment through an examination format. It is hoped the pilot of this programme will be complete and results available in the last quarter of this year.

I am sure the Senator will agree that all appropriate steps are being taken by the key stakeholders to maximise recruitment and retention options that arise in the nursing home sector.

I thank the Minister of State for his reply. The issue is the speed at which we deal with adaptations and visa applications and it is speed which is crucial in solving this problem. I appreciate the answer which has given me hope something might be done by the end of the year, but I remind the Minister of State that this is a crisis which needs to be dealt with urgently.

I thank the Senator for bringing the matter to the attention of the House and that of the Minister for Health. I agree that adaptation assessments and the turnaround of competent people to act in this area is very important. I also take on board the view expressed about visa applications. This is something which we will bring to the attention of the Minister and that of the officials in order to see if further improvements can be made. I again thank the Senator for raising this matter.

Appointments to State Boards

I welcome the Minister for Education and Skills.

I welcome the Minister and thank her for coming here at short notice. I am sure she is aware of the concern that the arts and education communities have about the fragile governance of the National College of Art and Design which has been without a board for almost five months. That situation is without precedence, particularly when one considers that only last Friday I attended the final graduates' exhibition of some wonderful postgraduate and graduate students. The college has an extraordinary and wonderful atmosphere. The college has no board and there is an extraordinary disarray between the directorate and the students due to a lack of trust. The breakdown of trust between the students and the directorate has been further exacerbated by the fact that the Minister has not appointed a board in five months. Today I heard rumours about the matter and hope we will hear good news. When will the Minister appoint a board? Why has there been a delay? A five month delay in appointing any State board is an extraordinary omission and was of concern to the students I spoke to on Friday evening.

Where were the board vacancies advertised? it was quite difficult for me to find where these vacancies were advertised. Was it through publicjobs.ie, or the Stateboards.ie.? Does the Minister consider it is acceptable in terms of governance that the Department of Education and Skills has left the NCAD organisation without a board for so long?

I thank the Senator for raising this issue which is very important for students and staff of the National College of Art and Design.

As Members know, the new guidelines for appointments to State boards were approved by Government in November 2014 and provided for the new State boards website to be put in place. The State boards website was launched earlier this year and is now operational.

The Government has made very significant changes to the way appointments are processed since late last year. I think everyone will welcome this new level of openness and transparency. The list of State boards to be advertised through the Public Appointments Service system, PAS, and considered to fall within the remit of the new guidelines was provided by the PAS for my Department. It did take some time for the PAS to finalise the lists of organisations that it would process and the Department did not proceed with the advertisement planned for higher education until there was clarity around what was to be included in the PAS process.

In general higher education institutions are regarded as autonomous institutions in receipt of public funding rather than as State boards; therefore, appointments to boards and governing bodies of higher education institutions are not being made through the PAS process. However, in keeping with the principles of the new guidelines for appointments to State boards, my Department sought expressions of interest from suitably qualified candidates for consideration for appointment as chairs and ordinary members to boards and governing bodies of institutions and other bodies in the higher education sector. This included the National College of Art and Design.

Expressions of interest were sought by way of a public advertisement on www.education.ie. The PAS also agreed to place a link to this advertisement on its website www.Stateboards.ie. The advertisement was published on the Department of Education and Skills website on 26 February 2015, with a closing date of 19 March. Persons who were registered with the PAS website were also sent notifications of the advertisement. A total of 123 expressions of interest in serving on boards of higher education institutions were received with 24 of these expressing a specific interest in serving on the board of the NCAD. As Members will understand, the selection of members of boards requires careful consideration and the membership of a number of boards was under consideration at the same time. The membership and skill sets required for the board of the NCAD has also been given particular attention due to the issues that have arisen at the college in recent times.

I am pleased to say I have now appointed a new board to the NCAD. I confirm that the following persons submitted an expression of interest in serving on the board of the NCAD and have now been appointed: Ms Niamh Brennan, the Michael McCormick Professor of Management at UCD and the academic director of the UCD centre for corporate governance, holds qualifications in corporate governance and has experience of governance through Government appointments and membership of numerous boards; Mr. Blaise Smith, an artist and painter and a graduate of the NCAD who was elected an associate member of the Royal Hibernian Academy in 2013; Ms Mary Dorgan is the former assistant CEO of the Health and Safety Authority and a member of the Irish Sports Council and has many years experience of board membership and governance; Ms Karen Furlong has 25 years experience in strategy development, business transformation, organisation design and change management and has managed companies through the new fitness and probity and corporate governance regulatory landscape laid down by the Central Bank; and Mr. Ian Power is executive director of SpunOut.ie, Ireland's youth information website and non-executive director of the National Youth Council of Ireland. He also has experience of governance issues through his work on the board of the National Youth Council. In addition, I am pleased to say Professor Mark Rogers, acting registrar and deputy president of UCD, has agreed to serve on the board. His appointment to the new board provides an opportunity to strengthen the strategic co-operation between UCD and the NCAD. Professor Rogers will also strengthen the board's capacity in terms of his experience and expertise in approaches to student learning. In addition to these board members, I have appointed two academic staff representatives, nominated by the academic staff of the NCAD and two representatives nominated by the student body. I am sure these new members of the board will be able to fulfil their obligations to the full and serve well as members of the board of the NCAD.

I thank the Minister for her response. The appointment of the board is welcome. I appreciate the fact that the Minister has given us straight answers to straight questions.

It is also important that the new board creates trust between the student body and the academic staff and the directorate. I assume, although the Minister probably cannot say, Professor Niamh Brennan is likely to be chair of the NCAD. I was not aware of how developed was the recently withdrawn UCD-NCAD partnership and I note with interest that the Minister has appointed Professor Mark Rogers and also some artists, including Ms Blaise Smith, whom I know well.

I have a small request that the Minister visit that exhibition because her predecessors have done so. The students would appreciate seeing her there as an endorsement and validation of their rich and fruitful time at the university. I look forward to engaging with the Minister in that regard.

I would very much like to have the opportunity to visit. My predecessor attended the exhibition last week. Unfortunately, I was unable to go. I hope the board will be up and running quickly. I regret the delay. There was that process of setting up the PAS and then trying to identify what was in the PAS and what was not. However, the process is a lot more transparent than it would have been in the past. Certainly, as I say, I would very much welcome the opportunity to visit. I thank the Senator for raising the issue. He is the first person who has heard this news.

Private Rented Accommodation Provision

I welcome the Minister of State with responsibility for housing, Deputy Paudie Coffey.

I raise the issue of the future of the private housing rental sector. I am doing so, in one sense, in the context of the immediate and current crisis but what we need is not simply a debate and a partial or short-term solution to the crisis, but a more long-term strategy about the future of the private rental sector in this country. While a Commencement debate in the Seanad is a positive start, I will certainly be asking in the broader confines of Seanad time that we will have a more substantive debate where ideas and suggestions can be put forward. If we are to plan for a proper housing market in this country in the future in a sustainable and affordable fashion and respond to different housing types and needs recognising that housing solutions of the 1970s and 1980s are not entirely appropriate to the Ireland of today, we must recognise that there must be a major place, as part of the national housing strategy solution, for the private rental market. It is fair to observe that the rental market and private tenancies up to now have been very much the second-rate cousins in policy in the housing Department. Perhaps it is part of the Irish mentality, shared, perhaps, in Britain and a few other countries worldwide, about the fixation with house ownership. I refer to the concept that unless one owns one's house one is somehow not a full participate in society. We need to radically overhaul that concept. We need to look across the continent of Europe and beyond. We need to look at dynamic societies where, not a minority, but a majority of citizens and families live in private rented accommodation long term and have an alternative use for the capital sums which otherwise would be invested in home ownership. Such sums or the leftovers can be used, for example, for education or setting up small enterprise. We have a society where people invest a considerable amount of their disposable income in the concept of homeownership and must look beyond this as we plan a housing strategy for the future.

It is also fair to observe that, from the perspective of the equation between landlord and tenant, it has become much too easy to see the landlord as a type of Scrooge figure extracting the last euro or cent from an unfortunate tenant and that is not always the case. There are many thousands of good landlords across the country just as there are many tens of thousands of good tenants. We need to set in place fair but firm legislation on the rights of landlords and tenants.

Beyond that, we need to change the thinking about home ownership to ensure that the concept of long-term rental accommodation with secure tenancy and fair and balanced rents and rent reviews are part of the housing agenda. We must move away from previous housing policies of building to sell and of encouraging people to buy to very different solutions.

Threshold is holding a conference today. I heard some of the advance media presentations. It is putting forward some interesting ideas. We have to approach this issue from a blank canvas and attempt to change the thinking of Irish people on home ownership and where families live and how communities thrive and interact. The private rental sector and the rental market, whether private rental or social housing, should play a much more significant role. It requires planning but above all, it requires a change of attitude and a change of emphasis from the Department down through the planning sector to the construction industry. We need to engage with the public in order that it will see a different concept of living for communities and families into the future.

I look forward to the initial response of the Minister of State, but it would not be fair of me to expect a comprehensive solution today. I am aware of the short-term issue he is attempting to address and that is necessary. I ask the Minister of State today and hope in a full debate in the near future to look beyond the short term to the medium to long term to begin the process where our housing stock and home ownership will be looked on differently and where the rental sector can play not only an economic but a social role in building the country.

I thank the Senator for raising this important issue. I reassure him there will be ample opportunity to debate the wider medium-term and long-term issues in terms of housing in the Seanad in the coming weeks.

The private rented sector is an important element of the housing market, with the proportion of households in the sector almost doubling in the period 2006 to 2011. The Residential Tenancies Act 2004 regulates the landlord-tenant relationship in the sector and sets out the rights and obligations of landlords and tenants. The Residential Tenancies (Amendment) (No. 2) Bill 2012 is before the Oireachtas and will amend the Residential Tenancies Act 2004 to provide for the inclusion of the approved housing body, AHB, sector within the remit of the Residential Tenancies Act 2004, the introduction of a new procedure to deal with non-payment of rent and the introduction of a tenancy deposit protection scheme. The Bill is due to return to Seanad for Committee Stage in the coming weeks when I look forward to further debate.

I recognise that rent increases, especially in Dublin and the other major cities, are leading to difficulties for lower income households. A shortage of supply is at the heart of rising rents and the Government is addressing this on a number of fronts. Construction 2020: A Strategy for a Renewed Construction Sector, published last year, is aimed at addressing issues in the property and construction sectors and ensuring that any bottlenecks that might impede the sector in meeting residential and non-residential demand are addressed. This evening I will introduce the Urban Regeneration and Housing Bill 2015 in the Dáil. I look forward to debating the Bill also in this House in the coming weeks. It will be a further opportunity for more engaged debate.

Addressing the supply shortfall in housing will take time but in the period since the publication of Construction 2020, some welcome signs of recovery in the sector have become evident. Particularly notable in this regard is the increase in the number of house completions in 2014 to more than 11,000 units nationally - an increase of 33% on the 2013 figure. The latest figures for new house completions show that 2,629 units were completed in the first three months of 2015, up 26% on the corresponding figure for the first quarter of 2014.

In respect of planning applications and projects in the system, there was a 29% increase in the first five months of the year in comparison with the same period last year. Also, there are 3,500 commencement notices for projects submitted nationally.

Social housing is a key priority for the Government, as evidenced by the additional €2.2 billion in funding announced for social housing in budget 2015 and the publication of the social housing strategy 2020. The strategy provides the basis for a concerted and co-ordinated approach to social housing provision and contains an action plan with detailed objectives and timelines. It also includes a commitment to developing a national policy on the private rented sector aimed at increasing investment in and supporting the supply of good quality, secure and affordable accommodation in the sector.

The National Economic and Social Council report, Ireland's Rental Sector: Pathways to Secure Occupancy and Affordable Supply, which was published last month, is a welcome and timely contribution to the debate around the rental sector. The report calls for more secure occupancy for tenants, including greater rent certainty, as well as measures to increase the supply of rental housing. The recommendations put forward in this report will be considered carefully in the context of framing measures in respect of the rental market. My overriding objective is to achieve stability and sustainability in the market for the benefit of tenants, landlords and society as a whole.

I thank the Minister of State for his response. This is the beginning of a much more substantive debate on housing policy. I read with satisfaction his closing comment that his objective is to work on behalf of tenants, landlords and society as a whole. My concern is that sometimes the person who holds the Minister of State's position, which is very important, sees himself or herself not as the Minister for housing, but as the Minister for the construction industry. As a society, we urgently need to draw a firm line between what some people see as a very straightforward black and white construction industry and what I see as the need for an industry to provide housing for families and societies. I am not being critical, but in the Minister of State's first days and weeks in his current role the Construction Industry Federation held a function that he, rightly, attended. I read remarks afterwards from one of the speakers introducing him, who noted that the construction industry had its Minister again. I do not want to see him as the construction industry Minister but as the person responsible for ensuring families across the country can be provided with social, affordable, or private housing, or whatever is the appropriate mix.

We need to be careful where we go in the future and that a step into the future is not a repeat of the past. Government policy and Department of the Environment, Community and Local Government policy were set very strongly and negatively for too long by some of the bigger players and the louder voices in the construction sector. The voices the Minister of State needs to listen to now are the voices of the hundreds of thousands of people across the country who are looking for a housing solution and who want to see a proper balance of social, private and affordable rental accommodation. His ears are open in that regard, from what I know of him, but I want to hear about him as the housing Minister, not as a quasi-spokesperson for the construction industry. I thank him for his response. He will be back in the Seanad debating other housing Bills and we will continue what I think will be a positive engagement.

I welcome the opportunity to respond to some of the points raised by the Senator and to reassure him regarding the perception he might have that I am a Minister for the construction industry. That is not true. I am the Minister of State with special responsibility for the co-ordination of the Construction 2020 strategy, which is a Government strategy, adopted in the best interests of society, on how best to provide houses. I further reassure the Senator that we now have the Housing Agency, an independent organisation with professional expertise available to it in terms of planning, analysing demographics, and making recommendations to Government to inform policy and infrastructure investments. The Housing Agency is working with my Department to identify where demand is real, the types of unit that are needed. The local authorities, the approved housing bodies and many other stakeholders, including the construction sector, are required to develop and deliver that infrastructure.

Second Stage of the Urban Regeneration and Housing Bill, to which I briefly referred, will be taken in the Dáil this evening. The Senator will welcome the debate when the Bill is before this House and find there are measures in it about which the construction sector is not happy.

The Part V element remains because we want to see social housing units being developed and we are removing the flexibility which the construction sector previously had whereby it could give cash payments to local authorities in lieu of housing units. That was opposed by the construction sector, but we need housing units. There are also concerns in the construction sector about the vacant site levy, but the Government feels we must regenerate sites of high potential in cities and towns which already have public infrastructure lying at the footpath in order to maximise the investment that has already been made by the taxpayer.

These are measures that the Government and I are taking to generally improve the availability of houses, not necessarily to improve the lot of developers and the construction sector. They will, however, generally improve construction jobs and the delivery of affordable, quality houses, which is what we want for all citizens.

Sitting suspended at 3.15 p.m. and resumed at 3.30 p.m.