Commencement Matters

Educational Reform

I welcome the Minister for Children and Youth Affairs, Deputy James Reilly.

I also welcome the Minister to the Chamber for this Commencement debate.

Recently, I had the honour of speaking at the launch of Equate, a new non-governmental organisation dealing with children's rights and education reform. I welcome Mr. Michael Barron and his team to the Visitors Gallery. Equate wants to see an education system that reflects the diversity of 21st century Ireland and a child-centred approach to education reform. As the Minister will be aware, this was a key recommendation of Dáil na nÓg last November. He had invited the Minister for Education and Skills, Deputy Jan O'Sullivan, to debate this issue with the participants in Dáil na nÓg. I commend his recommendation on the importance of hearing children's voices with respect to education and school policies because all too often in the debate on education it is the adults who speak and we do not listen to the young people and children who are directly involved.

The Minister was before the UN Committee on the Rights of the Child last Thursday last in Geneva and I commend him for his performance there. As we all will be aware, the test results will come out in early February in the concluding observations of the committee. On behalf of the Oireachtas Joint Committee on Health and Children, I had the honour of travelling there to observe. First, I commend the Minister for the fact that we sent such a strong delegation of officials from across Departments because it shows that we recognise the importance of the UN process and ensures we can give accurate and appropriate answers and track our progress.

As the Minister will be aware, especially in the light of the international experts who make up the UN Committee on the Rights of the Child, Ireland was under serious scrutiny concerning schools admission policies and it was hard to avoid the difficult questions. For too long we have allowed schools to operate in a way that breaches children's rights, including those specified under the UN Committee on the Rights of the Child. These violations occur in a number of guises, including the disproportionate religious patronage of schools and enrolment inequality which results in a lack of access and choice for parents. Another issue that came up at the UN committee was the right of transgender children to be protected and respected in all schools.

The lack of pluralism in the education system is a serious human rights issue affecting many families and successive UN human rights committees have voiced their concerns to Ireland in this regard. Specifically, on Thursday last the UN Committee on the Rights of the Child asked questions about the denominational structure of the education system, which creates difficulties for families who want to educate their children in a non-denominational setting. It also wanted to know about our policies in promoting inclusive education.

In preparation for Ireland's hearing in June last a delegation of young people travelled to Geneva to meet the committee members and talk about their experiences. As we often see when we stop and listen to young people, they were articulate, confident and open. One of them spoke about his experience in a religious school as a non-religious person. This is a voice we do not hear enough in the Irish debate on education reform and I am worried that if we do not start to include the voices of young people, we will not achieve a reformed system that puts the needs of children front and centre.

As legislators, we must engage with these growing concerns and deliver the reform necessary to ensure all children are welcome in schools. The time is right for change. We should not be doing it only because the UN Committee on the Rights of the Child or other UN bodies do it. We should be doing it because children and parents are telling us it is the right thing to do. It is time to have equality in classrooms and make it a reality.

I sought this debate because I want to know what progress has been made in setting up arrangements between the Department of Children and Youth Affairs and the Department of Education and Skills to ensure the best interests and the voice of the child are at the centre of a more diverse and pluralist education system.

I thank the Senator. I welcome the opportunity to outline the steps that my Department will take in this important area and confirm my commitment to working with my colleague, the Minister for Education and Skills, to ensure children's rights are promoted and protected.

Comhairle na nÓg are local councils for children and young people aged 12 to 17 years that give them a voice in the development of local policies and services. They are the recognised national structure for participation by children and young people in decision-making in all 31 local authorities. Dáil na nÓg is the national youth parliament for 12 to 17 year olds. It is a biennial event to which 200 representatives from Comhairle na nÓg are elected as delegates. The topics discussed at Dáil na nÓg are chosen by young people themselves in the 31 Comhairle na nÓg.

Each of the 31 Comhairle na nÓg elects one representative to the national executive to serve for a two-year period. The role of the Comhairle na nÓg national executive is to follow up on the top recommendation from the previous Dáil na nÓg and seek to have it implemented. These structures are supported by a dedicated citizen participation unit in my Department, the role of which is to ensure children and young people have a voice in the design, delivery and monitoring of services and policies that affect their lives at national and local level. It collaborates with other Departments, statutory bodies and non-governmental organisations.

As the Senator has pointed out, the topic for discussion at Dáil na nÓg in November 2015 was the need for young people to have a stronger voice in their education and schools. Workshops were held at the event to allow the 200 young delegates to explore the issue under the following four topic headings: subject choice; transition year; what happens in the classroom; and uniforms and personal appearance. The topic of what happens in the classroom was voted by delegates as the most important area on which they need to have a stronger voice. The most commonly raised issues under this topic were teacher behaviour, discipline, how students are treated, student voice, class size and teaching methods. Developing this topic will form the core of the work of the incoming Comhairle na nÓg national executive.

I am pleased to say a significant change has been made to the way the work of the national executive will be supported. For the first time, at my invitation, Dáil na nÓg 2015 was attended by the Minister relevant to the topic under discussion who was the Minister for Education and Skills, Deputy Jan O'Sullivan. She gave a commitment that officials from her Department would work with my Department in supporting the Comhairle na nÓg national executive in the next two years. This is part of a new mechanism to connect Comhairle na nÓg with Brighter Outcomes, Better Futures, which is the national policy framework for children and young people for the period 2014 to 2020.

Into the future the Minister responsible for the topic under discussion will attend Dáil na nÓg and nominate lead officials from his or her Department to work with my officials in supporting the Comhairle na nÓg national executive. In addition, a steering committee of key policy makers will be established to support the national executive. Direct engagement between the Better Outcomes, Brighter Futures implementation structures and the Comhairle na nÓg national executive will also take place.

The first meeting of the new national executive took place on Saturday, 16 January. It began the process of exploring the issues raised at Dáil na nÓg to identify the precise aspects of the topic "what happens in the classroom" that those involved wish to pursue. The Department of Education and Skills is appointing a senior official to work with my Department to support the national executive in achieving the changes in the education system called for at Dáil na nÓg 2015.

I wish to confirm the importance of this issue and look forward with interest to the outcome of the work that Comhairle na nÓg will be doing in this area.

Senator Jillian van Turnhout can ask a question.

I thank the Minister for personally attending the Seanad to take this matter. It is important that his Department have a key role in looking at education policy and ensuring both the voice of the child and the best interests of the child are not only heard but play a key role. The structures being set up are doing this.

It was very interesting for me, when we were before the UN committee, to hear how difficult it was for UN committee members to get their heads around our education system and admission policies and how children were heard within the school system. In that regard, I express our thanks to all the NGO groups and civil society. The Minister has done so himself. When the committee members asked questions, one could see that they used the Children's Rights Alliance parallel report, in particular, as their template for posing questions to the Minister.

Organisations such as Equate, representatives of which were very much part of that process and travelled as part of the delegation, provide both support and services. It would be of benefit to such bodies in shaping their plans to hear about the work Comhairle and the Department are doing. All too often we talk about children's rights, but when it comes to doing anything or acting on behalf of children, we forget to ask them for their views. In fairness to the Minister, that is exactly what he is doing. He is ensuring they will have a voice and that it will be heard. That is his role. For me, this highlights the importance of the Department of Children and Youth Affairs. I look forward to ongoing co-operation in this area.

I reassure the House that the participation unit in the Department - the strategy is, I believe, the first of its kind in the world - is there to allow the voice of the child to be heard. My view on this matter is very clear. If we do not have input from children, the users of services, whether such services be in the areas of education, health, housing, etc., we cannot possibly hope to address their needs. They are more familiar with their needs than we are. We must ensure what they have to say is not just heard but that is listened to and reflected in what we do.

It was great to be able to say in my closing remarks to the UN Convention on the Rights of the Child in Geneva that, through the good offices of the Children's Rights Alliance and the Ombudsman's office, there were young people looking in who had made submissions and who had been listened to in the past. I hope these young people heard the issues they had raised being discussed. To them, I say a big "Thank you". I also say "thank you" to all the NGOs that made the effort to send representatives to the hearing and inform the committee. I have no doubt but that the latter nudged the members of the committee along in respect of some of the questions they asked, particularly after lunch.

In fairness and to be serious about this, if we want to drive forward and make progress we need everybody who is involved to be engaged in the process. We need to listen to each other. In that way we will learn more from one another and other countries and we can make this the best country - not just the best small country - in which to grow up and raise a family.

Health Services

I welcome the Minister for Health.

It is a pleasure to welcome the Minister. He has been invited to discuss the important issue of physiotherapists and physical therapists. He is already familiar with the current position on physiotherapists and physical therapists, having addressed the relevant committee on the matter and answered parliamentary questions on it in the Dáil. We are joined in the Visitors Gallery by the CEO and president of the Irish Society Of Chartered Physiotherapists, ISCP, and a physiotherapist with a large practice who employs both physiotherapists and physical therapists. We hope this issue has been progressed by the Minister and his Department and that he is here to give us some good news. We hope that, having reviewed the case made by the ISCP, he will agree in the interests of patient safety to protect the titles of physiotherapist and physical therapist in one register for use by the physiotherapy profession.

There is a great deal of confusion among members of the public about the role of physiotherapists and physical therapists and their respective places in the medical profession. From my experience, people are now using the terms interchangeably without any real awareness of the significant difference in training and approach. The public is not to be blamed for this as the terms "physiotherapist" and "physical therapist" mean the same thing in many other jurisdictions.

In fact, in the rest of the world the titles of physical therapist and physiotherapist are protected in law, used only by members of the physiotherapy profession and they mean the same. In Ireland, in the absence of regulation, the titles of physiotherapist and physical therapist can be used by any person. Members of the public are naturally confused when deciding from whom to seek treatment. Where there is confusion, there is a real risk to public safety. The Physiotherapists Registration Board which includes a majority of lay people and is charged with protecting the public has already brought a recommendation to the Minister to the effect that both titles should be protected in one register. If the titles are not protected in one register for use by physiotherapists, the level of public confusion will not only continue but will increase.

Since the Minister is a doctor, I imagine he will be more than aware of the type, level and duration of training that physiotherapists undergo. Irish-educated physiotherapists and those educated abroad with equivalent qualifications are health professionals educated to provide care in the core areas of musculoskeletal, cardiorespiratory and neurological treatment. People currently trained in physical therapy in Ireland are not educated to this level. Their training may include some techniques used by physiotherapists to treat musculoskeletal injuries, but they do not receive any training in cardiorespiratory or neurological diagnosis or treatment.

Physical therapist courses in Ireland are run on a part-time basis at weekends for anything from six months to 15 months to three years. The highest qualification is a level 7 degree in applied health science; it is not a degree in physical therapy. It is of a lower standard and has a different course content to Irish degrees in physiotherapy, which are all level 8 qualifications and four-year full-time courses in universities. In addition, physiotherapy students receive a minimum of 1,000 hours supervised clinical placement in public hospitals and primary care centres.

The counterargument has been made that this is about protecting physiotherapists' patch from competition. Nothing could be further from the truth. This is about high standards and excellence in diagnostics and treatment. The Irish Society of Chartered Physiotherapists recommends that when both titles are protected, any established physical therapist should be offered the opportunity to undergo further training and upskilling. We also need to re-educate the public to the fact that physiotherapists are experts in many well established specialty areas such as orthopaedics, paediatrics, cardiorespiratory, care of the elderly, neurology, rheumatology, musculoskeletal, sports medicine and women's health. The list is extensive. The remit of the physiotherapist is broad and comes with immense responsibility, a responsibility that we need to acknowledge and respect. I would not like to think there is an accident waiting to happen or that a person who believes he or she is being treated by a highly skilled professional is being treated by someone who, while very competent within a particular sphere, is not trained to make what can be life-saving diagnostic decisions.

I thank the Minister for his time and I look forward to his reply.

I thank the Senator for raising this issue. Protection of the title is a core function of the Health and Social Care Professionals Council, known as CORU. When people access health services, it is vital that there be no ambiguity about the profession and competence of the health service provider they are attending. Statutory regulation of the profession is designated under the Health and Social Care Professionals Act 2005 and comprises registration boards for the professions, a committee structure to deal with disciplinary matters and the Health and Social Care Professionals Council with overall responsibility for the regulatory system. These bodies are collectively known as CORU and are responsible for protecting the public by regulating 14 professions currently designated under the Act.

Regulation under the Act is primarily by way of statutory protection of professional titles by confining their use solely to persons granted registration. The Act provides for a two-year transitional or grandparenting period from the date of the establishment of the register during which existing practitioners must register on the basis of specified qualifications. After this period, only registrants of the registration board who are subject to the Act's regulatory regime will be entitled to use the relevant protected title. The Physiotherapists Registration Board is finalising its drafting of the by-laws necessary for the establishment of its register early next year. This means that by early 2018 only registrants of the Physiotherapists Registration Board will be entitled to use the title of physiotherapist.

In other English-speaking nations physiotherapists use the title of physical therapist interchangeably with that of physiotherapist. In Ireland, however, for the past 25 years or so and in the absence of State regulation and title protection, the title of physical therapist has been used by providers of musculoskeletal therapies in the private sector who are not physiotherapists.

Some are highly qualified to degree level, while others are not.

Concerns were raised that the use of the title of physical therapist by practitioners who were not physiotherapists was causing confusion and could lead to patient safety risks. The concern is that doctors and their patients and people self-referring might view both titles as interchangeable and believe they are being treated by qualified physiotherapists in all cases when they are not. The Irish Society of Chartered Physiotherapists, ISCP, has been seeking for some time to have the use of the title of physical therapist protected for the exclusive use of registrants when the two-year transitional period ends.

Towards the end of last year and in accordance with the legislation, I consulted the Physiotherapists Registration Board about options for addressing this issue. Having considered the board's detailed response, I wrote to other interested organisations seeking their views on my proposal to make a regulation, to come into effect after an appropriate lead time, to protect the title of physical therapist. Several submissions have been received and are being examined. I expect to be able to make a decision on the matter shortly. The key is to ensure public protection. I hope to be in a position to conclude this matter in the next few weeks.

I thank the Minister for his reply. It is worth pointing out that there is a delay in the work of the statutory registration board for physiotherapists pending the Minister's decision which will be critical for the future. An urgent decision is necessary. Is one likely before the election is called? None of us can predict that date, but does "the very near future" mean in the next week or two?

Yes, I intend to make a decision in the next week or two. I have sought clarification on just one point. I am not quite so smart as to leave it conveniently until after the general election. That is not my intention. We want to protect the titles of physiotherapist and physical therapist for exclusive use by fully qualified physiotherapists, but many of the couple of hundred physical therapists who are practising in the private sector are well qualified and do a good job, with those who see them often being satisfied. We need to find a mechanism that allows them to retrain or rebrand or a grandparenting provision that would accommodate them. This would be along the lines of the joint proposal, made without prejudice, by the ISCP and the Irish Association of Physical Therapists, IAPT, but it might require a change in legislation. I hope to have this issue clarified in the next week or so.

The former Minister for Health and former Ceann Comhairle, Dr. Rory O'Hanlon, is keeping a watching brief on this matter. He is very welcome to the Visitors Gallery.

I thank the Minister for his response.

Animal Welfare

I welcome the Minister of State, Deputy Tom Hayes.

I just had a chat with the Minister, Deputy Leo Varadkar, because the issue that I am raising as regards horses relates to hippotherapy and the benefits of horses for children, in particular mentally handicapped children and juvenile delinquents. Occupational therapists, physical therapists and every other type of therapist is using hippotherapy. It is new in Ireland, with only one centre located in Cork providing it. As the Minister of State knows, people who work in this field have seen the benefit for children. The horses are not trained, but the children are taking riding lessons or being around them while they are working. We all know of "The Horse Whisperer".

I know someone in County Mayo who homes horses and, receiving no help from the State to do so, is crying out for assistance.

For the past ten or 15 years he has used almost all of his wages - he obviously has to live on something - on housing about 20 stray horses that were picked up.

I have a number of questions I want the Minister of State to answer regarding the welfare of these horses, taking into consideration how we treat our prize and less able horses. There is a great horse project in Tallaght, the Fettercairn horse project, but nothing down the country. I do not want to mention this person's name, as we are not allowed to mention names, but he has highlighted some issues to me regarding his work. He picks up wandering horses and he has told me that such horses are put down, even when they are in foal. I understand there are situations where a wandering horse regrettably has to be put down for its own benefit, but I cannot see why we could not treat a horse in foal differently. He has brought that to my attention and I believe strongly that a country that prizes its horses should prize the horse in foal and not put it down. There should be a different rule. If somebody is willing to care for that horse, as this man is, they should receive help to do so.

I am aware that sanctuaries pick up unchipped horses weekly. We have a regulation on chipping horses, but obviously it is not being enforced. He has many horses that were found without chips. Why is the regulation not being enforced? What can the Minister of State do? First, he can clarify whose job it is to go out and find the unchipped horses. The regulation is not being enforced. It is there and it should be enforced. I would appreciate him strengthening that provision and outlining the position to me.

There is also an issue with the sale of horses to under age people. It is almost like getting a dog now - people get a horse for Christmas sometimes and when they find out the horse is too expensive or they cannot keep it, it is let loose. I know that horse licences are granted only to those over the age of 16 years, but I have been informed by this man in County Mayo that this is not being enforced. The chipping and the sale of horses to people who are under age are two issues I want to bring to the Minister of State's attention.

The Irish horse industry contributes over €708 million per annum to the economy and 270,000 people come to see those horses in national country shows. When we look at the people who are working with what one could call underprivileged horses and helping handicapped children and juvenile delinquents also, the effect it has in bringing them back to normality is fantastic. There is a stark contrast between the horse racing industry and the help we give people trying to do educational work with horses. It is non-existent, other than South Dublin County Council's Fettercairn horse project which is worth a visit by any Minister. It is also important to mention the health and physical benefits. As far as I know, there is only one trained hippotherapist, in Ballincollig - Strides Occupational Therapy - but this person in County Mayo is also doing fantastic work and I would like even a pilot project to be set up with this individual to try to support this form of therapy. He has to feed, home, house and build shelters for them, all from his own pocket. He is doing it for about 20 horses annually and then passing them on to people who want horses or to mind them. It is like an orphanage for horses.

I thank the Senator for raising this very important issue. As the House will be aware, my Department has significant responsibilities and functions in relation to animal welfare, including the welfare of horses. These responsibilities stem from the Animal Health and Welfare Act 2013 which I introduced in 2013 in order to provide an up-to-date and modernised system for enforcement of animal welfare. The Act is significant in a number of respects. First, it makes much clearer the responsibility placed on animal owners to actively care for their animals through the provision of food, water, shelter and veterinary care. Further, the enforcement has been enhanced by a variety of measures such as greater flexibility on how inspectors may be authorised and operate. I have been asked from time to time to introduce more severe penalties for breaches of animal welfare legislation.

My Department is providing significant funding for urban horse projects aimed at making available appropriate facilities for young people to keep horses in an urban setting. In that context, it is examining a number of applications from local authorities.

My Department is in the process of completing a review of the Control of Horses Act. This legislation plays an important role in helping to deal with the problem of wandering horses which have proved to be a hazard both to themselves and others. The problem also gives rise to significant welfare issues. Unfortunately, owners have been careless in some instances or have deliberately allowed horses to wander. The main stakeholders in this area have expressed concerns about certain aspects of how the Act is set out and being enforced. My Department has sought input into this review, from local authorities and Traveller organisations, in particular, as well as from other interested groups. There has been considerable interest in the review and a number of sensible suggestions have been made in respect of improvements to the Act in order to better serve the needs of all stakeholders. Some stakeholders are particularly concerned about a lack of consistency regarding the by-laws introduced by local authorities to deal with wandering horses. In addition, retention and notice periods vary from county to county and this causes confusion both among horse owners who may deal with different rules across county boundaries. It is also the case that where local authorities share facilities in the interests of efficiency, there can be confusion about which rules apply to which horses. Therefore, while acknowledging that there are wider social and long-term issues around horse ownership which present complex challenges in tandem, there is also clear scope to update the legislation in the short term so that the existing situation can be improved. My Department will be addressing this issue in the near future.

I indicated that there was a considerable body of legislation aimed at protecting the welfare of horses. The Animal Health and Welfare Act 2013 is very strong and includes severe penalties for breaches of its provisions. I acknowledge that there were far too many incidences of abuse of horses in the recent past, many of which were related to the general oversupply of animals. However, the position in respect of oversupply has been largely corrected and this is reflected in the substantial reduction in the number of horses removed under the Control of Horses Act last year. In general, I am satisfied that there has been a very significant improvement in the overall situation relating to the welfare of horses in recent years. I have provided substantial funds to animal welfare organisations to assist them in dealing with animal welfare issues that arise. I have also strengthened legislation relating to the identification of horses and this should also help to deal with abuse of horses, in particular by improving the prospects of tracing the persons responsible for the abuse. That is the key to the issue being dealt with.

The reality is that the penalties provided in the Act are already quite severe and the maximum allowable under the Irish legal system. Summary convictions can bring fines of €5,000 and six months in jail. Conviction on indictment can lead to fines of €250,000 and up to five years in prison. Furthermore, the Act gives a Minister greater power to authorise people such as members of non-governmental organisations operating in the animal welfare area to act. Officers from the DSPCA and the ISPCA have been authorised to act and this system is working well.
With regard to the welfare of horses, my Department has stressed and continues to stress that it is the responsibility of horse owners to ensure the welfare of horses in their ownership or care and to dispose of them appropriately. My Department, in conjunction with local authorities and the Garda, continues to adopt a proactive approach to horse welfare, will remove at-risk animals and, where appropriate, institute prosecutions for the maltreatment of these animals.
Members of the public are encouraged to report concerns about the welfare of horses or any animal. I assure the House that any complaint will be dealt with. The funding provided by my Department includes a payment to local authorities towards the rehoming costs of each horse seized under the Act. Unfortunately, it is not possible to rehome all equines because of the substantial numbers involved and the costs associated with keeping a horse. Where rehoming is not an option, my Department provides a payment towards the costs associated with disposal of the animals. If the Senator has any evidence of pregnant mares being abandoned by local authorities, she should provide details to my Department in order that efforts to rehome such animals can be pursued, something I assure her will happen.
My Department also provides considerable funding for animal welfare organisations in order to assist them in carrying out their very important functions in promoting the welfare of animals. In December 2015 I provided funding of €2.4 million for 140 welfare organisations throughout the country, many of which are involved in horse welfare, in order to assist them in activities. I am satisfied that this very generous level of funding should ensure that they have sufficient resources available to cater for difficulties arising in the area of horse welfare in the coming year.
Some of the recipients of funding are supporting the development of facilities for horse projects targeted at the younger horse owning population. They include modules on a range of practical skills and knowledge on the care of equines. These organisations will also be requested to develop dedicated projects providing for equine castration in order to reduce indiscriminate breeding and improve horse welfare.
The responsibility of the Department in regard to horses is also dispensed through the Control of Horses Act 1996. It was introduced to address the serious problems being caused by straying horses wandering onto public roads and land and posing risks to the public, especially motorists and younger children, and public and private property. Local authorities have responsibility for implementing the Act. Under the legislation, my Department provides assistance for local authorities towards the expenses incurred in the implementation of the Act and, in this regard, almost €953,000 was provided in 2015 for local authorities. This is a significant reduction on previous years, largely due to the fact that the number of horses removed under the Act reduced from 5,000 in 2013 to an estimated 2,000 in 2015. The substantial reduction in the number of horses removed under the Act reflects a general improvement in the welfare of horses in 2015.

I thank the Minister of State for a very detailed reply. Horses do not know boundaries and cannot indicate who are their owners. That is the problem. If the Minister of State says he is strengthening the position, I will send him, by e-mail, a question on the various organisations to which funding is given, particularly those that provide therapy for horses and that work with juveniles who own horses. I have visited a horse project which is not receiving any funding but which is doing fantastic work. I will revert to the Minister of State on that point.

While the figures are moving in the right direction, an issue arises in respect of the number of horses removed which could be used in therapy but which are just got rid of. There is a project and if we put a few bob into it, horses could be put to use rather than got rid of. I will come back to the Minister of State on that point. I thank him for the detailed response.

I would be interested in receiving the details about the project in County Mayo to which the Senator referred. Regarding therapy, if there is something that can help children, it should be explored. The issue is to deal with the problem when 5,000 horses were creating hassle for people, both private and public. This number has decreased substantially. We would be very open to any project that could help the animals benefit young people. We might set up a meeting with some of our officials to try to help out.

Army Barracks Closures

I thank the Minister of State for coming to the House to discuss an issue I have been asked to raise. He will be familiar with the restructuring of the Defence Forces and the various commands within them during the early years of the Government. As part of this, a number of barracks were closed, including in Clonmel and Mullingar. The Minister of State was in Clonmel on the day of the last walking out of the soldiers from the barracks, as was I.

Commitments were given to interested organisations that the barracks around the country would be put to good use. I commend the Minister of State for the work he is doing to ensure the Clonmel barracks is an integral part of the infrastructure of the area. However, in Mullingar, a group, which we should all respect, the Irish United Nations Veterans Association, IUNVA, was given the opportunity to use part of a building in the barracks, the officers' mess, for meeting and holding social events. The IUNVA has sought a long-term lease on the section in order to secure tenure and ensure it could develop and upgrade it as it saw fit.

Although the issue has been dragging on for well over a year, the IUNVA has received no positive response, only excuses why the property section of the Department will not make a decision about it. It was told the local GAA club was going to take over the whole barracks area, including the lands, and sublet the IUNVA section to it. This seems to have fallen through. Then the IUNVA was told it had to wait, given that there was a possibility the barracks would be used for refugees. Based on research I have done, this is clearly not the case. The IUNVA has received no answer since.

In recent weeks and months Mullingar Boxing Club has taken up residence in the dining room area. It is a great initiative to use the building, as the Government stated it would, to provide services in the community. However, surely the IUNVA, the members of which have served the country at home and overseas as members of one of the proudest armies in the world, should be treated with respect and receive security of tenure. The foot-dragging in the Department's property section should stop. There is a logjam which should be explained to the local people involved under the chairman, Mr. Eddie Robinson, and the national organisation.

A lease should be put in place, for which the IUNVA is prepared to pay. In other buildings in other parts of the country the leases were given at a minimal cost and ensured the buildings were used. No group is more deserving than the IUNVA.

The time for dragging the feet on this, a small issue which, has continued for well over a year has come to an end. It must finish today. I await the response of the Minister of State.

I thank the Senator for raising this issue and giving me an opportunity to explain the position on Columb Barracks. Following the closure of the barracks in March 2012, officials in the Department of Defence wrote to Departments and other public bodies inviting them to express any interest in the property, with a view to its disposal by the Department. No such interest was expressed at the time.

As I am sure the Senator will be aware, the Department was approached by the Westmeath GAA County Board for the use of the barracks as a training centre. Parts of the barracks in Mullingar are used by the county board on a short-term lease and discussions are taking place with it regarding its future use of the barracks. The former barracks is also used by An Garda Síochána and the Customs service for training purposes.

A number of other local groups, including the Irish United Nations Veterans Association, IUNVA, the Order of Malta and the midland youth services have also been allocated units in the barracks on short-term basis. In addition, the Department has also received numerous requests from other local community groups wishing to avail of accommodation within the barracks.

The Irish United Nations Veterans Association has occupied the former officers' mess unit in the barracks since late 2014 and requested a long-term lease on the premises. Officials from the Department have met the association's representatives on site to discuss its plans for the barracks and have raised questions regarding those plans. The premises were initially provided for the IUNVA on the basis that it would be used as a meeting place for members of the association. It has since come to our attention that the lUNVA's long-term vision for the premises includes the provision of a coffee shop, overnight accommodation for its members and a bar.

Also, the Department of Justice and Equality, the lead Department for the refugee accommodation programme, is considering whether any of the buildings falling within the remit of my Department, including Columb Barracks, is suitable for the purposes of providing temporary accommodation for refugees. While the Department supports the ongoing use of the barracks by the local community the current financial and administrative burden resulting from the retention of the barracks cannot be sustained, given that the barracks is no longer required for military purposes. Accordingly, officials of the Department will be happy to discuss with any interested group, including the local authority, any proposal it may have for the possible purchase and future development of the site for the benefit of the local community. This is in keeping with the Department's policy to dispose of surplus property no longer required for military purposes.

The example in Clonmel, where the local authority took the lead with a master plan, would be fitting. I am only representing the Minister, but it strikes me that the future of Columb Barracks lies in a master plan and that the lead authority should be the local authority. Many of the local organisations could then be accommodated within the barracks. It is clear from the response that the officials would entertain this. In this regard, officials from the Department are scheduled to meet the CEO of Westmeath County Council in the coming weeks to discuss possible future plans for the barracks. They would also be happy to discuss, with any interested group, any proposal they may have for the possible purchase and future development of the site for the benefit of the local community. In the circumstances, it is not possible to enter into a long-term lease with any of the current occupiers of the barracks.

I am very disappointed with the response. Clearly, if those who served the country played GAA games instead, they would have a better chance of getting the necessary premises to engage in their social activities in retirement. The level of respect being shown to soldiers who have served the country, not only in Ireland but also overseas, is despicable. It is not good enough. I appeal to the Minister of State as somebody who has a little common sense.

It is clear that nobody wants this building. Since the barracks was closed in March 2012 no interest has been shown in it. This situation cannot be compared with that in Clonmel where the Minister of State is one of the lead people and made sure a plan was put in place. That was not the case in County Westmeath. If Westmeath County Council was interested in the building, the opportunity would have been availed of by now. The answer given by the Minister of State is a fob-off generated by departmental officials. I ask him to intervene because I know he is somebody who prioritises people's interests. I ask him to move this matter on much further than has been stated in his response.

I understand the Senator's frustration. If there was a similar situation in Clonmel, people there would be very annoyed. I bring the Senator back to the fact that there will be a meeting involving the chief executive office of Westmeath County Council in the coming weeks.

After three years.

Yes, but that has not happened up to now. A meeting should take place to see what could happen. As the Senator will know, in Clonmel there was slow progress. The fact is that if one had a master plan, the Department would be willing to engage. One must have a lead authority. We had success in County Tipperary because its county council took the lead and brought along the VECs and all of the other organisations that will now use those premises. If the same proposal was brought forward in County Westmeath, I believe one could move the situation on. We need to keep up the pressure. A lot of work needs to be done to get people to communicate in order to reach agreement, but there is potential. As the Senator said, the building has been left idle too long, which is wrong. That is hard on organisations that want to avail of the premises. I understand where the Senator is coming from. Now that he has raised the matter here, we should receive a report on the meeting to which I referred. We can then set up a meeting for the Senator to discuss the matter.

I thank the Minister of State.

Sitting suspended at 3.30 p.m. and resumed at 3.35 p.m.