Commencement Matters

Human Rights

I thank the Cathaoirleach for facilitating this conversation and the Minister of State for engaging with the issue. There is no doubt that the Seanad has been to the fore in prioritising LGBT rights this term, from introducing legislation dealing with an apology to and exoneration of men criminalised in the State before 1993 to a Bill dealing with pensions and my upcoming Bill dealing with transgender rights so that young people can have their true gender recognised. That Bill will be debated in the House on 10 May. All these initiatives are part of an important process that aims to make Ireland not only a model republic but a beacon of hope for oppressed people and LGBTQI people everywhere. It is in that spirit that I hope Ireland does what we can and I expect Ireland to do what we can to support LGBTQI people, in particular, gay men, in Chechnya.

I am sure the Minister of State is aware of the reports from human rights groups in Chechnya that more than 100 men suspected by Chechen forces of being gay have been interned in specifically designed internment camps. The reports go further to say that three men have been killed and that, so far, men currently detained are being tortured with electric currents and heavily beaten, sometimes to death. When asked for a reaction to the allegations, a spokesperson for the Chechen President denied the claims and suggested that there are no gay people in the region. He stated:

You cannot arrest or repress people who just don't exist in the republic. If such people existed in Chechnya, law enforcement would not have to worry about them since their own relatives would have sent them to where they could never return.

Chechnya is largely isolated and this situation remains shrouded, with a lack of confirmation on the exact situation regarding the internment camps. I do not think I could point to a more worrying situation than the Administration itself has done. It is clear that the Chechen President feels that Chechnya needs to be cleansed of gay citizens and his delusional denial of the existence of gay men does not invoke any degree of confidence in his rejections of claims that these internment camps exist.

I have a couple of questions which I hope the Minister of State will be able to answer or take to the Minister for Foreign Affairs and Trade. Is the Department of Foreign Affairs and Trade aware of the situation? Has the Department spoken to the Russian ambassador? Will the Department continue to monitor and investigate these reports? Will the Minister urgently contact his Russian counterpart, Sergey Lavrov, to ascertain the situation in Chechnya? Will the Minister make contact with his European counterparts also?

I thank the Senator for raising the issue and apologise that the Minister, Deputy Flanagan, is not able to attend.

In our international relations, Ireland supports the promotion and protection of the human rights of all persons, irrespective of their sexual orientation and gender identity. Ireland believes that consensual same-sex relationships between adults should not be criminalised and supports measures to ensure that the right to freedom of expression and association can be enjoyed effectively by all people. Ireland co-sponsored an historic resolution on human rights, sexual orientation and gender identity, which was adopted at the UN human rights council in 2011. This was the first time a UN resolution explicitly acknowledged human rights protection as covering sexual orientation and demonstrates the increasing commitment across the broader international community to the promotion and protection of the human rights of all persons, irrespective of their sexual orientation and gender identity.

The ongoing deterioration in the protection of human rights in civil society space in Russia is deeply troubling. Ireland has consistently advocated for increased EU support for civil society in Russia, which continues to be very vulnerable.

International human rights organisations and the Governments of developed democracies around the world, including Ireland’s, condemned a law introduced in Russia in 2013 which discriminated against members of the LGBT community. The United Nations and regional institutions, of which Russia is a member, made clear that the Russian law in question, as well as other infringements of LGBT rights in the country, are a direct violation of international human rights law and of Russia's international obligations.

I am aware of alarming reports by international human rights organisations and by the media of the abduction of over 100 men in recent days in the Chechen Republic on the basis of their sexual orientation, as part of a co-ordinated campaign. Reports also indicate that those abducted were subjected to torture and ill-treatment, as well as forced to disclose the identities of other LGBT individuals they know. According to these reports, at least three men have also died as a result of these actions.

lf confirmed, these reports would amount to serious violations of basic human rights that are sadly a further addition to the long list of human rights abuses in Chechnya. The reaction of Chechen authorities to these allegations, seeking to justify violence against members of the LGBT community, is unacceptable and deeply disturbing. I note a statement on behalf of the Russian President, Vladimir Putin, last week that law enforcement authorities would look into these reports. The Minister is calling on the Russian Government to urgently undertake a thorough investigation into the reports of the abduction and killing of gay men in Chechnya, to reject the cynical statement of local Chechen officials justifying violence against and the murder of gay men and to make it clear that it does not condone such statements. It is also incumbent on the Russian Government to take the necessary steps to protect those fleeing persecution in Chechnya, as well as those civil society activists who are offering assistance to them.

As to the Senator’s question as to whether the Minister has raised this with the Russian ambassador, it is my understanding that it has not been raised directly yet. The reports of this have only emerged over recent days and the Minister is still in the process of receiving information on the extent and the nature of the actions. Once further information is brought to his attention, he will decide what action to take.

The Senator can ask a brief supplementary question. I believe he got a comprehensive response.

Yes, I agree. I welcome the acknowledgement that this amounts to serious violations of basic human rights. I believe it amounts to crimes against humanity.

There is an informal meeting of EU foreign affairs Ministers in Malta on 28 April. Before that time, I, along with the LGBT community and its allies would appreciate it if the Russian embassy could be contacted about this matter and then if the Minister could raise it in Malta.

I am sure the Minister will do that.

The Government shares the Senator’s grave concerns on this issue. The Minister will continue to monitor the situation through the Irish embassy in Moscow and join with international partners to ensure a full and thorough investigation takes place into these actions.

Local Authority Members' Remuneration

I would like to share time with my colleague, Senator Gallagher.

Is that agreed? Agreed.

The issue I am raising relates to the terms and conditions of local authority members. As the Minister of State is aware, over the past several years, there are 678 fewer local authority members than there were when the reform of local government took place under the previous Government. There are now only 949 local authority members. We used to have 114 local authority areas, including town councils, but this has been reduced to 31. Ireland holds the sad distinction of having fewer public representatives per head of population than any other country in western Europe. There is one local authority member for every 5,000 members of the public, as opposed to one local authority member for every 100 persons in France. France takes local government seriously with every town, village and crossroads having somebody who represents the community at local authority level.

Ireland has not only taken away many of the local authority areas and members, but their terms and conditions have been reduced drastically over the years. The Minister for Housing, Planning, Community and Local Government previously outlined to the House why he was discriminating against those in Dublin, Galway and Cork cities and not treating them equally in his proposals.

I was hoping the Minister of State would outline to the House if the Minister has fulfilled his pledges to us and the terms and conditions he promised would be put in place. As they stand they do not go far enough to deal with the increased workload that local authority members face and the number of meetings they have to attend.

I concur totally with the sentiments outlined by my learned colleague, Senator Mark Daly. It is disappointing we find ourselves back in the House, raising this issue again. We had all hoped at this point that there would be some real and tangible progress to report. Unfortunately, that is not the case.

We are chasing county councillors out of local democracy because the reality is that, in order to do one's job properly, it is a full-time job. There is no way one can hold down a job properly and be a local representative at the same time. It is just not possible. All we are looking for is fair play and a fair day's pay for a fair day’s work. No local representative goes into local government to make money. All we are looking for is the vital role they play on a daily basis is recognised and that they get full recompense for it.

I thank the Senators for raising this issue and the Minister for Housing, Planning, Community and Local Government sends his apologies for not being able to attend the Chamber.

Effective local government structures are an essential part of our democracy. In turn, effective local government cannot be achieved without the hard work and commitment of elected members in service of their communities. I join with the Senators in commending the work of many local authority members across the country. A range of financial supports is in place to assist councillors in their vital work. These include a representational payment, fixed annual expenses allowances, travel and subsistence allowances, a mobile phone allowance, a retirement gratuity, as well as conference and training provisions.

The programme for a partnership Government includes a commitment to review the supports provided to councillors, in consultation with representative bodies, to enable councillors to continue their important work. Shortly after assuming office, the Minister met with representatives of the Association of Irish Local Government, ALG, and the Local Authority Members Association, LAMA, to discuss the view of their members that positive consideration should be given to improving the range of supports available. In January this year, taking account of the considerable additional workload on councillors since the 2014 local government reforms were introduced, the Minister announced two important changes to better support councillors in their role as public representatives.

First, a municipal district members' allowance worth €1,000 per annum is being introduced in the 25 local authorities that now have municipal districts, as these areas were most affected by the reduction in councillor numbers since 2014. Second, a new vouched annual expenses allowance of up to a maximum of €5,000 is being introduced which councillors may choose to opt for in place of the existing unvouched fixed rate annual expenses allowance worth approximately €2,500. These new measures must be implemented from July this year, following the necessary legislative amendments being put in place in consultation with the Minister for Public Expenditure and Reform. The ALG, on behalf of its members, has called for a degree of flexibility to be applied to the new annual expenses allowance by retaining an unvouched element while amounts above this would be claimed on a vouched basis. The Minister is taking this matter under consideration and has asked his Department to examine this proposal in the context of the arrangements in place for members of the Oireachtas.

The Department is also examining the revised travel rates for public servants recently announced by the Minister for Public Expenditure and Reform so as to consider how they can best be aligned with councillors' terms and conditions in a manner that is both fair to councillors but also has a clear rationale and is consistent with rates that apply elsewhere. Consultation with the Department of Public Expenditure and Reform and the Revenue Commissioners will be necessary.

I again thank the Senators for raising this matter. The Minister intends to give his full consideration to the issues raised by the representative associations and to reach a conclusion in this regard as soon as possible.

I thank the Minister of State for her reply. I wish to share my supplementary time with Senators Gallagher and Wilson who is also concerned about this issue.

The issue of vouched expenses was raised in this House before with several suggestions put forward. I am glad the Minister is examining the issue of travel rates and that they should in effect be compatible with a rationale behind them.

He will have to return to the House in July to update us on the conclusions reached in regard to these proposals. While there are no distinct answers on some of these matters, it is an ongoing issue.

I thank the Minister of State for her response. On the last paragraph, how soon can we expect the Minister to make an announcement on the issues on which we are waiting for clarity?

It is my understanding that will happen in July, but I will bring the Senators' queries to the attention of the Minister and ask him to revert to them directly.

I understand the Minister is in close contact with the ALG and LAMA. It is hoped a sensible solution will be arrived at.

Schools Building Projects Status

I would like to share my time with Senator Robbie Gallagher.

Is that agreed? Agreed.

I welcome the Minister of State, Deputy Helen McEntee, and thank her for taking this matter on behalf of the Minister for Education and Skills.

The Holy Family school in Cootehill, County Cavan is unique and an important school for the counties of Cavan and Monaghan. It caters for pupils between the ages of four and 18 years with severe and profound learning difficulties, moderate and multiple learning disabilities and-or autism. It is an important project for the community at large. While the Department has gone some way towards progressing the project, the approval of the Minister for Education and Skills is necessary if it is to proceed further.

The Department has accepted that this major building project is a priority to progress to tender and construction stage. On 31 January it was authorised to complete stage 2B, architectural planning. The initial feasibility study for the new school accommodation was carried out in 2002. The design team was appointed in 2006 but for various reasons delays have occurred, including because of an increase in enrolments and changes to the schedule of accommodation. Since 2002 the school population has doubled in size and the school's facilities are totally inadequate to meet the needs of the pupils. The school operates on two sites such that pupils attending the White Star complex in Market Street in the town have to travel by bus, on a daily basis, to the main building for lunch. There is a severe lack of space in both buildings. For example, one class which comprises four wheelchair users is held in the PE storeroom. I am sure the Minister of State will agree that this is not acceptable.

I pay tribute to the board of management, previous boards of management, the principal and staff for the excellent job they are doing in difficult circumstances. The board of management does not want to introduce waiting lists for the first time in the school's history as it is the only school of its type in Cavan-Monaghan. However, if something is not done soon and it is not possible to accommodate all of the children who need to attend the school, serious problems will arise for children in both counties with moderate, severe and-or profound disabilities. Children who need to attend the school must not be deprived of that opportunity. It is important that the Minister, Deputy Richard Bruton, give the go-ahead for commencement of construction of the project this year.

The school sought and was granted planning permission last year for temporary accommodation to enable it to move site this summer to allow construction work to commence on the main site before the end of this year. The board of management, the parents association and the wider school community are frustrated by the delays. It is important that the requisite approval be issued at the earliest possible opportunity. I ask the Minister of State to impress this point on the Minister.

The project is a priority for councillors and Oireachtas representatives in Cavan-Monaghan. My colleague, Deputy Brendan Smith, has been raising the issue on a regular basis and was instrumental in the granting of initial approval in 2002 for commencement of construction of this project. It is also a priority for the parents of children who have attended or are attending the school and the wider community in Cootehill.

I, too, welcome the Minister of State. I concur with the sentiments of my colleague, Senator Diarmuid Wilson, on the issue. The school in question caters for pupils from counties Cavan and Monaghan. It has a great reputation and gone from strength to strength in terms of enrolments which have doubled since 2002. I pay tribute to the principal and staff, the board of management, previous boards of management and the many others involved in lobbying to get the project moving. It has been on the track for far too long. The school operates on two sites which I am sure the Minister of State will agree is inadequate. We would welcome progress on the issue. Everything is ready to go. We need the Minister for Education and Skills, Deputy Richard Bruton, to iron out the remaining difficulties to enable the project to proceed to construction stage early in 2017. The school was founded by a former Member of the Lower House, Dr. Rory O'Hanlon, over 50 years ago. Many students have passed through the school with great distinction since. It is time the project was grasped in order that the students and staff can enjoy conditions suitable to the tasks they undertake.

I welcome the teachers and pupils present in the Visitors Gallery. It is nice to see young children visiting the Seanad and acknowledging our presence.

I thank both Senators for raising this issue as it provides me with an opportunity to outline to the Seanad the current position on the major building project for the Holy Family school in Cootehill. I understand the urgency attached to the project, given that it involves a multidenominational and co-educational special needs school which caters for pupils aged between four and 18 years with moderate and profound learning difficulties and autism. The project was included in the six-year programme announced on 17 November 2015 to proceed to tender and construction. The original brief was to provide a 21 classroom school. Following a meeting with the Department in December 2015, the school and its design team were authorised to increase the scale of the project to deliver a new 26 classroom school. As outlined by Senator Diarmuid Wilson, on 18 November 2016 the design team submitted a stage 2A addendum report to the Department for review. The review was completed by the end of January 2017 and the board of management and its design team were authorised to complete stage 2B - developed design stage. This stage includes obtaining planning permission, a fire safety certificate and a disability access certificate.

All statutory approvals have now been secured for the project. Construction will require the full decant of the existing school to temporary accommodation on a nearby site. The decant will be an integral part of the school building project and form part of the main contract. Planning permission for the decant accommodation was secured in August 2016. The fire certificate and disability access certificate were subsequently secured and the Department has authorised the signing of a lease by the school to secure the decant site. The design team architect has informed the Department that they expect to submit the stage 2B report for review by the end of this month. Once the stage 2B report has been submitted and approved, the Department will revert to the school with a timeframe for the tender process, including the pre-qualification of contractors.

I regret that I am unable to give the Senators an exact date for commencement of the project, but I hope they are assured by the response that the project will be addressed at the earliest date possible.

I thank the Minister of State for her reply. On the reference to the school having to decant from its current site, as outlined in my earlier remarks, it is prepared for that move.

I impress on the Minister the urgency for this project to proceed if children are not to be refused enrolment at the school because there is not sufficient room to accommodate them. Nobody, least of all the principal and staff of the school, wants that to happen. I urge the Minister of State to impress on the Minister, Deputy Bruton, the need for this project to progress as quickly as possible.

In regard to the group of people currently in the Visitors Gallery, they are members of the Foróige Youth Club in Narramore, County Kildare. Like the Cathaoirleach, I welcome them to the Seanad. I hope they enjoy their visit to Leinster House and Dublin.

I, too, welcome the people in the Visitors Gallery. I acknowledge that this is an extremely urgent case and that it is important the next stage of the process commences by the end of this month. I will bring the Senators' concerns to the attention of the Minister.

I wish the daoine óga a very happy Easter. I am sure they will have time off from school to relax and enjoy the fine weather.

Sitting suspended at 11.05 a.m. and resumed at 11.30 a.m.