Commencement Matters

Office of Public Works Properties

I warmly welcome the Minister of State to the House on his first official engagement here. Before I speak on the specific topic, I want to publicly put on the record of the House my praise for the Minister of State for the bravery he has displayed in recent weeks in highlighting his battle with literacy and the challenges it poses in his life. His actions have spoken louder than any words, which is why I believe he will inspire many people to put their hands up for help. Now that it has put the issue on the agenda I would be happy to work with the Minister of State in progressing it in any way. As Nelson Mandela said, the brave man is not the one who has no fears, he is the one who triumphs over his fears. I say "Well done" to the Minister of State.

I am very glad it is the Minister of State, Deputy Moran, taking this Commencement matter today. He is from a neighbouring county of mine. It is a subject of which he has spoken in favour before and he will be making proposals which will come before the Cabinet on this very issue. I agree entirely with the Minister of State when he says the long-term benefits of opening all Office of Public Works sites freely to children will be huge.

There has been much talk recently about how we need to move our education system away from the reliance on memory and recitation and focus more on learning through experience. Visits to various sites steeped in history will not only inspire creativity but also create lifelong memories. Paris is one city that can be looked to when examining such a plan. Anyone who has visited Paris is aware it is an expensive city. However, if one is under-26 and a citizen of the European Union, one is entitled to free entry into some of the finest and most popular museums and monuments of the city such as the Louvre, the Arc de Triomphe and the Panthéon, which ordinarily cost €12, €9.50 and €9, respectively, to enter. They are some of the most well-known tourist attractions in the world so it would save a young visitor a very incentivising €30.

We have some fantastic sites here in Ireland which are spread all over the country and draw many visitors every year. The opening of heritage sites managed by the OPW for free on the first Wednesday of every month for the duration of their seasons has proved very popular. The number of visitors to OPW heritage sites rose to 6.6 million last year, which was a significant increase on the previous year. The most popular site in 2016 was the National Botanic Gardens where over 583,000 visited, up more than 30,000 from 2015. The number of visitors to Castletown House and parklands in County Kildare nearly doubled last year with 547,000 visiting the 18th-century mansion and its surrounding gardens, which was up from 297,000 in 2015.

Kilkenny Castle has also seen record-breaking numbers come through its gates with 384,000 visitors to the castle and its grounds. The completion of the new visitors' centre in the old Kilmainham courthouse saw the number of visitors to Kilmainham Gaol rise by 64,000 to 390,000 in 2016. While these numbers are testament to the great work of the 1916 commemoration committees, figures show that the numbers were rising before 2016 as a reflection of the increasing popularity of our heritage product nationally and internationally. All across Ireland, visitor numbers are up. Areas outside the big cities have seen a huge rise in the number of visitors, for which we can thank the OPW sites.

As we all know, the greatest threat to Ireland currently is Brexit. Its effects have already been felt on the island with the numbers arriving from the UK falling by almost 11%. The post-Brexit fall in sterling has made it more expensive to travel. Coupled with the sheer uncertainty of the negotiations, this is forcing the British people to think twice about visiting their nearest neighbours. If we want the number of visitors to these sites to continue to rise and not to decline, opening them up freely for entry by children is the smart option. According to a response to a parliamentary question submitted by my party colleague, Deputy John McGuinness, the then-Minister of State, Deputy Canny, stated that the popularity of OPW sites was a key driver in terms of the economic benefit being generated for the tourism sector and that receipts in this area had increased year on year to over €11 million in 2016. With this in mind, I beseech the Minister of State not to rest until he has carried out his plans to open all OPW sites to children free of charge.

I thank the Senator for the kinds words in his opening remarks. It is a privilege for me to be here as Minister of State with responsibility for the OPW. The Senator is right that it is my first such engagement and I am delighted to be here for it.

Immediately on taking up the post of Minister of State with responsibility for the Office of Public Works, I asked my officials to introduce a scheme of free entry for children under 12 to paid heritage sites managed by the OPW's heritage service. Such a scheme would be a very progressive development and foster a greater awareness of the value of our national culture among our young. A scheme would encourage greater participation among families and a desire to visit these sites. The Office of Public Works already operates a free scheme for school visits which has been in place for many years and this will remain unchanged. The proposal I am considering would, however, extend the scheme to all children who visit the sites. Following a full assessment of the operational needs surrounding this proposal, which will involve changes to the admission protocols at sites and a consideration of the financial costs, I hope to be in a position to make a formal announcement in the coming weeks.

I thank the Minister of State for his response and his enthusiasm on the subject. I hope very much that this will be carried through to Cabinet and that the proposal will succeed.

I assure the Senator that this is one proposal I want to carry through and on which I am working with my Department to implement.

I also welcome the Minister of State to the House. I had not realised it was his first engagement here. I wish him every luck in his brief. I am sure he will acquit himself with the usual aplomb. I wish him well.

I thank the Cathaoirleach.

General Practitioner Services

I welcome the Minister of State at the Department of Health, Deputy Jim Daly, to the House and wish him every success in his new brief. It is a very proud occasion for him and his wife and family, including his extended family. Like Deputy Daly, there were 11 in my family and I am the baby of the 11. It is great to see a west Cork man here. I am delighted he has been successful. Senator Byrne has four minutes to outline her case.

I welcome the Minister of State, Deputy Daly, to the House and congratulate him formally on his appointment yesterday. I am delighted for him and wish him the best of luck for the future.

I raise this matter to call on University Hospital Limerick to provide access for general practitioners to the blood clinic over five days a week. Currently, there is access only on four days a week, namely, Monday to Thursday, but I have heard from a number of general practitioners that this is causing a problem. Where a patient presents in a practice on a Monday to Thursday morning, bloods are taken and the results are back in the afternoon. The doctor will then know whether the patient needs to be sent to the hospital. On a Friday, however, that access to the blood clinic is not available to general practitioners. If a patient attends on a Friday, there is no way to check the bloods for various issues, including anaemia. As such, there is no choice but to send the patient to the accident and emergency department.

There is a chronic situation in University Hospital Limerick. The Minister for Health, Deputy Simon Harris, was in Limerick recently to open the new accident and emergency department, which was very welcome. It was great to see it. While there were very few people on trolleys that day, what is happening now is that people are being sent in on a Friday because GPs cannot check their bloods. As such, some people are being sent unnecessarily and taking up places which should go to those who really need them. Some of the time, these people may simply have been feeling tired and have no other issues. Until that is checked, however, they have to sit in the accident and emergency department, taking time from those with more serious illnesses. I am asking for the Department to intervene to see if the blood clinic can open on a Monday to Friday basis.

Sa chéad áit, ba mhaith liom mo bhuíochas as ucht an fáilte. I thank the Cathaoirleach very much for his welcome and his very generous and kind words and I thank Senator Byrne for raising this important issue, which I am replying to on behalf of the Minister for Health, Deputy Simon Harris.

I welcome the opportunity to address the House on this matter and to ease the Senator's concerns about blood testing facilities for general practitioners at University Hospital Limerick, or UHL. I am pleased to inform the Senator that UHL provides blood testing facilities for GPs on a Monday to Friday basis. The UHL pathology department's laboratories have always accepted and tested GP bloods and, of course, other specimens, on week days. Defined drop off and delivery times for specimens are in place to provide a streamlined process and to allow for the timely processing and testing of patient samples. Specimen acceptance criteria times are Monday to Thursday from 9 a.m. to 4 p.m. and on Fridays from 9 a.m. to 2 p.m. The defined specimen drop off and delivery times allow UHL laboratory staff sufficient time to process specimens according to their priority. The House will no doubt appreciate that all internal acute hospital clinical specimens are essentially prioritised due to the nature of acutely ill patients. GP and primary care specimens are then processed, within acceptable timeframes, so as to prevent any compromise of test results due to any testing delays.

I acknowledge that the Senator may be concerned about the status of urgent specimens required by GPS but I have been assured by UHL that all urgent and critical GP specimens are accepted by UHL laboratories outside routine working hours. However, in such circumstances, it is necessary for the referring clinicians to make contact with laboratory staff prior to the delivery of the specimen. In addition to the blood testing facilities operating on a Monday to Friday basis, I have been informed that Shannondoc provides out-of-hours medical care to patients throughout the mid-west region, and as such, has blood testing facilities. The Shannondoc GP courier specimen collection service recently extended its service from three to four days. The service, which previously operated on Tuesdays, Wednesdays and Thursdays, has now been extended to include Mondays. While this extension of operating hours has obviously resulted in a corresponding increase of some 20% to 30% in the number of GP specimens received by the UHL laboratories, I am delighted that UHL has been in a position to respond to this increase in demand.

It is a fact that any further extension of services at UHL laboratories will increase the financial demands on the hospital in terms of staff costs, test reagents, kits and consumables. It is important, therefore, that any proposal to increase service provision should be evaluated in light of the priorities of UHL and the provision of the best service to patients. Finally, I note the very considerable investment in UHL in recent years. As the Senator noted, it was only last week that the Minister, Deputy Harris, officially opened its new state-of-the-art emergency department which represents a major landmark in the provision of patient services in the mid-west.

I thank the Minister of State for his response. The point the GP is making is it is restricted times on a Friday and the Shannon Doc only operates Monday to Thursday so there is a shorter timeframe. I understand extending the time would create greater costs on the hospital, but if the service were extended, it would help to reduce the numbers going in through accident and emergency. Perhaps it is something that can be taken on board.

I will certainly take it back to the Minister. The Senator made a valid point that if it places additional pressure on the accident and emergency department and results in extra admissions, it does not make financial sense. I will certainly report back to the Minister and have it looked into for the Senator. I will see she gets a response.

I thank the Minister of State. I have no doubt there will be bonfires blazing for him in west Cork tomorrow night. Do not do too much damage to the environment in the process.

School Admissions

I thank the Minister for joining me for this conversation. The Joint Committee on Education and Skills has released its report on the Equal Status (Admission to Schools) Bill in which it calls for an end to the baptism barrier. It shows there is ever growing cross-political support for an end to this law. Does the Minister have a response to the report and its recommendations and will he table an amendment to the Bill reflecting that? Since the Minister announced the public consultation on the role of religion in primary school admissions in January, there has been a national conversation on the need for religion to be gone as a discriminatory admission criterion in State-funded schools. We know from research that the vast majority of citizens, including parents with children in school, want it to end. The baptism barrier, which allows State-funded schools to discriminate against children because of their religion or belief, is one of the great inequalities of our time and has no place in a modern, pluralist democracy. The Minister's Department received thousands of submissions in the public consultation on the issue, and I understand the vast majority of those were in favour of removing the baptism barrier. Will the Minister confirm that? One in five people baptised their child to ensure school admission which I think the Minister will agree is problematic. These realities need to be reflected in our education policies. Latest census figures show an Ireland that is very different from when the baptism barrier was created. The 2016 figures show a 73.6% growth in people with no religion, which marks the growth of the largest cohort in society, while 45% of those who identify as having no religion are young adults around my own age, between 20 and 39. They are part of the cohort most likely to have young families and children who are attending school at present or who will be attending in the coming years. These CSO results have to have an impact on how we set our policies and shape our education system. The Minister is aware of these figures because he quoted them. It shows the understanding he has of the changes that are needed in order that school policies reflect the Ireland of today. It is not the job of school admissions policies to dictate to parents the religion in which they should raise their children. The State should not facilitate it. The function of the State is to uphold the right of every child to an education. The Oireachtas is nothing without the people. We are here to support children and young people, not stakeholders. It is through applying the best interest of the child principle that we will see a solution.

I will reiterate my questions. Does the Minister have a response to the committee report and its recommendations? Will he table an amendment to the Bill to reflect those recommendations?

I thank the Senator for raising this matter. It is a very important issue. As he rightly says, the census shows the degree to which our society is changing. As of today, probably northwards of 20% of young parents express either no religion or none of the established religions. It poses a challenge to our system in which 96% of schools are denominational. We have to approach this on a number of fronts. One is the diversification of schools. We are trying to bring new schools in, transfer schools and offer more choice. The issue is how we deal with religion as a criterion of admissions. I have very clearly put on the record time and again that I do not believe it is fair for a school to admit a child from a long way off in preference to a local child simply because that child is of a particular religious denomination. I also do not believe it is fair that parents should feel under pressure to baptise their child simply to get admission to schools.

I have put forward four different possible solutions to restrict the use of religion as a criterion. One is to restrict it to the catchment area. Other solutions are the nearest school rule or to confine the religious preference to a quota of applicants. The fourth option is to do away with religion altogether as a criterion but to look at ways in which the ethos of schools could be protected.

The issue of minority schools comes up. Many people would feel rightly that minority religion schools should be protected. If it were an open access system, some minority schools would not survive because they would be swamped by children of an ethos other than of their own. Those are the constraints. There are other constitutional constraints that we are working within and there are many other issues, such as whether it is feasible to go down the catchment route since there are no catchments. How would we define catchments and would there be one mother and father of a row when we try to decide the catchments in specific areas? That would make it very impractical to do.

We have had the submissions. They were not overwhelmingly in favour of getting rid of the baptism barrier. There were a very substantial number of submissions on the opposite side of the case. We had a forum where we discussed this in great detail and we asked people to look at two things. They looked at finding solutions rather than sticking to where they came from. Many people had very strong, legitimately held views that are diametrically opposed to others. We had that forum and there was no consensus breaking out of it. We are looking to see how we can do this. I very much welcome that parents want to raise their children in their traditional faith. It is a good thing. Parents are the primary educators. We should seek to facilitate them but we cannot do that at the expense of parents who have a very different view. We are trying to balance this. I have only just seen the report of the Oireachtas committee. It is fresh off the printing press. I favour change in this area, as the committee does. It gets down to the detail of what we do.

We have decided in the other House that there will be two tracks. We will proceed with the existing Education (Admission to Schools) Bill and deal with the issues there, which are important. It will say that where a school is not oversubscribed, it must take every child regardless of religion and anything else. That will be the law. It is only in the 20% of schools that are oversubscribed that the issue arises. We are putting into that law, for example, a power for the National Council for Special Education, NCSE, to designate a school for a child with special needs. That is another important power. In the other House, the Labour Party put forward a Bill which included a catchment solution. It will proceed to Second Stage at the end of June. It is on a separate track. It is not my intention at this stage to try to resolve the religious issue. Committee Stage of the Education (Admission to Schools) Bill will be next Wednesday. I do not think we will be ready with a solution for next Wednesday. I do not want to hold up the largely agreed admission improvements while we resolve the other issue. I am absolutely committed to resolving this issue and I am looking at practical ways it can be done. I have to get assurance that any change I make is legally robust, as there is constitutional provision in this area, and that it is practically implementable.

The forum did not resolve that and more work will therefore have to be done to try to find a solution to bring people with us on what the Senator recognises - as do I - is an area in respect of which changes must quickly be made.

I am encouraged that the Minister favours change in this area. The Migrant Rights Centre of Ireland, in its submission to the consultation, said that contemporary Ireland is one of the most diverse countries in Europe, with over 16% of the population being foreign-born and over a quarter of children being born to at least one foreign parent but discriminatory practices such as the baptism barrier hinder the process of integration. There is only one proposition for Irish identity in our age and that is diversity. Do we value all of our community's contribution to the betterment and social integration of this island? I do not think the baptism barrier reflects the Ireland that we live in today. I appreciate the Minister's response.

To be fair to schools under religious control, many operate a very open policy. As I said, only 20% of them are over-subscribed. The remainder admit every pupil regardless of background and many of them do so in a very good way. Perhaps not all meet the very best requirements and we are trying to develop that. We will have a parents and students charter and, under the Education (Admission to Schools) Bill 2016, which is due to proceed to Committee Stage next Wednesday, we will require that schools should specify how they will deal with children who are not of the relevant denomination. We can work with schools that have a denominational ethos to make them a much more positive environment for every pupil and we can also work on more choice and on diminishing the use of religion as a criterion for entry. We have to move on all those issues together.

I have learned that education is very much a community. There are many really strong communities running schools of excellent quality. One has to bring many of those people into the process. One cannot say that one model is to be thrown out in favour of another. For a long time, communities have been running schools and building a community ethos around them. It is a question of trying to change but bring as many people as possible with us. That is the journey that we are on.

State Pensions

I welcome the Minister for Employment and Social Protection, Deputy Regina Doherty, and wish her good luck and success in her new brief. From my humble position, it appears to be a nice promotion for her. I wish her well. She is very welcome. I hope we will see her regularly. It is nice to see senior line Ministers coming in to show respect for the Chamber rather than for me.

Cuirim fáilte roimh an Aire go dtí an Teach seo ar maidin fosta. The Minister is very welcome. I join the Cathaoirleach in congratulating her on her nomination and in wishing her every success in her post. As the Cathaoirleach said, we look forward to seeing her here on a regular basis.

I wish to ask the Minister about pensions and pensioners. Thousands of pensioners, mainly women, are losing large amounts of money from their pension due to changes made to the State pension eligibility rules in 2012. Figures provided by the Department of Employment and Social Protection show that of the 36,000 people affected by these changes, over 65% are women. The Irish Human Rights and Equality Commission has called for a review of the welfare policy from a gender perspective and it appears to have a point. A pension gap of 28% exists between men and women, meaning that women on the State pension are getting approximately €88 less than their average male counterpart.

One of the main reasons women are losing out is changes made by the previous Government in 2012 to amend the eligibility criteria for a contributory State pension by introducing an averaging rule to calculate the number of contributions made by a worker, thus making it more difficult to qualify for a full State pension. The changes clearly and unfairly punish women who took time out of work to care for and rear their children. This is because the current generation of pensioners get no benefit from the homemaker's scheme, which allows for top-ups to State pension payments for those taking time out of the workforce to care for their children. The previous Government claimed to have protected the State pension but this would seem to indicate that the latter is clearly not the case. Many thousands of pensioners have seen their pensions cut dramatically and have lost out on substantial sums of money as a result of that decision. Under the old system, if a person had an average of 20 contributions a year, he or she would be entitled to €228.70. After 2012, this dropped to €198.60, a cut of over €30 per week. Those entitled to a full pension were unaffected but large numbers of those who had been in line for smaller pensions lost out. On average, retired workers have lost more than €1,500 per year but women took the biggest hit, widening the already unequal pension gap.

I call on the Deputy Doherty, as a woman and as a Minister, to consider this issue and the unfairness relating to it and to restore fairness to women who have done the State great service, as I am sure she would agree, and deserve much better.

I thank the Cathaoirleach for his kind words. It is an honour to be in this House. This is my first time here as a senior Minister and I am very privileged to attend.

I thank Senator Gallagher for rasing this issue. He is aware that I was only given the brief for my new role a week ago. I am currently being briefed on the entirety of the Department's brief and amalgamating the role of responsibility for employment into the new Department of Employment and Social Protection. My statement on this matter is factual in so far as it reflects the current position. I will read it into the record of the House and we can then perhaps have a brief discussion on my ambitions in this area.

There are several ways to qualify for a State pension. The rate of payment under the State pension contributory scheme is related to contributions paid over the years into the Social Insurance Fund and credited contributions where applicable. As such, those with a stronger attachment to the workforce and who have paid more into that fund are more likely to be paid at a higher rate than those who made lesser contributions during their working life.

Since the contributory pension was introduced in 1961, the yearly average contributions test has been used in calculating the level of pension entitlement. The total contributions paid or credited are divided by the number of years of working life from a person's entry into insurable employment up to the year prior to his or her reaching State pension age. There are a number of criteria which must be satisfied in order to qualify for a contributory pension, whether at full or reduced level. These include that the person must be aged 66 or over and have paid at least 520 contributions. Payment rates are banded. For example, a person with a yearly average of 48 contributions will qualify for a full pension, whereas a person with a yearly average of 40 will qualify for a pension at the 98% rate. A person with a yearly average of only ten contributions will still qualify for the minimum rate of €93.20. There is a misconception among some that the yearly average approach is unique in paying a higher rate of contributory pension to those with less significant gaps in their record. However, all contributory pensions operate on that basis, with the objective being to reward those who contribute most frequently to the fund which pays for those pensions.

The homemaker's scheme, which was introduced in 1994, makes qualification easier for those who took time out of the workforce on caring duties that many people undertake in respect of children or elderly parents. It allows for up to 20 such years in the period since its introduction to be disregarded when the yearly average is calculated, thus making it easier to qualify for a higher rate of payment. Those with insufficient contributions to meet the requirements for a State pension contributory may qualify for a means-tested non-contributory State pension, the maximum personal rate for which is €227. Alternatively, if a person's spouse has a contributory pension, he or she may qualify for an increase for a qualified adult, amounting to up to 90% of a full-rate pension, which by default is paid directly to him or her.

The national pensions framework proposed that a total contribution approach should replace the yearly average approach. Under this approach, the rate of pension paid would more closely reflect the total number of contributions. The position of those who have gaps in their records is being carefully considered in developing this scheme. It is expected that this approach to pension qualification will replace the current one from 2020 or thereabouts. Following completion of the actuarial review of the Social Insurance Fund later this year, a refined total contribution approach proposal will be developed.

Following a consultation process, I will submit a proposal to Government seeking the review and a new approach.

The current band rate applying to the State pension were introduced from September 2012, replacing the rates introduced in 2000. The revised rate bands reflect the social insurance contributions history of a person more closely, although alternative payments are available for those with small additional means. It is estimated that to revert to the previous bands would cost at least €60 million in 2018.

We are all aware that we do not have the money to do everything we want to do, so we have to be very careful. Having said that, in my primary job as a Deputy, one of the most contentious issues that comes across my desk and one that I have not been able to resolve in the last number of years is this particular issue, particularly for people who do not reach the minimum threshold of the ten credits. That is because of the averaging from the beginning and the end. I assure Members that this is a priority for me. I do not know how I will fix it yet, given the amount of money that would be needed to do exactly what we would like to do, but I can provide 100% assurance that this is a priority. It is not fair that people who have an average of nine weeks get nothing whereas those with an average of ten weeks get €93. The system that we have should mean that if one pays into it one should be paid back, even on a sliding scale. The only commitment I can give is that I am going to do my level best to bring that review and the changes that we had anticipated making, which are projected into 2020, will be a priority for me. I will be looking at it to see what options are available to me to address this issue as soon as I can.

I thank the Minister for outlining that. I am heartened by her contribution and I look forward to having her back to this House at a later date, when hopefully the unfairness of the scheme can be addressed. I have every confidence that she will do that.

I normally do not make any interventions from the Chair but something crossed my mind as a former Deputy myself. In a situation where a person has the 9% and does not qualify for the minimum, would the Department refund the 9% contribution they have made? In other words, if one contributes 9% does one get nothing back? It might be something on which the Minister could reflect.

I am probably speaking out of turn but it does seem to be incredibly unfair. I made representations for a particular lady in the last number of years. She worked in the UK for two years when she was younger and gets a pension cheque from the UK every week and yet we will give her nothing. There is an anomaly there and we certainly will be looking at it.

I wish the Minister well. I hope it is not as difficult as turning the Titanic, but I wish her well.

Sitting suspended at 11.15 a.m. and resumed at 11.35 a.m.