Commencement Matters

Seanad Reform

When the people of Ireland voted in a referendum not to amend the Constitution to abolish Seanad Éireann, the then Taoiseach, Deputy Enda Kenny, indicated at the time that he regarded this as a wallop. After a period of time he said that he would take the path of reform. Acting on foot of the programme for Government acceptance and inclusion of the Manning report, I and other Senators brought forward the Bill which was annexed to the report of the Manning committee to implement its proposals for the reform of the Seanad.

That Bill was considered on Second Stage, the Stage on which the principle of the matter is decided. When the Second Stage debate was over, the Government parties did not oppose its passage to the next Stage. At that point, I was informed that the then Taoiseach wished to address the matter in this House. He came to the House and told us that it was his intention to establish an all-party implementation group to push forward the implementation of the Manning committee report. I and others were left with the strong impression that as soon as the implementation group was formed, there would be progress on the Bill. That was a year ago and nothing has happened on the implementation group. After considerable pressure, the former Taoiseach invited various groups in both Houses of the Oireachtas to contribute Members to the implementation group, but that process appears to have stalled as well.

In the recent leadership contest in the Fine Gael Party I noted that the candidate who is now the Taoiseach, Deputy Varadkar, put before his party colleagues the idea that a special panel would be created for emigrant voters. This is something that was not contemplated by the Manning report. He said nothing about the rest of the report. More recently, it has become clear that there is a total absence of commitment to the Manning report. Indeed, doubts were voiced at the most senior level within the Government as to whether it is wise or appropriate to proceed with the report.

In view of those circumstances, I have asked this House by way of this Commencement matter to give the Government, through the Minister of State whom I welcome, an opportunity to state where the Government stands on this issue. Has the commitment solemnly stated in the programme for Government to implement the Manning report wavered in any way?

Is the alternative scenario canvassed by the Taoiseach, Deputy Varadkar, in his leadership manifesto now being investigated by the Government? I am giving the Minister of State the opportunity to state the intentions of the Government clearly and unambiguously.

I thank the Senator for the chance to clarify the record and confirm that there is no change to the Government's commitment. We will go through the formalities. I must have missed the matter in the debate on the leadership contest.

A Programme for a Partnership Government confirms the Government's commitment to pursue the implementation of the Manning report. I am pleased to have the opportunity to speak to the Senator and reassure him that the Government remains committed to the implementation of the Manning report on Seanad reform.

Following the Seanad referendum, the then Taoiseach, Deputy Enda Kenny, established an independent working group on Seanad reform in December 2014. The principal focus of the working group was on the possible reform of the Seanad electoral system. The working group also explored ways of reforming Seanad Éireann generally and the manner in which it carries out its business. The group examined these issues within existing constitutional parameters.

The key recommendations in the report were that the majority of Senators should be elected by the popular vote in a one person, one vote system and that this principle should be extended to include Irish citizens in Northern Ireland and those living overseas who hold a valid Irish passport; that there should be a review of the panel system; that provision should be made for the online registration of voters and downloading of ballot papers; that there should be a greater role for the Seanad in the scrutiny, amendment and initiation of legislation; and that an interim limitation body should be established to oversee the implementation of the changes.

The then Taoiseach welcomed the report when it was published and said there needed to be a public and political discussion and consultation on it. During 2015, Members of the last Seanad had the opportunity to discuss the recommendations in the report with two members of the working group, namely, former Senators, Maurice Manning, who chaired the working group, and Joe O'Toole. The Seanad also had the opportunity last year to debate many of the recommendations in the Manning report relating to reform of the process and system for electing Senators during the debate to which Senator McDowell referred on his 2016 Bill.

While this is not the time to go over all of that debate, on that day we discussed the significant challenges these reforms present and that there were more decisions to be made around those reforms because there was conflict in the Bill and the Manning report. All that could be teased out. We discussed the fact that it will be difficult, but that we were prepared to do that and it would take time. There would be significant implementation challenges presented by reforms, but we would have to work through that. That commitment was given on the day of that debate. I clearly pointed out that there were still choices to be made around some of the suggested reforms.

In addition to that debate, in response to a suggestion by Deputy Micheál Martin in the Dáil in 2016, the then Taoiseach agreed that the interim implementation proposed in the Manning report should be set up, comprising members of all parties and groups in the Dáil and Seanad, provided that there was all-party support for its implementation. On foot of this, he wrote to party leaders and Dáil and Seanad groups seeking agreement for the setting up of an implementation group and seeking nominees. I understand this process is ongoing, with a small number of nominees awaited. I hope that this process will be concluded as soon as possible and that the Oireachtas implementation group will be established in the very near future.

In the meantime, and for the information of Senators, I would like to draw their attention to the options paper on voting at the presidential elections by citizens resident outside of the State published by my Department last March. Many of the implementation issues that arose during the debate on the Seanad reform proposals are reflected and addressed in that paper. These include the need to modernise the process for the registration of voters, and in this context the Government decided work on that should proceed. This has commenced in the Department. It will benefit both agendas.

It is a significant and essential task, and critical to the achievement of the reforms proposed for the election of Members to the House because the system would be quite similar. Matters are progressing. I am not sure that all the nominations have been sent in because there were some delays, but I will check the situation and update the Senator.

I fully accept that the Minister of State, Deputy English, is speaking in good faith but, unfortunately, I do not accept that the Government is acting in good faith on this matter. The then Taoiseach sought nominations to the group in December 2016. To say that matters are ongoing in June, more than six months later, is, frankly, ridiculous. If there was any appetite for moving ahead with the implementation group, it would have been progressed long before now.

The Minister of State has drawn attention to the extension of the franchise to Irish citizens living abroad for presidential elections.

Last weekend, I saw in the papers a statement indicating that the Government no longer intends to do that either. I am drawing the conclusion that whereas the script that the Minister of State has read in the House points in one direction but cannot explain the massive delays, the reality is that Seanad reform has been killed off and that Government Senators in this House have been assured that it will not happen. The real explanation for the non-implementation of the implementation group, if I can put it that way, is that there is no appetite for it whatsoever and that assurances were given in the course of the Fine Gael leadership contest that it would not happen.

Those groups in this House that do believe in reform are going to meet next week. We will make time available by altering the Order of Business, if necessary, to ensure that there will be reform in this House and that it will be discussed. If it is blocked here, there is always the alternative that a similar Bill will be moved in Dáil Éireann. If it comes back here and is blocked, it will become law 90 days later. That is what the Constitution states.

The Minister of State very briefly, as we are well over time.

I did not see the article the Senator referred to about the presidential vote, but the work has started in my Department and is ongoing. We are not doing that for fun. We are committed to it and I understand that there were delays with the nominations. I cannot explain six months of delays. I will check for the Senator to make sure that all of those nominations are now included. However, the last time I personally checked that, they were not all included and that was not that long ago. I will check and let the Senator know.

Direct Provision System

I dtús báire, tréaslaím leis an Aire as a athcheapachán mar Aire. I congratulate the Minister on his reappointment as a Minister. I thank him for coming in to take this question, which arises out of the case of a Burmese man who spent eight years in direct provision before getting refugee status. He unanimously won his Supreme Court appeal over laws preventing him working in Ireland before his status was decided. The seven-judge court unanimously agreed that the absolute ban was in principle unconstitutional but has adjourned making any formal orders for six months to allow the Legislature to consider how to address the situation. The court found in principle that when there is no statutory time limit for processing asylum applications, the absolute prohibition on asylum seekers seeking employment in the Refugee Act 1996 and continued in the International Protection Act 2015 was contrary to the constitutional right to seek employment.

This is an issue we have raised on a continuous basis in the Seanad. In fairness, it has been raised by Senators across the House. This raises the question of what the Government is now going to do about the Supreme Court ruling in the six months that it has been given. We had a briefing last week from the Irish Refugee Council on this issue and it has made a number of recommendations. In summary, it has stated that the right to work should be granted to international protection applicants if no decision on their application has been made within six months of the date of the application. The Irish Refugee Council has stated that the period is recommended for several reasons. It is consistent with the timescale for granting the right to work as stated in the commission proposal for a further recast reception conditions directive. It is also in line with the requirement contained in article 31(3) of the recast asylum procedures directive that an examination procedure be concluded within six months. Similarly, six months is the same time period provided by section 39(5) of the International Protection Act 2015 from when a person may request information from the International Protection Office as to when a recommendation will be made on his or her application. This suggests that the Oireachtas, in line with other EU member states, should consider six months to be a reasonable period within which a person can expect an application to be fully examined in a single procedure.

The Irish Refugee Council also recommends that the right to work be provided to persons who are caught by the transitional arrangements in the International Protection Act 2015, that is, the persons who are at different stages of the process but who are now back under the International Protection Office for the single procedure.

It notes, as we have noted, that Ireland is currently one of only two members states that currently do not provide the right to work to protection applications. The Government now has the opportunity to align our practice with other member states as a member of the common European asylum system. It is of note that several member states provide protection applicants with access to the labour market at a much earlier stage. For example, Greece does so in zero months, Sweden does so in zero months, Italy does so in two months, Austria does so in three months and Germany does so in three months. I note that the Irish Refugee Council also submits that no conditions or restrictions should be attached to the right to work such as restricting it to particular professions or sectors. It believes, and I agree with it, that such restrictions or conditions may undermine the essence of the constitutional right itself, meaning that the right becomes illusory rather than effective in practice.

As the Minister will be aware, I would have been and still am very critical of the direct provision system, but this is a constitutional issue. It has the full backing of the Supreme Court in this regard. I would like the Minister to outline how the Government intends to address the issues outstanding around the right to work to allow these people that right.

I thank An Seanadóir Ó Clochartaigh for raising this important matter today. I welcome an tuasal Ó Bruadair and the boys and girls from the oak leaf county, Derry. They are always welcome to Leinster House and particularly welcome to the Seanad on this summer's afternoon.

This is an very important judgment and its full implications are being carefully examined. The court recognises the complexities around this issue. It acknowledges the role of the Executive in controlling and regulating this sensitive area of law and policy. It has had to consider the distinctions of rights between citizens and non-citizens in the context of Article 40.1 of the Constitution. The court has concluded that an absolute ban on the right to work for international protection applicants, as distinct from a time limit being set in legislation or some other means, is contrary to the rights under Article 40.1 of the Constitution. The court recognises that this is a matter for the Executive and Legislature to consider and, accordingly, has adjourned consideration of the order the court should make for a period of six months. It is expected the State will make a submission to the court in regard to the format of the order the court is to make at the appropriate time.

This judgment raises obvious policy, legal and operational issues across a wide range of Government Departments and agencies. To reflect the whole-of-Government approach which the judgment necessitates, I intend to seek the approval of Government to establish, with immediate effect, an interdepartmental working group to examine the implications of the judgment and to consider appropriate solutions as quickly as possible. Proposals will be brought to Government as soon as that process concludes.

The judgment should not be looked at in isolation without recognising the considerable reforms that have already been made to the system of international protection and the improvements that have been made and are continuing to be made to the direct provision system. Our new international protection legislation, which commenced on 31 December last, is specifically designed to address the delays in decision making with consequent increased time spent in direct provision.

The processing times for first instance decisions are closely intertwined with the question of the right to work. In many EU member states, the right to work is not an unfettered right, often arising after a particular period of time - usually nine months to a year - and in many instances is limited to particular job categories, etc. For example, in Sweden and Portugal the granting of a right to work coincides with the withdrawal of financial supports. One of the principle aims of the International Protection Act is to process cases as quickly as possible so that persons who are granted a permission to stay have an automatic right to work.

The full implications of the judgment will be examined in the coming period, including wider implications in regard to the operation of the common travel area and the ongoing Brexit negotiations. However, what can be said is that the Government, through its various measures to improve processing rates, is already moving to the stage whereby first instance decisions on status will be made as quickly as possible with persons granted status having an automatic right to work. The dovetailing of this work with the court judgment will be examined in the coming period. I will endeavour to keep Senators informed of progress as the situation develops.

I appreciate the Minister's response. To cut to the crux of the matter, we have a six-month period between now and Christmas. The basic question that these people, who are awaiting a awaiting a judgment on their asylum application, have is if they will be allowed to work.

Will the Government bring forward legislation between now and Christmas that will grant them that right to work because many of these people in the system may have been waiting five, ten or even 15 years? They have not had the right to work in this State as a result. Can the Minister give us a guarantee that the Government will bring forward legislation between now and Christmas to make sure this right is adhered to and put in place by next Christmas?

I assure the Seanadóir, and the House, that I am committed to continuing the ongoing process. The Supreme Court judgment is clearly a most important judgment that will have significant implications for our international protection system across Government. I assure the House that my Department has made significant efforts to reform our protection system to ensure that applicants do not spend long periods awaiting a final decision on their application. This dovetails with persons granted status having an automatic right to work.

Our previous multi-layered and sequential system had many more opportunities for appeals on judicial reviews and ongoing legal challenges. Many of these did not foster a timely process of engagement. The single procedure is streamlining the process with the aim of providing first instance decisions as quickly as possible. My Department is also working hard to improve the living conditions in State provided accommodation centres, particularly for families. This is in line with a commitment given in A Programme for a Partnership Government. The latest update on the implementation of the recommendations of the McMahon report over the past two years by many Departments and agencies will be published shortly.

I am committed to continuing the positive work on this process. The Supreme Court ruling is now a priority focus for this ongoing programme of reforms and will receive full and careful consideration by the interdepartmental working group to be established by Government to propose an appropriate way forward in the shortest possible timeframe. Senators will appreciate that the judgment has raised issues not only of importance, but of some degree of complexity, which will obviously require detailed and careful consideration.

Air Ambulance Service

I welcome the Minister of State, Deputy Finian McGrath, to the House.

I raise the need for the Minister for Health to explore all options to extend the emergency aeromedical service based at Custume Barracks, in Athlone, to a night-time service. I am delighted to have an opportunity to speak about this vital service, which I helped secure in 2012 with the help of the then Minister for Health, now Senator James Reilly, and the then Minister for Justice and Equality and Defence, former Deputy Alan Shatter. I thank the Minister of State also for being here today to discuss this important issue.

Since coming into operation five years ago, the emergency aeromedical service or, as it is commonly known, the air ambulance service, has played a key role in providing critical air support options in response to major emergencies, not least in the catchment area of Roscommon hospital. There is evidence that the Air Corps helicopters have carried out thousands of life-saving missions across the region I live in since it was established. The service located in Custume Barracks in Athlone has undoubtedly saved many lives, and none more so than in Roscommon. Countless lives, from Ballaghaderreen to Ballyleague and Athlone to Arigna, have been saved. This is about a lifesaving approach centred on bringing the hospital to the patient in an emergency. I take this opportunity to pay tribute to the Air Corps pilots, the advanced paramedics and the ground ambulance personnel who do fantastic work in stressful conditions saving the lives of many people.

It is also important to highlight that a large percentage of air ambulance work involves dealing with serious heart attacks where time is of the essence. The gold standard treatment for ST-elevation myocardial infarctions, STEMIs, is access to a 24 hour specialist unit such as Galway within 90 minutes of diagnosis. Usually, helicopter flight times to these specialist centres take little more than 20 minutes to complete. That rapid response service has become an important element of the region's emergency response infrastructure.

It goes without saying that the service has proved to be transformative for many critically ill patients and ensures that those living in rural areas have timely access to specialised treatment available in the larger hospitals. We all know the speedier the treatment in the case of heart attacks and strokes, the better the outcomes for patients.

Not so long ago, it was very encouraging to hear the air ambulance being praised highly by a Roscommon general practitioner and a Longford general practitioner on one of my local radio stations. Both doctors recounted incidents where the air ambulance allowed for speedy access to treatment, making a major difference to the lives of critically ill patients. The Roscommon general practitioner, Dr. Greg Kelly, who was a candidate for Fianna Fáil in the 2002 general election, said in the local radio interview that the helicopter service is now more important to the people of County Roscommon than an accident and emergency department as critically ill patients get the expert treatment they need by getting very quick access to a centre with the specialist skills.

In light of the considerable success of the service, what options are available to extend the air service to include a night-time service? As the Minister of State knows, the current protocols do not allow this to happen. During the summer, it is not really an issue given the substantial amount of daylight hours, which allow the emergency air ambulance to fly for much longer, but I ask the Minister of State to explore the possibility of extending this very valuable and necessary service to include a night-time service.

I thank Senator Frank Feighan for raising this important issue and providing me with an opportunity to inform him of the Department's ongoing work to enhance the aeromedical services. The emergency aeromedical service, EAS, provides rapid access to appropriate treatment for patients specifically where land ambulance transit times would not be clinically appropriate. The service is particularly beneficial for time-dependent cardiovascular patients, who constitute about one third of all EAS patients.

EAS services are provided primarily by the Air Corps, with reserve capacity provided by the Irish Coast Guard. The service operates seven days per week in daylight hours, and it is specifically targeted at the west. The highest demand for the EAS comes from Galway, Mayo and the Senator's county, Roscommon. The service has successfully completed almost 2,000 emergency missions to date.

A pilot emergency and aeromedical service was agreed between the Ministers responsible for health and defence in January 2012. From the outset, it was agreed that the Air Corps would provide aerial support for the service and operate in daylight hours only. A subsequent review of the pilot service examined the level of service provided during daylight hours and it was found that the level was appropriate to meet the demand. In July 2015, the Government established the EAS on a permanent basis.

A Programme for a Partnership Government is committed to a feasibility study on the expansion of the EAS and its possible extension to night-time. My colleague, Minister of State, Deputy Kevin Boxer Moran, has made this a priority issue in the programme for Government. He is pushing this issue very hard.

The Department of Health and the Department of Defence are continuing to examine the programme for Government commitment to this feasibility study. The Department of Health and the national ambulance service are currently exploring the feasibility of a community-based helicopter emergency medical service in the south. While such considerations are ongoing, it is important to point out that night-time flying carries additional risks. All the risks associated with landing and departures are magnified at night. Such risks include low visibility and crew fatigue. There are also restrictions on helicopters landing at night-time in Ireland, and landings can take place only on a lit helipad or at an airport. These restrictions would significantly reduce the number of emergency incidents that the service could respond to, and it is possible that most night-time calls would, in view of the risks involved, be better served by a land vehicle.

Of course, significant additional capacity in terms of Air Corps personnel and national ambulance service paramedical staff would be required to extend the EAS to a 24-hour service.

The Air Corps is faced with challenges in the recruitment and retention of personnel. In that context, and in light of the fact that ambulance activity drops significantly at night, the Department will need to consider if a 24-hour service would be the best use of limited resources.

The Irish Coast Guard operates on a 24-7 basis from its four bases at Dublin, Waterford, Shannon and Sligo. Where necessary and appropriate, it can be tasked by the National Ambulance Service.

I thank Senator Feighan for raising this important issue.

I thank the Minister of State for his detailed response. I am encouraged that the Irish Coast Guard, located in Sligo and Shannon, can provide an air ambulance service at night.

Five years ago, the provision of this air ambulance service came as a direct result of Roscommon hospital’s accident and emergency department being downgraded. People were quite certain that lives would be lost. I know this service is what the consultants in Roscommon hospital wanted. I am delighted the service was delivered and that it has been a huge success. In the past month, I know of five people personally, from Ballintober, Roscommon town, Boyle and Castlerea, whose lives have been saved because of this air ambulance. People do not fully realise the changes it has brought about. Effectively, the accident and emergency department has been brought to people on the side of the road. Modern medicine has evolved in such a way that it is now necessary to have an air ambulance in this area. The service has saved dozens of lives in County Roscommon.

We need to look at providing such a service for the island of Ireland, like in the south and around the midlands. If we are talking about cross-Border co-operation and the Good Friday Agreement, there needs to be one in Northern Ireland to cover all of that area also.

I thank Senator Feighan for his remarks. I take his point on the downgrading of the Roscommon accident and emergency department several years ago and how this service was brought onto the pitch. I will bring his concerns back to the Minister for Health, Deputy Harris, and the Minister of State at the Department of Defence. He has pointed out how the accident and emergency service has been brought to the side of the road for people in difficult situations. I thank the staff of the air ambulance who do magnificent work.

I strongly support his proposal for the Good Friday Agreement. We need to look at an all-island approach and be a little more creative when dealing with these services. In my portfolio for disabilities, I collaborate closely with services in the North of Ireland. There is a glorious opportunity under the Good Friday Agreement to develop health and safety and air ambulance services in the interests of all the citizens on the island.

I am sure the Senator will share his positivity and joy with Senator Leyden.

Local Improvement Scheme Funding

I welcome the Minister for Transport, Tourism and Sport, Deputy Ross, to the Chamber this afternoon and thank him for attending on this issue calling for the reintroduction of a specific ring-fenced allocation of funding for local improvement schemes.

I have no doubt the Minister is aware that this is an important issue, particularly for people in rural areas whose only access to their homes or lands is through a private roadway. A specific grant allocation was in place until 2011 but it was then removed. It was replaced with a scheme whereby a local authority could allocate up to 15% of its discretionary roads budget to local improvement schemes while the local community could make a contribution of 20% of the cost.

Unfortunately, the scheme has not proved to be very successful and very few counties of which I am aware have taken it up. I am not aware of any local authorities in my own area of Cavan, Monaghan, Louth and Donegal taking up that scheme. It is a pity because great work had been done prior to 2011. As a result of the lack of investment since then, the infrastructure of those private roads is deteriorating as we speak. We risk losing the investment we put into these roads up until 2011. The list for County Monaghan is 200 lanes. Something like 180 lanes in County Cavan are waiting to be done. What I am really looking for is a statement from the Minister that he intends to reintroduce this scheme so that a specific grant can be granted for local improvement schemes.

I thank Senator Gallagher for raising this very important subject. I am well aware of it thanks to him and others who are, obviously, adversely affected by this and I understand its importance to him and others, particularly in rural areas. I regret the fact that it was withdrawn. We would very much like to see it restored as soon as possible when financial constraints allow it.

First, the improvement and maintenance of regional and local roads is the statutory responsibility of each local authority in accordance with the provisions of section 13 of the Roads Act 1993. Works on those roads are funded from the councils' own resources supplemented by State road grants. The initial selection and prioritisation of works to be funded is also a matter for the councils.

Ireland has just under 100,000 kms of road in its network and the maintenance and improvement of national, regional and local roads place a substantial financial burden on local authorities and on the Exchequer. Due to the national financial position, there have been very large reductions in Exchequer funding available for roads expenditure over the past number of years. For this reason, the focus has had to be on maintenance and renewal of public roads. The maintenance of private laneways-roads not taken in charge by local authorities is the responsibility of the landowners concerned. A local improvement scheme is in place whereby a contribution can be made by the State towards the cost of maintaining these laneway roads. Local improvement schemes are permitted under section 81 of the Local Government Act 2001. Due to the cutbacks in roads funding, regrettably, it was necessary for the Department to stop making separate allocations to local authorities in respect of local improvement schemes. The approved scheme remains intact and within it, local authorities can use a proportion of State grant funding - 15% of the discretionary grant in 2017 - for local improvement schemes should they wish to do so.

The reason a separate State grant allocation is not being made for local improvement schemes is that given funding constraints, a ring-fenced allocation would result in a pro rata reduction in funding for public roads in a situation where public roads are significantly underfunded. In other words, it would just involve taking money out of one place and putting it into another. While 2017 will see a modest increase in funding for roads, it will take some years under the capital plan to restore steady State funding levels for regional and local roads. The primary focus must to continue to be on the maintenance and renewal of public roads.

Notwithstanding this, I understand the importance of the local improvement scheme to assist the development of rural Ireland. In light of the provision in the programme for Government indicating that as the economy recovers, the Government will promote increased funding for community involvement and local improvement schemes, I will review the scope for making a separate grant allocation once the planned review of the capital plan is completed. That is due later this year. In the interim, the local improvement scheme remains in place with no separate allocation.

I thank the Minister for his response. It is clear from his contribution that he is very aware of local improvement schemes and their importance, particularly to rural Ireland.

I am, therefore, heartened by his response. Perhaps we might look forward, towards the end of the year or at the beginning of next year, to the reintroduction of an allocation. It would be very welcome if that was the case.

I am sure the Senator will revisit the issue before Christmas if it is not addressed positively in the meantime.

I hope that will not prove necessary.

I thank the Senator. I am conscious of what he and others have said, but I am also conscious that it is included in the programme for Government, not as an absolute commitment but as an aspiration. There is a commitment to consider it as a priority. The last sentence is fairly definite. It reads: "We will expand the scheme to include the taking in charge of non-council roads with a view to having this scheme up and running by end 2017". That is not a deadline. There is, however, an indication, from all parties, all angles and all geographical areas, that this is something everybody wants to see being brought back. All that is holding it back is the financial constraints.

I thank the Minister.

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