Commencement Matters

Institutes of Technology

I thank the Cathaoirleach for selecting this topic and thank the Minister of State for attending to reply to my queries. All of us in the west know that the campus of GMIT has played a huge role in the economic, educational and social life of Castlebar, Mayo and the surrounding regions over the many years since it was founded in, I believe, the 1980s. Issues have arisen in recent times in regard to underinvestment and lack of upgrading of facilities, as well as the range of course development. The Minister, Deputy Bruton, and the then Taoiseach, Deputy Enda Kenny, visited the campus earlier this year, met the president and the staff and set up a working group.

To be fair to the Minister, Deputy Bruton, he gave a commitment that GMIT Castlebar would have a sustainable future on the Mayo campus. My understanding now is that the report has been completed but has not yet been signed off on or published. I raise this query because I believe that should happen at the earliest opportunity in order to provide certainty for staff and the current students, but, more importantly, for the students who will be filling out CAO forms in the early weeks in January. We need to provide that certainty immediately in order to maximise the potential of the Castlebar complex.

I thank Senator John O'Mahony for raising this issue. I also want to thank Senators Paddy Burke and Michelle Mulherin for raising this issue with me and the Minister, Deputy Bruton, on numerous occasions.

At the outset, I would like to state that the Department and the HEA are fully committed to implementing a viable development plan for the future of the Castlebar campus of GMIT.

Following the categorisation by the HEA of GMIT as a financially vulnerable institution in 2016 a number of actions were identified in order to address the financial position of the institute. In line with the HEA's policy for dealing with such institutes, it has agreed a three year financial plan with GMIT to reach a balanced budget. GMIT has also identified a number of areas to address its financial position. A particular area for concern was the Mayo campus in Castlebar which had demonstrated significant budget deficits in respect of its operations.

As a result of these concerns a working group was established in March 2017 to formulate a plan to develop a sustainable future for the Mayo campus. The GMIT working group was chaired by the HEA and comprised representatives of GMIT, the Department, Mayo County Council and other local stakeholders. The brief of the working group was to formulate a plan for a sustainable future and growth options for GMIT Mayo campus Castlebar. The working group engaged extensively with the local community, business interests, staff and students of GMIT, the executive and the board of GMIT, local public representatives, and other stakeholders. This included a number of meetings and open fora.

To inform the work of the group, a base of information was gathered, including an analysis of labour market needs in the region, student supply and demand, the role of the further education sector and the impact of the campus on the local and regional economy. The views of external stakeholders were sought in relation to these matters and 23 submissions were received. These views and submissions were considered by the working group and have fed into all deliberations resulting in the compilation of the final report.

The report of the GMIT working group has now been submitted to my Department. The report is intended to provide a roadmap towards a sustainable and vibrant Castlebar campus of GMIT. That is what we all want and it is in all our interests to ensure that the recommendations in the report are implemented. I will consider the findings and recommendations in conjunction with officials in my Department. I confirm that the report will be published before the end of 2017.

After a period without any significant investment in higher education, this Government has now started the process of reinvesting in higher education. There will be an additional €100 million in funding provided to higher education in 2018 compared to 2016. This additional funding will help to address the funding challenge facing the higher education sector and will support institutions such as GMIT in returning to financial sustainability.

This reinvestment will be supported by a review of the financial allocation model for higher education and a new systems performance framework that sets out the key strategic objectives for the first years. I intend to publish the review before the end of 2017 and the new framework early in 2018. They will provide the overall strategic context and funding allocation model to complement and support the future sustainability of the Castlebar campus of GMIT.

I thank Senator John O'Mahony for affording me the opportunity to respond to the House on this matter. Senators Paddy Burke and Michelle Mulherin have also raised this issue with me and the Minister, Deputy Bruton, on numerous occasions.

I thank the Minister of State for her reply. I presume I can take it from her response that the report will be published in the next few days. Can I also take it that the suggestion is there will be a pathway announced early in 2018 and there will be investment in the Castlebar campus?

Yes. The Senator can certainly take that. As I have said, I will publish the report before the end of the year. The Senator, in his earlier contribution, mentioned the students that would be applying.

Definitely, there will be a roadmap for GMIT before students submit CAO applications.

I thank the Minister of State.

Very good. I thank Senator O'Mahony for raising the matter. I thank the Minister of State for her contribution.

I thank the Acting Chairman.

Mother and Baby Homes Inquiries

I welcome the Minister for Children and Youth Affairs, Deputy Katherine Zappone, to the Chamber. I call Senator Devine and she has four minutes.

I welcome the Minister for Children and Youth Affairs, Deputy Katherine Zappone, to the Chamber. She has been here on several occasions at my request for which I thank her. I would like to extend a welcome to the survivors who are seated in the Visitors' Gallery today and I believe the others are watching online.

Last week, a somewhat surprise third interim report was published by the commission. Based on the recommendation of the report, the Department of Children and Youth Affairs subsequently granted an extension of one year to the commission to complete its work. I echo the sentiments of many of the survivors who welcome this difficult decision in that it affords more attention to detail and a greater depth of research to be conducted.

However, as the Minister will know, it is a very difficult decision as many survivors have a very legitimate concern that the delay will mean many of the elderly survivors will not reach closure on this matter, and a closure that they need, because they may not have that length of life. Furthermore, as I know she is aware, many of the survivors still suffer daily due to the trauma that they suffered. The delay will mean they will have to wait even longer for the answers they desperately seek.

I am glad that the Minister is here today to outline the practical supports that will be available to survivors in the meantime. For example, can they access scanned records before the final report? Many of the survivors are older and might need IT assistance as well as emotional and psychological supports. It is not ideal but the fact is the report has been delayed. If survivors could at least access records it might offer them some closure in the meantime.

The interim report also says that the additional timeframe will not incur additional costs. Can the Minister clarify the matter because the deadline has been extended by a year?

In the Minister's December update on this issue she stated that her officials were working on a number of measures to respond to the issues that arose from the facilitated meetings that have been held to date. She now plans to bring a number of proposals in this regard to the Government in the coming weeks. How will the newly announced collaborative forum's recommendations tie in with this work? Can she confirm whether the process will run parallel? Can she give a commitment of a clear timeframe for when she will bring the proposals to Cabinet and outline what they will consist of?

I recognise the amount of work that the Minister has put into listening to the survivors. I have thoroughly read the facilitation reports and there are some excellent suggestions therein that have come directly from the survivors. Can she give a commitment that the recommendations will not be dependent on the collaborative forum?

There is an elephant in the room. I refer to the leaked technical report into the Tuam site that has just been published and cannot be ignored. I have read the Minister's statement and know that she regrets the leak. I need to look into the details of this newly-published report. Will the Cabinet finish its considerations today? Has the Minister's Department a contingency plan on how to support those who will be deeply affected by the recommendations of such a report, especially if the reporting that we have thus far is to be believed?

I welcome the opportunity to provide an update on the Commission of Investigation into Mother and Baby Homes. The commission submitted a third interim report which I published last week, to which Senator Devine has just referred. The report, which is available on my Department's website, outlined the practical challenges the commission faced in meeting its initial deadline of 17 February 2018 for the completion of its reports. In its report the commission requested that the deadline be extended by one year and as the House will be aware, the Government has agreed to extend the timeframe for submission. The commission is now required to submit its three final reports by 17 February 2019.

The commission advised that the confidential committee has to date met with 346 former residents or others with connections to the institutions under investigation. The commission stated that it would not be possible for the confidential committee to meet the almost 200 additional persons who have already applied to provide accounts of their experience and to complete its report by February 2018. The commission noted that its wide terms of reference has necessitated the collection and analysis of a vast range of documentary material relating to the institutions under investigation and that the analysis of all relevant records would not be completed until the middle of 2018. Although the commission has heard evidence from 140 individuals, the process in respect of the authorities who ran these institutions cannot be completed until all of the documentary evidence has been analysed.

In reaching the decision to grant the commission's extension request, the Government accepted that additional time is required to facilitate the comprehensive statutory investigation into the matters of significant public concern referred to the commission. The Government considers that the public interest is best served by allowing additional time for the commission to conclude all relevant lines of inquiry. Facilitating former residents to provide accounts of their experience was one of the main reasons for establishing the commission. I know the commission will effectively use the additional time to ensure that many more witnesses have such an opportunity. The additional time will ensure that crucial questions can be fully addressed to provide the answers to which the former residents are entitled.

I want to thank the commission for this update on its important work. When I recently met the commission I was again reassured by its members' absolute commitment to establishing the full facts of what happened to women and children in these institutions. I have, however, asked the commission to make every effort to deliver its reports as soon as practicable. I understand that this extension of time delays the day which many former residents have been eagerly anticipating. I understand that fully and I know that many have expressed disappointment and frustration at this development. I acknowledge those who are with us in the House this afternoon. Equally, it is important to state that a number of advocates have acknowledged that the extension is a pragmatic response to the challenges faced by the commission.

In the interim, I am proceeding with a number of measures to support former residents. Following on from facilitated consultations held over 2017 with former residents, their families and supporters, I am making arrangements to establish a collaborative forum to support former residents in developing issues and solutions that are of concern to them. The collaborative forum is a progressive response to the theme of "nothing about us without us" which has emerged from the facilitated consultations. I am currently working with a facilitator on this matter and hope to make further announcements in the coming weeks. In addition, in recognition of Ireland's absolute commitment to human rights, the Government has decided to invite the UN Special Rapporteur on the promotion of truth, justice, reparation and guarantees of non-recurrence, Mr. Pablo de Greiff, to visit Ireland. I will work with my colleague, the Minister for Foreign Affairs and Trade, to arrange this invitation. It is important to say that these developments have been welcomed by a number of advocates who recognise the progressive nature of the Government's approach.

This morning, as Senator Devine pointed out, the Government has agreed to publish the expert technical report on the Tuam site. I will be making a more detailed statement on that report later this afternoon and the report will be available on my Department's website soon. I want to thank the members of the expert technical group for their work on such a complex and sensitive issue. The group's report will help everyone to understand the nature of the options that are now open to us so we can make some well-informed decisions. The report is a detailed technical document running to over 250 pages and it will, understandably, take some time to absorb and fully process what it tells us. I want to take this opportunity to assure all interested parties that there will be public consultations with stakeholders before any decisions are made. My primary concern is to ensure that whatever action is taken respects the memory and dignity of the deceased children who lived their short lives in that institution.

I thank the Minister, Deputy Zappone.

I welcome the Government's invitation to the UN Special Rapporteur on the promotion of truth, justice, reparation and guarantees of non-recurrence, Mr. Pablo de Greiff, to guide us on the years, if not centuries, of mistreatment of our very vulnerable citizens. This is a prudent and very important step. I welcome most of what the Minister, Deputy Zappone, said but I wish to clarify one point. Will the survivors be able to have access to their scanned records before the final report, and will they be given IT, emotional and psychological support during that time? It would be great if the Minister could answer that question.

I am aware that both of those questions that are live. What I have indicated is that as a result of the initial facilitation process, out of which some of the issues Senator Devine has identified have been expressed again, we have decided that it would be really important to establish this collaborative forum which will report in six months. One of the areas it will be looking at will be to identify the practical supports already identified in the earlier facilitation.

The membership of the collaborative forum will be representative. We have quite a detailed way of trying to ensure the people who will be on the forum will be representative of the different voices in respect of supports people want so that when it makes recommendations to me, I can be confident that is representative and then I can make decisions on the basis of that information. We have asked the collaborative forum to report within six months. If it wishes to report sooner, that is okay with me. I will wait for it to come forward before answering those questions explicitly.

I thank the Minister and Senator Devine.

Housing Provision

I welcome the Minister for Housing, Planning and Local Government, Deputy Eoghan Murphy, to the House.

I wish to raise the issue of approval for housing projects in Cork. My understanding is that the projects were identified, the appropriate planning process were gone through, estimates were prepared, there was an invitation to submit tenders and that the tenders received were in excess of the initial estimates. Cork City Council corresponded with the Department and made it aware of this in early September. I understand the matter may have moved on since I tabled this Commencement matter. I know the Department was working on the issue. However, the city council and I, as a public representative in Cork North Central, where we have a large number of people on the housing waiting list, are anxious that any project identified by the local authority is progressed in the fastest possible time so that the project can start, the houses can be built and people can be accommodated. That is the context in which I raise this Commencement matter.

I thank Senator Colm Burke for raising this matter. Under Rebuilding Ireland, a total of 50,000 social housing homes will be delivered out to 2021 for those individuals and families who need them the most. Cork City Council's housing programme is a key component of the Rebuilding Ireland plan. Only recently, I spent a day in Cork with the city and county councils discussing and exploring how we can continue to work together to accelerate and increase social housing delivery in Cork.

The projects to which Senator Colm Burke refers are projects where Cork City Council sought the delivery of social housing solutions through a competitive dialogue process or procedure. The aim of this procedure is to provide a mechanism through which the city council could engage with interested parties to deliver a significant quantum of newly constructed social housing units in addition to other housing provision methods. This involved looking at the delivery process from an assessment of suitable sites through design and planning right up to the construction and completion of homes ready for occupation by residents. My Department supports initiatives at local authority level such as this procedure entered into by Cork City Council to provide streamlined and effective solutions for social housing delivery. The council's assessment of responses resulted in a number of schemes which are short-listed to progress to dialogue phase.

In total, 11 schemes were short-listed, with the combined potential to deliver 215 units of social housing at various locations in Cork city. Of the 11 projects chosen through this process, four were previously approved and have already begun construction, delivering 85 homes at a cost of just under €22 million.

I am pleased to be able to advise the House that, for further assessment by my Department of the budget request for the remaining seven projects, I have been able to provide the council with the necessary approval. I thank the Senator for continuing to raise this matter with me since early September. These seven projects will deliver a further 134 badly-needed social housing homes for families on the Cork city housing list. The first of these homes will be completed in the third quarter of next year, with the remainder following in 2019. The budget approved for these seven projects is just under €39 million.

The delivery of these projects will deliver an important development for Cork city, particularly the South Parish area. The objective of the Cork city regeneration project is to help create neighbourhoods with a distinct character and better permeability and coherency and offer significant opportunities for an improved social mix, with the potential for the inclusion of private housing development within the area. The projects will deliver on these objectives, enhancing the physical character of the local areas involved and contributing to the wider social regeneration. When I next visit Cork, I look forward to seeing the progress in this regard and on the wider portfolio of projects that the city council is advancing.

I thank the Minister for delivering on these projects. Money for 134 additional housing units is welcome news for Cork. I am delighted that progress has been made and I look forward to the Minister visiting to cut the tape on each project.

I am sure that we all look forward to the stability of the Government allowing for the current Minister to still be in place when the houses are finally being built. Does he wish to conclude?

I thank the Senator for continuing to raise this matter with me and my Department. I ask all representatives in both Houses to do so where they have particular issues like this one and where there might be the potential to expedite the process by engaging with me. It is welcome progress for Cork. The numbers might seem small but, for the 134 families and individuals who will move into those homes, they will be welcome.

Both councils in Cork have housing action plans and their committees are doing excellent work. I had the chance to engage with them in Cork recently. It is impressive how they are both trying to drive through and build more social housing homes for our citizens who need this help the most. I hope to see other councils implementing a similar process in the months ahead.