Commencement Matters (Resumed)

School Admissions

I thank Senator Bacik for raising this issue. To put it in context, it is important to state that, under our education system, patrons' boards of management have an independent role. It is a right of religious institutions to run their own schools, which is protected in the Constitution, and to have their own characteristic spirit, but they must do so within the laws of the land.

The issue of admission to schools is governed by two sets of legislation, the first of which is the Education Acts. As the Senator will be aware, under our system, parents have a right to choose whatever school they wish their children to attend and schools must have an admission policy which must be available for inspection by parents. That admissions policy must be non-discriminatory and be applied fairly in respect of all those who apply. The other element is the Equal Status Act, to which the Deputy referred, which provides protection for schools which select on the basis of religion in preference to others. As the Deputy is aware, I have been a critic of this and have introduced legislation to change it, which was recently passed in the Seanad.

The position on decisions on admission by a board of management or a school are appealable to the Department of Education and Skills. Therefore, the Department or, in the case of the Equal Status Act, the Workplace Relations Commission will assess whether the school has applied the admission policy fairly and whether it has been done in accordance with the law as set out. To my knowledge, an appeal regarding unfair admission has not been made at this point to the Department.

As the Deputy will be aware, I hope to implement, at the earliest possible date, the new provisions of the Education (Admission to Schools) Bill. As she will know from discussions in this House, while I have sought to remove religion as a criterion for admission generally, I have provided that a child of a minority religion should be able to apply to a school of that ethos and be given preference in view of the effort we make to ensure a child or his or her parents gets access to their preferred education.

The measure I have introduced is proportionate. It does not provide protection for the use of religion in the case of children of a majority religion because they have 18 out of every 20 schools from which to choose, but a child of a minority religion could have only one of every 20 schools from which to choose. This is a proportionate and fair provision. In assessing it, it is important that consideration is given to what the legislation is providing for. A primary school may give priority to the admission of a student where the school is satisfied that the student concerned is a member of a minority religion and the school provides a programme of religion instruction or religious education which is of the same religious ethos or a similar religious ethos to the religious ethos of the minority religion of the student concerned. The school will only be allowed to take account of the statement that the applicant has provided and any evidence that the applicant has provided that he or she is a member of a minority religion. Schools that admit students of a minority religion in accordance with this provision of the Act will not be permitted to rank those students according to the particular denomination or religion of the child concerned. I do not believe linking school admission with church attendance would meet the provisions of the law.

It should be said also that these provisions only apply where a school is oversubscribed. Where a school is not oversubscribed, it is obliged to take all applicants, regardless of religion.

This is a significant step forward in giving fair access for all parents. I have also amended the provisions of section 29 of the Act, which continues to prevail, so that where a student feels he or she has been unreasonably refused access, he or she has the right to make an appeal. I will continue to reform in this area. One of the Bills I hope to shortly present to the House is a parent and student charter Bill, which would ensure parents are consulted when there is any proposal to change admission policy. The future direction of reform is to be more embracing of parents and students in the running of schools while respecting the distinctive role of the patron and the board.

Is the Senator satisfied with the reply?

I will make some very brief follow-up remarks. I thank the Minister for his very full response to my question. I am grateful to him for outlining the changes the new legislation will make. When are they likely to come into effect? I support the Minister, and we supported the Bill in the Oireachtas. I am very grateful to him for stating he does not believe linking school admission with church attendance would meet the provisions of the new Act, once in force. I agree with him that the Act is a significant step and is very positive.

I am also grateful to the Minister for outlining that he will introduce a parent and student charter. Will that enable parents to have an input if there is any change in admissions policy, even if the change is to the interpretation or application of the policy rather than to its wording? There is a subtle difference but a very important one in the context of this particular case, and possibly in other cases. Parents should be informed even where there is a proposal to change the way a policy is being interpreted or applied.

There is a broader issue concerning church-State relations in education. I raised in the Seanad previously the issue of teacher training and a concern about different strands of admission with different CAO points for admission to different religious denominational teacher training courses, at DCU in particular. I will raise that with the Minister perhaps in a separate context but there is a bigger issue to be addressed.

We are well over the time limit.

We must recognise there is diversity and that diversity is good. That means there needs to be a diversity of teachers capable of maintaining the ethos of a given school. We have recognised that the right to have distinctive strands of teachers should be protected.

The parent and student charter legislation will come before the House for a thorough debate. It is my intention that schools would involve parents in any significant change that would impact on them. When we debate the Bill in detail Senator Bacik will have a chance to see whether the phraseology meets her concerns. I do not have the wording to hand to verify the exact phraseology being used.

I am in consultation with the Attorney General's office to ensure the way I proceed to implement the different sections of the Bill is legally sound and proper. I hope those consultations will be completed shortly, at which point I will be in a position to make known the schedule of implementation.

Obesity Strategy

I welcome the Minister of State, Deputy Catherine Byrne.

This Commencement debate is on the topic of obesity and concerns the need for the Minister for Health to provide an update on the healthy weight for Ireland action plan. The plan is now two years old and there has been no update on its progress despite a pledge to conduct mid-term reviews and report annually.

Cancer Research UK launched a campaign this week warning that obesity is set to overtake smoking as a cause of cancer in women. The low level of public knowledge of the risks and links between obesity and cancer is very serious. Ireland is facing a silent epidemic of obesity and Irish people are on course to be the heaviest in Europe.

The action plan A Healthy Weight for Ireland, launched in 2016, contained a pledge to report annually, but its progress has not been reported on. Tackling the rise of obesity must be made a priority as we are sleepwalking into a nightmare scenario. It is an issue I have raised numerous times in the House. By allowing obesity levels to rise unchecked, we are putting a massive additional strain on the health service. At the same time, the population is ageing, which will put its own strain on the health service.

I am aware that the Minister of State is doing a good deal of work in this area. I would be grateful to receive some response on the progress made and any further measure that will be implemented to deal with this very serious issue that places a huge burden on the State. We talk about the fiscal space, but the fiscal space would be much larger if we dealt with the problem of obesity to prevent cancer and diabetes related illnesses and myriad others due to lifestyle. It is very difficult to quantify the cost, but it is estimated to be approximately €2.6 billion annually. We could do a great deal for citizens with that money if we could adopt a better approach to our lifestyles. As a nation, we are becoming fatter, with all of the risks that come with it.

I thank the Senator for tabling this Commencement matter. I know how much the issue means to her. I have heard her speak many times about the issue of obesity and know that she has a real passion to ensure, through A Healthy Weight for Ireland, we will proceed to implement our strategy to tackle obesity.

I thank the Senator for giving me the opportunity to speak to the House about the important topic of obesity, which is a public health priority. The House is already aware that the Government's national obesity policy and action plan were launched in September 2016 under the umbrella of the Healthy Ireland agenda. They recommended that an evaluation framework for progress in implementing the plan be designed. The Department of Health has initiated this evaluation under step 10 of the plan and will report annually, with the first report expected in 2019. The House will be aware that the policy prescribed ten steps forward that would be taken to prevent overweight and obesity. Some early progress on actions under these steps has been achieved. Of course, as with all of our work under Healthy Ireland, cross-departmental and cross-sectoral co-operation is fundamental to our approach to implementation. This is reflected in the national obesity policy implementation oversight group which has been established under the chairmanship of the Department of Health and consists of representatives from a range of Departments and agencies. Sub-groups on reformulation and healthy eating have been established as initial priority areas for action. The sub-group on reformulation recently held a workshop with key food sector stakeholders. A sugar sweetened drinks tax commenced on 1 May this year and work is under way with the Department of Finance on an evaluation of this measure. Engagement is also continuing with other Departments to support the work of stakeholders involved in planning and developing the built environment. I am pleased to advise the House that it is intended to hold a stakeholder forum in November under this theme. In addition, a voluntary code of practice for food and beverages promotion, marketing and sponsorship has also been developed involving representatives from the food industry, the advertising sector, statutory agencies and various Departments. The code was published in February and work is under way to implement it.

New healthy eating guidelines, a food pyramid and supporting resources have been published and circulated. Work has also commenced to develop healthy eating guidelines for the one to five years age group. The House may also wish to know that new nutrition standards for schools, with an initial focus on school meal programmes funded by the Department of Employment Affairs and Social Protection, have also been developed. They were developed with the assistance of safefood, the Health Service Executive, the school meals programme in the Department of Employment Affairs and Social Protection and the Department of Education and Skills.

Other work taking place includes implementation of a breastfeeding action plan and a new Making Every Contact Count brief intervention framework; the appointment last year of Professor Donal O’Shea as first clinical lead for obesity; the introduction in the general practitioner under-sixes contract of health assessments, including weight checks; and a five-year communications campaign called START that supports parents in making healthy choices surrounding food and activity.

Under the broader Healthy Ireland agenda, a number of other major initiatives support the obesity policy, including a national physical activity plan. Implementation of the plan is well under way, in collaboration with the Department of Transport, Tourism and Sport and a range of other stakeholders.

I thank the Minister of State. I thought there would be an annual report in advance of 2019. It does not make much sense to me. There is an urgency to this issue, and the idea that we would put a plan in place in 2016 and not get any feedback on it for three years does not make sense to me.

In addition, I have difficulty with the code of practice to which the Minister of State refers. By its voluntary nature there is no impetus on television or radio providers to do anything about it. When one watches the children's movies and so forth on RTÉ, there are rules where it needs to be more than 50% children who are watching it. The broadcasting agencies have all sorts of statistics about how those movies are mostly watched by adults, but I do not buy that. I do not think adults are sitting down watching the children's movie on a Saturday. Some of them may be in the house, but how do the agencies quantify who is actually looking at the television?

Advertising is still allowed to be shown at that time and there needs to be a more mandatory level when it comes to advertising. There needs to be a watershed whereby after a certain time in the evening these types of sugary and fattening sweet drinks, food and confectionary are not advertised in order that children do not see these advertisements. There is also a problem with the online space, an issue which must also be seriously addressed.

I understand the Senator's frustration with the annual report. I had hoped I would have been able to give a little more information on that in my reply this afternoon. I will proceed, however, to look at it again.

On the code of practice and its voluntary nature, one might say that when it was launched it was conservative. In the meantime, however, there has been much action on the code of practice and many agencies have come on board. I know a number of shops, outlets and other areas are also beginning to take it on board. I was struck in my local supermarket by how it has been rearranged in order that fruit and vegetables are at the front of the shop rather than what had been there in the first place. It is a voluntary code of practice and we need to continue to work on it. We might need to emphasise the fact that responsibility comes with having a business and with serving young children, and this is seen on a daily basis.

When the sugar tax came in, like many people I was a bit wary of it and where it would go. As I have continued in my journey in this Department, however, I see the changes as soft drinks manufacturers are starting to take on board many of the things that were raised. I will take into account the Senator's point about online services and I will ensure the Department reverts to the Senator.

National Drugs Strategy

The Minister of State, Deputy Byrne, will also take this matter.

I thank the Chair for facilitating this conversation about harm reduction. I welcome the Minister of State to the House. I commend the HSE and the Department of Health on their work in informing drug users about the safe use of drugs. It is proactive, realistic and life saving.

According to a Eurobarometer poll in 2014, the use of psychoactive drugs among 15 to 24 year olds in Ireland is the highest in Europe. This also extends to music festivals, where MDMA, ecstasy, ketamine and cocaine are all common. I also commend the specific HSE guidelines on music festival attendees or festival-goers. It advises that it is always safer not to use ecstasy or MDMA but, if one does, one should test-dose a new batch and begin with a low dose of one quarter of a pill. Obviously, these illicit drugs do not go through any regulatory testing at all.

There are reports that bad batches have caused havoc among Irish festivalgoers and resulted in the deaths or emergency health reactions of festival attendees. Not a summer goes by without news here or in Britain of such incidents. Conversations regarding drug testing at festivals have taken place this summer and Dr. Eamon Keenan of the HSE has called for its introduction. Having passed a policy through the Sinn Féin Ard-Fheis, I put out a statement on the matter and the Ana Liffey drug project has also spoken on it. I commend Ana Liffey, the HSE, Help Not Harm and Electric Picnic, all of which engaged in the provision of harm reduction services at music festivals this summer. We cannot ignore the inevitability that drugs will be used by a percentage of people attending festivals. Most importantly, we must recognise that no amount of literature, education or one-to-one advice will ever inform a person about what constitutes a safe dose of an illicit or unknown drug.

In May this year, two festival goers in Portsmouth died after taking pills which contained three times the typical dose of ecstasy. It is always safer not to use unknown or illicit drugs at all and they are illegal. However, we must be conscious, given their prevalence, that putting our heads in the sand or condemning those who partake has failed completely. We are doing very well in advancing the harm reduction conversation but we can do more. While I do not wish to pre-empt the work of the national drugs strategy, which is examining the issue, I ask the Minister of State whether the Department will support initiatives similar to The Loop initiative in Britain? The Loop offers a confidential drug-testing service at festivals in Britain. A festival goer can provide a sample and will be informed what constitutes it. The sample is then destroyed in the context of the criminalisation that exists in Britain. Will the Department consider funding a similar initiative in the absence of decriminalisation? The British Government has brought various stakeholders together, including police, health professionals, festival organisers and NGOs. There is an appetite in Ireland and we can achieve this in the absence of decriminalisation. I would welcome a statement from the Department on the matter.

I thank the Senator for his interesting and touching contribution on the initiative in respect of drug-taking at festivals. I also thank him for giving me the opportunity to update the House on harm-reduction measures.

Through its strategy, Reducing Harm, Supporting Recovery, the Government is committed to a health-led approach to drug use. While the advice from the Department of Health and the HSE is that people attending festivals should inform themselves about the dangers of taking drugs and, preferably, should not take drugs at all, reducing the harms caused to individuals, families and communities by substance misuse is at the core of the strategy. Harm reduction incorporates a spectrum of strategies from safer use to managed use and abstinence. The HSE has previously undertaken awareness campaigns, including "What's in the Pill", and in July, I launched the HSE's harm reduction campaign on cocaine and crack cocaine. In addition, the HSE has issued harm reduction information to festivalgoers based on UK reports from similar events.

We are all too familiar with the fact that recreational settings such as nightclubs and festivals are associated with use of drugs, including ecstasy, amphetamines and new psychoactive substances. The risks associated with the use of drugs in these settings may be increased if it is in combination with other drugs, particularly alcohol. While the provision of drug-testing kits at nightclubs and festivals, for example, might allow people who use drugs to gain feedback regarding the content and potency of what they are consuming, this approach has been criticised as having the potential to inform people who use drugs that what they are consuming is safe when that is not the case.

I also understand from the evidence review that doubts remain regarding the accuracy and consistency of commonly used testing equipment.

The HSE's addiction services has had preliminary discussions with emergency health providers who attend music events. It has examined emerging approaches that provide targeted preventive messages to recreational drug users. Our strategy, Reducing Harm, Supporting Recovery, looked at evidence related to interventions to tackle the drug problem, including drug testing as a harm reduction measure. It includes a specific action which aims to strengthen early harm reduction responses to current and emerging trends, as well as patterns of drug use. This will be delivered by establishing a working group to examine the evidence on early harm reduction responses such as drug testing. The working group will draw together the relevant stakeholders and examine the available evidence, along with best practice models from other countries to help determine the appropriate response in Ireland. The Department of Health and the HSE aim to establish this working group in 2019.

That was a comprehensive response. I did not take the chance to commend the Minister of State on launching the cocaine and crack initiative. There was criticism and pressure about this. I commend her on showing leadership on the issue.

It is welcome that the Department of Health and the HSE will establish a working group to examine such settings as music festivals. It is welcome that the Minister of State referred to nightclubs also. I did not refer to them earlier. It is positive the Department is taking nightclubs and festivals together.

I thank the Senator. I know how well he understands these problems. Like many of us who have come from communities where drugs have had a significant impact on families, friends and young people, the new strategy will take on some of these issues. As we continue to draw down on the actions and strategy, particularly with the working group on personal drug use, at the end of the year we may have progress in this area, looking at treating in a more health-led way rather than a criminal way those young people who, unfortunately, may find themselves addicted to drugs. If a young person has made a mistake in life, we need to give him or her the opportunity to recuperate and go back into his or her community.

We have established a great working group and, by the end of December, we will have some recommendations from it. We will then continue the journey in January and onwards in 2019 around looking at what the Senator raised, particularly around drug testing. Last year, I visited a drug testing service in Wales. I was struck by the fact that any measures that can reduce harm and death caused by drug use need to be introduced as soon as possible.

Bovine Disease Controls

Cuirim fáilte roimh an Aire Stáit go dtí an Teach inniu. I thank the Minister of State for his attendance in the House to discuss this important topic.

Recently, many farmers in County Monaghan received correspondence from the Department of Agriculture, Food and the Marine informing them that the ratio of TB reactor animals in the county is a multiple of the national average. This is a concerning development when one bears in mind that less than 18 months ago, County Monaghan had one of the lowest rates of TB compared with the rest of the country.

It is an awful development in a short period. It is a serious concern for the farming community with regard to herd genetics and farm incomes. As I am sure the Minister of State can relate to, it is a worrying and stressful time for farmers, many of whom have spent many years of hard work and sweat in building a herd to find, perhaps overnight, that that herd can be removed from them. I, for one, coming from a farming background, can relate to the experience of having to undergo a test and for two or three days, one's heart is in one's mouth until one gets the results. It is deeply worrying.

I know that the Department is in communication with the farming community in County Monaghan on a number of issues, the most important of which is ascertaining what is causing this sudden upsurge in the incidence of tuberculosis in their herds. Tuberculosis has been with us for many years and it is frustrating that we do not seem to be able to successfully get a handle on the problem as a country. Despite vaccinations for many years, the problem still seems to be with us. As far as the farmer in County Monaghan is concerned, it is probably as bad now as it was at any time in that period. It is important that the Minister of State outline where exactly his Department is in tackling this problem and identifying the cause and the plans he has in place to eradicate it. I sincerely hope any plan we have will not be isolated to the Twenty-six Counties but will cover the Thirty-two Counties. As I am sure the Minister of State can appreciate, Monaghan is bordered by three Northern counties, Armagh, Fermanagh and Tyrone. We need to consult the Department of Agriculture, Environment and Rural Affairs in Northern Ireland to identify if there are similar problems north of the Border. I look forward to the Minister of State's comments. Having spoken to farmers, frustration has been voiced at the fact that, in their opinion, it has taken too long to remove the reactor animals from farms. I ask the Minister of State to look into that matter. He might revert to me on it.

I thank the Senator for raising this important and relevant issue. As he said, the tuberculosis eradication scheme has been in place in Ireland since the mid-1950s. This and other measures have led to major improvements in tuberculosis levels in the cattle herd. Reactor numbers have fallen significantly in recent years from 44,000 a year in 2008 and 2009 to approximately 15,000 to 17,000 reactors in the past two to three years. In the same period the herd incidence has reduced from 6% to 3.5%, meaning that thousands more farmers are now not affected by the stresses associated with a tuberculosis breakdown. This is a positive development and we are keen to see this trend continue in support of the farming community.

As a member state with bovine tuberculosis, Ireland is required under EU law to have a tuberculosis eradication scheme to facilitate trade. The tuberculosis eradication programme is consistently the largest animal health programme run by the Department. This reflects how acutely aware we are both of the financial and mental stress for a farmer associated with a tuberculosis breakdown. The Department has a range of financial supports available for farmers whose herds experience a tuberculosis breakdown. The Department works very closely with the farming community in ensuring the risk of spread of bovine tuberculosis is curtailed as much as possible in line with the available scientific evidence. For example, earlier this year, County Monaghan was identified as an area with elevated levels of tuberculosis. Through in-depth consultation with stakeholders, a specific tuberculosis control plan for County Monaghan was developed and is being actively implemented.

Bovine tuberculosis is a complex disease and it is not possible to attribute the decline in the incidence of the disease to any single factor. Nevertheless, the main factors involved appear to be the wildlife control policy, improved testing regimes and access to data and technology such as the animal health computer system.

It is important to acknowledge that the major reduction in disease levels is thanks to the co-operation of all stakeholders, in particular farmers, private veterinary practitioners and Department officials. We now need to build on the excellent progress that has been made and enhance our efforts further in order to achieve eradication, which we think is an attainable target with all the tools we have at our disposal. The Minister, Deputy Creed, has set the ambitious target of eradicating TB entirely by 2030 and, in order to help achieve this, he recently received approval from the Government to set up a TB stakeholder forum. This forum is being independently chaired by Mr. Michael Cronin and held its first meeting in early September of this year. Encouragingly, it has been broadly welcomed by all members. It is the intention of the forum to provide the Minister with proposals in early 2019 that can achieve eradication of bovine TB by 2030. These proposals will be considered very closely with a view to finalising a TB 2030 eradication strategy shortly thereafter.

I want to reassure the Senator we are firmly committed to eradicating bovine TB. We want to ensure that many more farmers will be saved from the challenges associated with a TB outbreak in the coming years.

I thank the Minister of State. When he gets the opportunity, there are a couple of issues on which he might revert to me. First, while I welcome his comments on the Department, I would like confirmation on whether we are consulting the authorities north of the Border on the level of disease there. Are we working jointly on that issue, given that it is essential we do so? Second, it is important the Department would look into the issue of the time it is taking to remove affected cattle from farms. As several farmers have contacted me on this issue, including today, I look forward to the Minister of State's response. Perhaps he will look into it directly.

The Minister of State mentioned compensation levels and it is important compensation is paid out as soon as possible. As he rightly acknowledged, it can be a very worrying, sad and stressful time for farmers who discover their herds are affected. We must do all we can to eradicate this disease, which has to be our goal. However, where the disease does break out, we must look after the farmers as quickly as possible.

I thank the Senator. I am working on the assumption Animal Health Ireland is working on an all-island basis in regard to eradication, given the animal health status needs to be all-island based. There is a slightly different control regime in the UK. We have started a vaccination programme in the vaccination areas and this is being rolled out on badgers.

With regard to the length of time for removal, the valuation process needs to be as streamlined as possible. It is certainly an issue which has come up and I come from a county which has consistently had higher levels than the national average, although this is improving. In particular, there is an issue with the speed of paperwork following the identification of a reactor in order to remove the animal and allow the 60-day period to start. These are all very valid points.

The Senator's comments on the compensation process are very relevant. Blood samples are now taken through the interferon-gamma test, which is more sophisticated and has probably picked up extra reactors. In reality, that will wash through the system, with an improved herd health status in due course. From personal experience, I have seen it takes some three years for that to really wash through the system and show benefit at the end of the day.

Sitting suspended at 3.20 p.m. and resumed at 3.30 p.m.