Commencement Matters (Resumed)

Homeless Accommodation Provision

I welcome the Minister of State to the House. Teach Mhuire in Cork is a facility purchased in 2007, at cost of €2.1 million, by the group headed by Sr. Consilio. At the time there were negotiations with Cork City Council and the HSE whereby Sr. Consilio's group would purchase the house and the annual cost of running it would be borne jointly by Cork City Council and the HSE. We are now 11 years on and the facility is still vacant.

I visited this centre recently and it is a state-of-the-art facility with full central heating and double-glazed windows. It has been totally refurbished and it has been in that state for eight or nine years. It can accommodate 16 people. My understanding is the original intention was for it to be a step-down facility and there is a disagreement between the HSE and the group on what the centre should be used for. The group has more than 90 beds in various units throughout the country providing step-down facilities, and the funding is normally split, with 40% from the local authority and 60% from the HSE.

I am very concerned that at a time when we need to free places in facilities around the country, this centre was designed to help people who would have come through rehabilitation either for drug or alcohol abuse and are now moving on with their lives. This is a stable environment in which they could live. This facility is in Cork and it is available. The doors could be opened tomorrow morning if funding could be provided jointly by the city council and the HSE. I have discussed this with members of the city council and the Minister for Housing, Planning and Local Government, Deputy Eoghan Murphy. My understanding is they are prepared to come on board once there is agreement between this group and the HSE. I ask that this should not drag on for another 12 months, with 16 beds left vacant, when we badly need them. I ask that we now have a commitment for funding for 2019.

I thank Senator Colm Burke for raising the matter of people who are homeless in Cork city and for giving me the opportunity on behalf of my colleague, the Minister of State, Deputy Catherine Byrne, to update the Seanad on improvements in health services for this population.

Implementing the national drugs strategy, Reducing Harm, Supporting Recovery 2017-2025, is a Government priority. The strategy identifies people who are homeless as having a higher risk of problem drug use. Their difficult and chaotic life experiences expose them to many health and social risks, including mental health issues. The Minister of State, Deputy Byrne, is aware of the recent study published by Cork Simon on the quality of life of the homeless population in Cork city. The study identifies the routes into homelessness and highlights the many vulnerabilities of homeless people and their challenges in finding a place to call home. The study indicates the high levels of addiction among the Cork homeless population. At same time, there is good engagement with addiction services and other services, with many people either abstinent or in treatment. That is positive. However, the lack of independent housing is minimising the opportunity for improvements in mental and physical health and for reduction in alcohol and drug use.

In the first instance, the social determinants of the health needs of people who are homeless must be addressed. These are underpinned by income inequality and poverty, lack of material resources, limited access to employment and, of course, homelessness.

These are whole of government issues and involve a range of stakeholders.

The Department of Health is supporting the national implementation of Housing First, including in Cork city. Under Housing First, the priority is to support a person who has experienced homelessness into permanent housing as quickly as possible without any preconditions. In line with the Sláintecare report, the Department and the HSE are developing new models of care that deliver more effective and integrated care to people with multiple, complex needs who are homeless. The Department has invested an additional €6 million to improve health services for homeless people since 2016, bringing the total health expenditure on homelessness to €36 million. Earlier this year, for example, the Department funded a new step-up, step-down intermediate care facility run by the Simon Community in Dublin. This facility will provide person-centred care for people who are homeless and who require nursing and related care prior to hospital admission and after discharge from hospital.

The Minister of State is aware that the HSE is developing a number of initiatives to improve health services for people who are homeless in Cork. There have been ongoing discussions with Cuan Mhuire on the development of a step-down facility for people who exit its detoxification and rehabilitation services. The Minister of State has been advised by the HSE that it is very supportive of Cuan Mhuire proceeding with this facility. I understand the HSE will discuss this option with Cuan Mhuire as part of a review of its local service level agreement and the Minister of State looks forward to a positive outcome from that review.

This is exactly the same reply as the one I have been getting for the past few years. It is not setting anything new out for me. Cuan Mhuire needs 60% of its funding to come from the HSE. It is a simple matter of the HSE committing that funding so that the facility can open on 1 January 2019. If we accept this answer, we will not get anywhere for at least three to four months. In the meantime, we will not get a commitment from Cork City Council because it does not understand the internal issues between Cuan Mhuire and the HSE. This facility has been fully furnished and ready to open for eight years. It is a turnkey facility that has been idle for eight years. In fact, it has been idle for 11 years but it was fully equipped eight years ago with up-to-date facilities including fire alarms.

The answer from the Department today does not give me anything concrete. I cannot go back to Cuan Mhuire or to Cork City Council with this reply. I cannot tell them that this is going to progress because this answer does not tell me that. Surely the HSE is able to give us a "Yes" or "No" answer at this stage. It has been given its budget for 2019, amounting to €17 billion. I am talking here about 60% funding for a facility that costs €300,000 per annum. We want the HSE to commit to providing 60% of the funding. As I understand it, the issue is that the HSE wants Teach Mhuire to be used as a step-up facility whereas Cuan Mhuire wants it to be used as a step-down facility. I am not sure what the difference is but for God's sake, can we not get on with this? The sum in question is 60% of €300,000. That is what we are looking for and we should have a commitment in writing before 1 January 2019.

I take on board the strongly held views of Senator Colm Burke, particularly with regard to 60% funding from the HSE. Obviously there are internal issues going on between Cuan Mhuire and the HSE but I will relay the Senator's concerns to the Minister of State. As I said earlier, the HSE is discussing this option with Cuan Mhuire as part of a wider review and the Minister of State is optimistic that the outcome of that review will be positive.

As Senator Colm Burke knows, addiction is a particular problem for people who are homeless. They face additional challenges in accessing health services and the lack of appropriate accommodation can undermine the effectiveness of healthcare interventions. Implementing the national drugs strategy continues to be a priority for this Government and within the envelope of resources available in budget 2019 for health services, the Minister of State is committed to prioritising services for homeless people who are facing addiction issues.

I will relay the Senator's concerns to the Minister of State and hopefully there will be some movement on the issue soon.

I thank the Minister of State. Before calling on the next speaker I would like to welcome Deputy Eamon Scanlon and his delegation to the House.

Special Educational Needs Service Provision

I thank the Minister for coming to the House. The reason I asked him here today is to highlight the need for an autism spectrum disorder, ASD, unit in Castlebar. Castlebar is the county town of Mayo and it is increasingly an issue that children with autism do not have a place to go in the county. While we have St. Patrick's national school and I commend the other ASD units in County Mayo which do very good work, the problem is that there are no ASD units in the county town. All children with autism have a right to a national school education.

To highlight what I am trying to say, I recently learned of a case in which a four year old child who is non-verbal, does not answer to her own name and is incontinent was asked to go to Newport on a bus to access school. That is a round trip of approximately 45 miles. The Minister will know that early intervention is extremely important in the case of children with autism. I want a commitment from him that he will work with the schools in Castlebar. It is not just a matter of adding an ASD unit on to the primary school, but a case of providing the proper resources which may include speech and language or other therapies. There are models of very good practice throughout the country. It is about working with the national schools. We desperately need an ASD unit. One in 60 children have autism and we need to provide those children with an education.

Gabhaim buíochas leis an Seanadóir as an seans labhairt leis an Seanad faoin ábhar iontach tábhachtach seo inniu. I thank the Senator for raising this issue. Funding for special education provision in 2018 will amount to €1.75 billion, which is an increase of 43% since 2011 and is equivalent to 18.7% of the current overall gross allocation for education and training. My Department's policy is to provide for the inclusive education of children with special educational needs, including autism, in mainstream school settings unless such a placement would not be in the best interests of the child concerned or the children with whom he or she would be educated. The greater proportion of children with autism attend mainstream classes but some require the environment of a special class or special school. This decision is based on a recommendation contained within a professional assessment and in consultation with the National Council for Special Education, NCSE. Special school placements are provided for other students with ASD and very complex special needs who would not manage in a mainstream school even for part of the week.

The NCSE is responsible, through its network of special educational needs organisers, SENOs, for the development, delivery and co-ordination of education services to children with special educational needs, including the establishment of special classes and special school placements. Since 2011 the NCSE has increased the number of special classes nationwide from 548 in 2011 to 1,459 now. Some 1,196 of these classes are special classes for children with autism spectrum disorder. This figure includes four ASD early intervention classes, 13 ASD primary classes, and nine ASD post-primary classes in County Mayo.

The NCSE is aware of emerging needs in Mayo from year to year. Where special provision, including the provision of special classes, is required, such provision is planned and established to meet that need. As part of the ongoing planning process, the NCSE has advised my officials that it is meeting the HSE early intervention team in the Mayo area and holding a parent information seminar in the coming week. Should the NCSE identify a requirement for additional special class placements in this area, it will contact schools in the area with regard to establishing an ASD special class.

Schools may also apply to the NCSE to open a special class if a need for such a class has been identified in the local area, for example, if it is indicated in professional reports that a number of students in the area may require the support of a special class. If an existing school is not in a position to accommodate a special class within its existing accommodation, it is open to the school to submit an application to the Department for capital funding to reconfigure existing spaces within the school building to accommodate such a class or construct additional accommodation. I thank the Senator again for raising this important matter.

I am pleased that the Minister's officials will meet the HSE early intervention team in County Mayo. It is not right that so many children and parents are being left behind. Many parents are enduring significant anxiety because they cannot get basic education for their children. I ask the Minister to meet those parents and listen to them. The voices of parents are often lost in all of this. I emphasise to the Minister that this issue needs to be dealt with for economic reasons as well as social ones. By not providing proper early intervention and education for children with autism, we are missing out on what the abilities of all these children can contribute to the State. I look forward to a positive outcome from the meeting that has been mentioned. Perhaps the Minister will come to the House at a later date. It is absolutely imperative for a properly resourced and funded ASD unit to be set up in the county town of Castlebar so that all therapies are provided to children with autism in this part of County Mayo as part of an all-inclusive education.

I thank the Senator again for raising this important issue. I have always advocated that parents should have an opportunity to choose whether they want to send their children to mainstream classes or, as many parents do, to special schools. Both avenues are open to parents. The increase in the number of special classes from 548 in 2011 to 1,459 now shows that there is demand among parents for their children to attend special classes and ASD units in mainstream schools.

I am confident that the officials who will deal with this school will do so in a professional and urgent way. It is clear from my initial contact and engagement with the people involved in the special education area that the dedication is there. The NCSE has autonomy in this regard. It is removed from me as Minister. I have full confidence that the NCSE will make progress with this issue when the numbers involved have been established and identified. There will have to be consultation with the schools. Provision has been made for schools to apply for additional accommodation through the building unit.

Once again, gabhaim buíochas leis an Seanadóir as seans a thabhairt dom labhairt sa díospóireacht thar a bheith tábhachtach seo, a bhaineann leis na roghanna atá ag tuismitheoirí daoine óga. It is important for us to continue to provide for parent choice with regard to special schools, special classes and ASD units.

Local Authority Staff Redeployment

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

I thank the Minister for coming to the House for this debate. I know he is exceptionally busy and I appreciate that he has taken time to come here. I genuinely acknowledge that. I am always conscious that Ministers are busy. It says something about a Minister when he or she can occasionally make time in his or her busy schedule to come to the Seanad as an acknowledgement of the importance of its work as part of the Oireachtas process. I thank the Minister again.

I have been asked to raise some issues on behalf of a number of trade unions in the local government sector. The transfer of local authority workers to Irish Water was originally scheduled to take place in 2025. I am advised that Irish Water management is now talking about substantial completion of that process as early as next year and up to 2021.

I am here to listen to the Minister and be put right if I am wrong. The unions expect more than 1,000 jobs to be lost in this process and state that more than 700 jobs have already been shed. They have provided data in that regard which I am happy to share with the Minister. Irish Water stated that there will be no compulsory redundancies.

I support trade unions and know the great work they have done in local authorities, but it is becoming very difficult for them. Whether one likes them or not, we must recognise and accept that existing arrangements and promises must be honoured. It is as simple as that. Any commitments made following negotiations with a trade union or other body must be honoured. I seek greater clarity on what commitments were made and where we are in that regard. The IMPACT trade union stated it is awaiting formal proposals. I acknowledge that there has been some engagement and talks but the union is anxious to discuss the finer detail. Its understanding is that the agreements should be in place until 2025. This morning I spoke to several of its members who work in Dún Laoghaire-Rathdown. Some told me that they are unsure of the current situation. Others stated they were transferred into aspects of water services in their local authorities over a period of two or three years. In some cases, they volunteered for transfer. However, through no fault of their own, they may now be forced to move to Irish Water.

We must establish and uphold the principle that where a workplace agreement is in being, staff should not be moved to another authority unless that is done voluntarily and with the full express consent of the workforce. There must be negotiation. Many workers will want to move to Irish Water. I acknowledge that the Minister recognises that, ideally, we want happy staff and people moving job because they wish to do so. I would welcome greater clarity because workers who are happy in their current roles have concerns about leaving the local authority where they have built up friendships and work relationships and patterns and do not wish to be forced to do so. I ask the Minister to give the House a commitment that nobody will be pressurised or forced to leave his or her place of employment, that is, his or her local authority, to move to Irish Water or any other water utility without his or her full express consent.

I thank the Senator for raising this very important issue. I am happy to be here to address his concerns and give clarity where I can. There are some layers to the issue.

As the Senator will be aware, the Government water services policy statement 2018-25 published in May of this year contains the broad policy context for the development of water services in Ireland. It outlines the position of Irish Water as the single publicly owned national water services authority. Since 1 January 2014, Irish Water has statutory responsibility for all aspects of water services planning, delivery and operation at national, regional and local levels. It has entered service level agreements, SLAs, with each local authority for the provision of water services. Staff working under these arrangements remain local authority employees while continuing to perform key water service functions, with local authorities acting as agents of Irish Water. Staffing arrangements are an operational matter for Irish Water and local authorities within the context of the SLA arrangements that are in place.

On 19 September 2018 I received a report from the director general of the Workplace Relations Commission, WRC, in respect of a process of engagement undertaken at my request with the parties involved in the transformation programme for Irish Water, namely, Irish Water, the Irish Congress of Trade Unions, relevant affiliated unions, local government management and my Department. The context lies in Irish Water's proposal to integrate its operations fully and end the current operational arrangements for the delivery of water services through the SLAs with local authorities. The discussions with the parties have advanced on the basis that the current SLAs will remain in place until such time as an alternative is agreed by all sides.

In considering the report in consultation with my Government colleagues, I am particularly mindful of the comments of the WRC that uncertainty about the next phase of transformation appears to be causing staffing difficulties at local government level and that further delay in providing the necessary clarity could exacerbate that situation and increase risks to the safe and effective delivery of water and wastewater services.

Since the WRC was asked to undertake the engagement exercise, the future governance and operational arrangements for Irish Water have been clarified. In July of this year, the Government decided that Irish Water would become a stand-alone and publicly-owned commercial regulated utility and would be separated from the Ervia Group during 2023. Work on the preparation of a separation plan is under way.

Having set out the future direction of Irish Water in this respect, it is important for all involved that clarity is now achieved in addressing the issues that arise in the context of the transformation programme. This needs to happen without delay. In this context, I have asked the parties to engage in a process to work towards the development of a stable structural and operational framework for the future, which would replace the current service level agreements with arrangements which will provide Irish Water, as the national water services authority, with the necessary control of operations, accountability and capacity to manage risk and to communicate and negotiate with all water services workers on the change agenda and on a single identity for customer-facing services. As part of the development of this framework, there is a need to ensure that Irish Water is not left without an appropriately skilled workforce to carry out its statutory functions and that local authorities are not left with stranded costs. The concerns of workers about the future deployment of existing local authority water staff can be addressed by developing arrangements which meet the two objectives I have just mentioned without requiring section 19 of the Water Services Act 2013 to be invoked other than by collective agreement. For the information of the Senator, section 19 relates to the designation of local authority staff for transfer to Irish Water upon the termination of an SLA.

I have asked for the development of a framework for the future to be concluded by the end of February 2019. I am grateful for the commitment of the WRC to facilitate this process. I am also grateful for the engagement to date in this process of staff representatives through their trade unions. Water services are essential to the daily lives of our citizens and our economy. It is imperative that we ensure the best and most appropriate arrangements possible are in place for the delivery of these vital services.

I thank the Minister for his comprehensive reply, which I will be happy to circulate this afternoon to the unions that have been in touch with me. The Minister referred to, "the comments of the WRC that uncertainty about the next phase of transformation appears to be causing staffing difficulties". It seems that the changeover has been brought forward slightly for that reason.

We cannot deviate from the fact that there is an agreement. I am aware that there are 31 SLAs - one in each of the 31 local authorities. The reality is that the 2025 commitment has to be honoured. If that must change for practical or pragmatic reasons associated with the continuation of service and standards, that is grand but it must be done through meaningful negotiation with the trade unions that represent workers. If it does not happen in this way, there will be unrest in this sector, which will not serve the community, the users of water, the employees or the local authorities well. I suggest we should steady the ship by reassuring the workforce that meaningful and respectful dialogue will take place with their trade unions. That is really important.

While we are talking about Irish Water, the Minister might confirm his plans and those of the Government for a constitutional referendum on the provision of public water services in this country.

I thank the Senator for slipping in a supplementary question about Irish Water.

I hope the Minister does not mind. He is always on top of his brief.

I do not mind at all.

Senator Boyhan slipped it in under the radar.

It is important to note that we have had very respectful and meaningful interactions to date. I have had such interactions with representatives of the workers and with the different actors who are involved in the process that is under way. That has been managed helpfully with the assistance of the WRC.

I would be happy for the Senator to circulate the reply I have provided if he thinks it would be helpful to do so. I suggest it would be worthwhile to focus on two key parts of it. First, I mentioned that, "the current SLAs will remain in place until such time as an alternative is agreed by all sides". Second, I said towards the end of my initial response that changes should not be made, "other than by collective agreement". We are talking about the ability of all sides to come to an understanding on a shared agreement which recognises that Irish Water and the local authorities will have certain needs into the future and ensures we can provide water, which is a natural resource, of the quality needed to enable people to live their lives in a healthy way and enable businesses to do business in a successful way.

We have to be careful because we cannot do trade negotiations on the floor of the House. We need to be sensitive when communicating directly with workers because they have their own chains of communication within their own organisations. We would not want to worry people unduly. I know this is not what the Senator is setting out to do. He has been very careful in his language and I thank him for that.

The holding of any referendum is a decision of the Oireachtas, rather than a decision of the Government. During the formation of this Government, my predecessors in this office and other Members of the House did some good work to come to an agreed framework on how to move the water issue on.

It was a central issue in the forming of that new Government and as the new Dáil began. Agreements were made on the progress of a referendum Bill through the House, with the Government working as part of that process to find the right wording to go to the public.

One of the things on which I have been quite consistent since taking over this role is that when we put wording to the people it should be language that everyone agrees on so that it is an almost uncontested referendum. There is no threat to the public ownership of water in this country, but to put minds at ease it was agreed that we would go into that process in good faith, and we have. Now let us try to get the language that everyone can agree on so that when the referendum happens it is, to use someone else's language, a slam dunk.

I have agreement from the Cabinet, so the Attorney General can now draft wording that can be put as an amendment to Deputy Joan Collins's Bill on Committee Stage. If we agree on that wording, it will then be up to the House to decide when that referendum takes place. That is the current position in regard to the Government's work as part of this process.