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Seanad Éireann debate -
Wednesday, 28 Nov 2018

Vol. 261 No. 10

Commencement Matters

Eye Care

I welcome the Minister of State, Deputy Jim Daly.

I, too, welcome the Minister of State. I am concerned about the provision of eyesight tests for children in primary and secondary schools, especially given that nowadays children spend an awful lot of time on consoles, iPads, phones and other forms of digital media. According to a report launched recently by a cancer society, there are concerns that children are developing digital myopia or short-sightedness as a consequence of the amount of time they spend on digital platforms. The Government needs to consider this because, as the old saying goes, one's health is one's wealth. One's eyesight is of particular importance. When I was going to school, people did not think about their eyesight very much. The issue was never highlighted. People did not realise there were concerns about the importance of eyesight. Something needs to be done to make sure children will receive all of the care and attention they need to protect their eyesight.

I thank the Senator for focusing on this important issue and giving me an opportunity, on behalf of the Minister for Health, to address the issue of eye testing for primary school children. A child's vision continues to develop until about the age of eight years. Vision surveillance and screening are conducted by hospital paediatric teams, public health nurses and general practitioners, depending on the stage of development, to identify children with a visual impairment or eye conditions that are likely to lead to visual impairment in order that a referral can be made to an appropriate eye care professional for further evaluation and treatment. Vision screening is carried out under the guidance of the HSE's national screening and surveillance programme, Best Health for Children Revisited. Children have their eyes checked at birth by the paediatric team in the hospital. Their eyes are also checked by a public health nurse during the neonatal visit and the GP during the two and six-week visits. Children have universal access to an ongoing vision surveillance programme provided by the public health nursing service until they commence school. The purpose of the vision screening children undergo when they enter school is to detect amblyopia, the reduction of visual acuity in one or both eyes, usually in an otherwise normal eye. It needs to be identified and managed before the age of eight years. A child who has a vision issue detected during preschool or primary school screening receives a HSE service provided by community ophthalmic physicians or a hospital until the age of 16 years. All children are eligible to have an eye examination and receive treatment until the age of 12 years. If the parents of a child have a medical card, the child will be eligible to have an eye examination and receive treatment until he or she is 16 years.

The HSE published the report of the primary care eye services review group in June 2017. The review group determined that there was a need to move from the management of all referrals by community ophthalmic physicians to a model centred on primary eye care teams. The report recommends that such teams be based in primary care settings, with optimum accommodation, facilities, equipment and resources. Each team will provide services along care pathways, as set out in the report, for children and adults and work in an integrated fashion supported by an IT patient management system. This will ensure hospital services are focused on patients who require more specialist diagnostics or treatments.

Further to a recommendation made in the review group's report, the HSE is in the process of agreeing an addendum to the community ophthalmic services scheme to allow children aged eight years and over to be seen by their local community optometrist. The HSE is in the process of establishing primary eye care teams in south and west Dublin and further developing a team in north Dublin. The report recommends that all routine sixth class screenings, including the colour vision test, be discontinued as there is little clinical evidence for providing visual screening for children in sixth class. Data have shown that very few or no new cases of eye diseases such as amblyopia are detected at that stage. Most countries no longer undertake school exit screening. Instead, screening is undertaken at an earlier age to ensure children with eye diseases are identified at the earliest possible stage and can access treatment services.

I thank the Minister of State. While I understand what he has said, I continue to be concerned about the amount of screen time to which children are exposed. The cancer society has shown that screen time is linked not only with short-sightedness but also cancer.

This issue must be kept on the agenda because children are destroying their eyesight. There should be an awareness campaign or other measure to highlight to children and parents the damage caused by excessive screen time. Screen time should be limited because it is affecting children's eyesight. The report was published in 2017, but all Members would agree that screen time has increased since then. I have seen many children sitting in a corner for hours on a phone or playing games on a screen while their parents are otherwise occupied. That needs to be monitored.

I have many strong views on screen time for children. When discussing the matter, I always point out that adults must be aware of their own screen time and the example they set for children in the home and elsewhere. I accept the Senator's point that it poses a risk to children's eyesight. Screen time may also affect children's social, language, communication, typing and writing skills and even their dexterity. It presents a myriad of challenges. It is an ongoing challenge in my area of mental health of which I am very conscious. The discussion of the issue in any forum, be it here in the Seanad or elsewhere, is always welcome as it affords an opportunity to make parents acutely aware of its potential physical, mental and holistic dangers.

I recently met representatives of Facebook regarding screen time and they told me that Facebook is moving towards making children aware of the amount of time they spend on screens. Many of us receive updates on our phones regarding our daily screen time, which is a welcome step towards acknowledging the problem. Some people would be frightened by how much time they spend staring at a screen. Physical eyesight will suffer as a result of such excessive usage. I am not aware of any links to cancer and would need to see concrete evidence of a relationship in that regard before pursuing the issue further. There is no doubt that screen time poses a challenge in terms of eyesight and other areas of which we must be aware. I thank the Senator for highlighting this issue.

Schools Building Projects Status

I welcome the Minister of State, Deputy Jim Daly, to the House. I raise a very important issue relating to education in Ennistymon, County Clare. The debate on a community school for the area has been ongoing since I was in school there in the late 1980s and early 1990s. There are three schools in Ennistymon, namely, the CBS, the vocational school and Scoil Mhuire, all of which do an excellent job in providing educational opportunities to young people. I and others of my generation went to school there and did exceptionally well.

The problem relates to the schools' infrastructure. The buildings are many decades old. Pupils must commute from one school to another in order to optimise their choice of subjects and ensure they have the opportunities available to other students. That is done in inclement weather conditions such as those currently being experienced in County Clare, where it is pouring rain. The children must move from one school to another in order to study subjects such as history, science, woodwork and so on. The pupils of the three schools are criss-crossing the town of Ennistymon.

I was delighted at the Government announcement in 2013 or 2014 that funding for a state-of-the-art, purpose-built community school to amalgamate the three schools was being provided. An amalgamation committee of which I was a member was in being for several years prior to that. It included Oireachtas representatives for the area and the trustees, boards of management and principals of the schools. Since the funding announcement, the project successfully went through the planning process.

People want to know when building will commence and when students will be able to enrol in the new facility. The process has been going on for a long time. The money is available and planning permission has been granted. When will construction commence and when can enrolment begin?

On behalf of the Minister for Education and Skills, Deputy McHugh, I thank the Senator for raising this matter as it provides the Minister with an opportunity to outline to the Seanad the current position in regard to the major building project for the new amalgamated post-primary school in Ennistymon in County Clare. The project will deliver a new post-primary school to cater for 650 pupils, as well as a new primary school on the site. It is currently at stage 2b, which is detailed design of architectural planning and includes the application for statutory approvals and the preparation of tender documents. Planning permission has been received for the project.

The Department of Education and Skills has recently given authorisation to commence the pre-qualification of main contractors and reserved specialists for the mechanical and electrical works with the aim of establishing shortlists of appropriate candidates who can successfully undertake the respective works. Pre-qualification usually takes between eight and 12 weeks to complete. When pre-qualification is complete and the stage 2b report has been finalised and approved, the project will be progressed to tender stage. Tender stage usually takes between seven and eight months to complete.

This school is being delivered as part of a wider batch of projects which benefit from using a professional external project manager to co-ordinate the respective design teams on each building project. This method combines traditional delivery with project manager support using existing design team procedures, careful and rigorous programming and constant review to achieve the best possible timeframe. The Department meets the project manager monthly to review the progress of all of the projects. The normal quality and cost control requirements inherent in the design team procedures and the Department’s design guidelines continue to apply and design teams must meet those established standards. This project is included in the six-year programme to go to tender and construction in 2019 to 2021.

The pre-tendering process is taking place as we speak or is about to take place and will take eight to 12 weeks. When that is completed, the tendering process and identification of a suitable contractor will take seven to eight months. Is it reasonable to expect that construction will begin on the site in 2019 and the first enrolment of students will be in September 2021?

The information I have been given by the Minister indicates it takes up to 12 weeks for the pre-qualification stage and seven to eight months for tender. I cannot give a definitive timeframe because one must always consider events, dear boy, events. I am very familiar with such projects. Clonakilty Community College is on my doorstep and is slightly ahead of the project in Ennistymon as the tender is about to be opened. It has been through the stages that the Ennistymon project must undergo and in that case the two stages took two or three months more than the estimated 12-month period. This project may be lucky but, realistically, construction will begin in 12 to 15 months based on the information I have been given, subject to the caveat that unforeseen events may arise.

The fact that there is a timeline-----

The Senator is out of order.

-----is very good news with which people in Ennistymon will be delighted.

I cannot allow the Minister of State to reply further. Senator Conway is satisfied with the reply he received.

Social Media Regulation

I welcome the Minister of State to the House. I raise the issue of social media and its responsible use. As all Members are aware, social media is a great enabler of mass communication in the modern world. We are able to keep apprised of events from all over the globe. We are awash with communication options such as Facebook, Twitter, Snapchat, YouTube and everything in between.

Friends, families and neighbours are able to stay in contact over what were previously insurmountable distances. People from anywhere can connect with anyone to share their interests and ideas. A video put up on YouTube in Cavan today can be admired around the globe in seconds. The sense of global connectedness is the wonder of our age. Social media has also been a great benefit to many entrepreneurs and small businesses who can advertise to markets they never knew existed while not breaking the bank. The cost of maintaining a social media presence is minimal. If one chooses paid advertising, one can spend as much or as little as one’s budget allows.

However, social media clearly has a darker side. We have seen the effect of foreign social media in election campaigns. Anyone can create a fake account. Many people believe they can say or do anything without being traced. This has opened the door to cyberbullying, racial and misogynistic abuse, threats, intimidation and slander.

I want to raise the case of Eamonn Mulvaney who goes by the stage name of Eamonn Jackson. In the past, he was a director of his family’s dog-breeding business. This is a properly licensed and regulated state-of-the-art establishment, creating employment in County Cavan. As a result of a television documentary regarding a puppy farm, allegedly in County Cavan, this up-and-coming country and western star with no connection to that particular business has become the target of an orchestrated campaign to destroy him and his family. Venues where he was due to play have been contacted by individuals using various forms of social media. They have been intimidated and, in some cases, threatened. This has resulted in hundreds of Mr. Jackson’s performances being cancelled at short notice, including a recent tour of the United Kingdom. This has cost Mr. Jackson hundreds of thousands of euro and put in jeopardy the livelihoods of the ten people employed by him in the music business.

An example of the type of social media messages he receives personally every day consists of a banner with a special offer of a free necklace. However, it shows two nooses. They have caused Mr. Jackson not only financial loss but significant mental strain. This innocent man, trying to establish himself in the country music industry, and his family are suffering. Despite his many attempts to contact the social media outlets and the Garda Síochána, he continues to receive these types of messages.

I do not like raising issues like this and naming people in the Chamber. However, Mr. Jackson asked me to do so. He has made contact with me, as well as my colleague, Deputy Brendan Smith, to highlight what is going on with the hope that something will be done about this before it has serious consequences and not only financial ones.

I thank the Senator for submitting this Commencement matter. We are all aware of the benefits that the online world can bring for communication, education, reducing the cost of services and of doing business. Today it is hard to imagine a world without the Internet or smartphones. With all of the benefits that the online world brings, we are all becoming increasingly conscious of the risks it presents for ourselves and our children. It is noteworthy that of the three Commencement matters being taken this morning, two relate to this issue.

Online safety is a priority for the Government. The online safety and security of all citizens, especially of the most vulnerable groups, including children, is one of the most important challenges we face as a society today. In July, the Taoiseach launched the Government’s first Action Plan for Online Safety for 2018 to 2019. This document presents a whole-of-Government approach to the issue of online safety. It contains 25 actions to be implemented or substantially progressed by the six key Departments, namely the Departments of Communications, Climate Action and Environment, Justice and Equality, Business, Enterprise and Innovation, Children and Youth Affairs, Health, and Education and Skills.

Some examples include in the area of mental health, examining the feasibility of hosting online therapeutic interventions and creating a pilot mental health hub in a primary care centre to provide remote online counselling services; requiring schools to consult on the use of smartphones; developing and publishing a resource on for schools to deliver Internet safety awareness evenings to parents; developing online safely resources for parents of preschool age children; developing guidance on appropriate amounts of screen time for each age group; and implementing the revisions to the audiovisual media services directive which will require video sharing platform services, such as YouTube, to have measures in place to protect all users, but especially minors, from harmful audiovisual online content uploaded by users.

A sponsor group, with membership from the six Departments involved, will oversee implementation of the plan. The group is finalising its first progress report. We have also established the national advisory council for online safety, chaired by the Minister of State with responsibility for natural resources, community affairs and digital development, Deputy Canney, with membership from a wide range of stakeholder groups, including NGOs, industry, academics, Departments and Government agencies. The council has held two meetings since being established in September. It is tasked with providing advice to the Government on online safety issues; identifying emerging issues where Government intervention may be warranted, including in future iterations of the Action Plan for Online Safety; and inputting to the development of clear and easy to understand online safety guidance materials for all Internet users, including targeted material for children and young people, persons with learning disabilities, parents, and older people.

The council will publish a progress report, which in subsequent years will become its annual report in advance of Safer Internet Day on 5 February 2019. The action plan also commits the Government to working with the Oireachtas Joint Committee on Communications, Climate Action and Environment to explore the issues arising in the Digital Safety Commissioner Bill 2017. The committee has commenced its detailed scrutiny of the Bill and the Minister for Communications, Climate Action and Environment attended the first hearing on 25 October 2018. Departmental officials also attended a subsequent hearing on 6 November 2018.

The Minister expressed the view at the meeting of 25 October that self-regulation of online platforms may no longer be appropriate. However, for the Oireachtas to legislate in this space, we will have to ensure the legislation is robust, effective and meets the urgent public policy need to protect all online users, especially children. The Minister has sought the advice of the Attorney General on the legal issues which the Bill presents and he has also asked his officials to examine the Bill in detail.

There are several legal issues with the Bill, as currently drafted, which would need to be overcome, including the lack of a definition of harmful digital communications and the proposed extraterritorial role for the Irish courts. I welcome that the committee has indicated that it intends to engage with a broad range of national and international stakeholders as it considers the draft legislation. Online safety is an incredibly broad and complex area with a diverse range of stakeholders involved. The risks which the online world presents vary from the most serious form of criminal behaviour to harmful or hurtful comments, sometimes perpetrated by children themselves. The Action Plan for Online Safety takes account of the fact that no one single action can mitigate all of these risks and, in some areas, better or more easily accessible guidance and resources for parents or teachers will be more appropriate and effective than seeking to impose legislative measures. The Government is committed to delivering on all of the actions in the Action Plan for Online Safety and to the preparation of the next action plan, preparations for which will commence before the end of 2019.

I thank the Minister of State for his reply. While I appreciate he could not refer to the case I outlined as he was not aware of it, I ask him to take what I have said about it back to the Minister, Deputy Bruton. I assure him that my party will support the legislation when it is brought forward. It is important that it be speeded up and brought before us as soon as possible. On the particular case, I will continue to raise the issue in this House until a satisfactory conclusion is reached. There are between 200 and 260 people involved. If necessary, I will name them and give their IP addresses publicly in this House, if that is what it takes, but I do not want to go down that road. I will also send a letter to the Garda Commissioner containing the documentation I have available, including screenshots of the foul messages sent and threats made, including to his life, to the man in question, Mr. Eamonn Jackson.

As the Senator will appreciate, I am not familiar with the case. As such, I will not comment on it. All of us, as politicians, both personally and professionally, are aware of the issue. Most of us have experienced it on a personal level.

Some of us have suffered because of it.

There is no doubt that some have suffered because of it. Some politicians are known more widely than others, but I understand many have endured it. Exactly as the Senator said, we have encountered victims of online bullying. People can hide behind their anonymity, parade behind various guises and engage in a free-for-all. I have spoken previously about this matter and believe strongly every publication should have a person responsible and that everybody needs to be identified in some shape or form. If I was to send a letter tomorrow to the editor of any local newspaper and decide to take aim at anybody, I could remain anonymous by having it stated underneath "name and address with the editor". However, the editor of the publication would have a responsibility to know who I was and could not allow the letter to go through without it. Likewise, most politicians are aware that when someone talks to a radio station, it must always ring the contributor because it is responsible. While I could talk on a show as Joe from Drumcondra, even though my accent might me give away, or use any name I wanted, and while I would be entitled to my anonymity, the provider of the platform would have to know who I was and take responsibility. We have it in the radio and newspaper space for all publications, but we do not have it in the online space. I have had good engagement on this issue with the Data Commissioner. One of the biggest challenges, from a legislative point of view, which is what the Senator is talking about, is that there are no boundaries. It would, therefore, be difficult to enact effective legislation, even if one could achieve an EU-wide consensus on the issue, on which I have engaged with the commissioner, because of the nature of the worldwide web, but I am sure we could do more than what we are doing.