Commencement Matters

Road Safety

Cuirim fáilte roimh an Aire Stáit, an Teachta Griffin. The Senator has four minutes to outline his case.

Unfortunately, this is a long-standing issue. The junctions in question are on a section of the N4 between Carrick-on-Shannon and Boyle, namely, a right turn to Cootehall and a left turn to Croghan. It is a road that I travel every day, so I am familiar with the issues.

There is plenty of cumulative and anecdotal evidence to suggest that these are very dangerous junctions that have led to numerous collisions. Drivers turning right to Cootehall or left to Croghan face considerable danger, not from the cars travelling directly behind, but from other vehicles travelling even farther back that may be driving at speed in what is a 100 km/h zone. Their drivers would not be aware of a car in the middle of the road preparing to make a turn, which is leading to accidents.

This section of the N4 is extremely busy, with large volumes of traffic travelling on it every day. Transport Infrastructure Ireland, TII, has stated that only a few accidents have been recorded on it, but when one speaks to local people, they give a different story. They say that the number of accidents taking place is in the double figures and campaigners are now advising them to document fully the number of crashes at the two turns.

The level of concern among local people is high. More than 750 people from the area have signed a petition and a recent public meeting on the matter saw over 150 people in attendance. Many recounted their experiences of the accidents that have taken place at the junctions. One woman who had lived in a house opposite the Cootehall junction for more than 25 years told the meeting that she had left the area a number of years ago because of all the crashes.

Local people are fearful that someone will be seriously injured or there will be a loss of life if the matter is not addressed. Roscommon County Council made road signage and lining improvements to the section approximately a year and a half ago, but it is clear that more needs to be done. I urge the Minister for Transport, Tourism and Sport, Deputy Ross, the Minister of State and the TII to ensure that all possible improvement options are considered before lives are lost. I have raised this matter with the Minister and TII. The latter is due to meet Oireachtas Members next Tuesday in Leinster House to discuss it, which is welcome.

I am taking this debate on behalf of my colleague, the Minister, Deputy Ross. I thank Senator Feighan for raising this important matter. The Minister has responsibility for overall policy and funding in respect of the national roads programme. The planning, design and implementation of individual national road projects is a matter for the TII under the Roads Acts 1993 to 2015 in conjunction with the local authorities concerned. Within its capital budget, the assessment and prioritisation of individual projects is a matter in the first instance for the TII in accordance with section 19 of the Roads Act.

Ireland has just under 100,000 km of road in its network and the maintenance and improvement of national, regional and local roads places a substantial financial burden on local authorities and the Exchequer. Due to the national financial position, there were large reductions in Exchequer funding available for roads expenditure after the financial crisis. The Building on Recovery: Infrastructure and Capital Investment 2016-2021 and capital plan review allocations mark a significant step forward in restoring funding to the levels needed to maintain the road network in a steady state condition and allow for investment in road improvement schemes.

Each year, TII carries out a collision analysis of the entire national road network in compliance with the EU road infrastructure safety management directive to identify locations that have high concentrations of collisions. The 1 km section of the N4 in the vicinity of the Cootehall and Croghan junctions was identified in the 2016 analysis and TII provided funding to Roscommon County Council, which is the road authority for the area, to enable improvement works to be implemented at the location. These works, which included improved signage and road markings, were undertaken by the council in late 2016 and early 2017.

The location that the Senator referenced was not identified in collision analyses of the network undertaken since the implementation of those works. However, the absence of sites from the locations identified in the analyses does not preclude a road authority from submitting a feasibility report to TIl for safety improvement works at other locations on the national road network. For example, additional information on unreported collisions may be available to the road authority from local people of which TII is unaware.

In order for TII to consider such proposals relating to national roads, the road authority is required to carry out an analysis of the collision history at the location, design an appropriate scheme to deal with the safety issues identified, carry out an economic appraisal of the proposal, fully cost the scheme and prioritise it in the context of other works being proposed by the road authority.

The Minister understands arrangements are being made by Roscommon County Council to monitor traffic flows and driver behaviour on the relevant section of the N4 and additional safety improvement measures that may be proposed by the council arising from this exercise will be considered for funding by Transport Infrastructure Ireland.
I thank the Senator for raising the matter. We all know that safety is paramount on any road, including local, regional and national routes. I will speak to the team in Transport Infrastructure Ireland about this matter. I am certainly willing to work with the Senator into the future on any proposal Roscommon County Council may bring forward concerning this stretch of road. If it is of that much concern to the Senator, I am certainly very open to working with him to see if we can address the issue. We all know that while we might improve a dangerous section of road, one never knows the number of lives that might be saved, although it is fair to believe lives would be saved. If it is something we can do, I am certainly willing to work with the Senator on the issue.

I thank the Minister of State for his positive response. In some ways, there has not been reporting of accidents on the road, which I am at a loss to understand. Perhaps Garda reports, etc. have not made their way to Transport Infrastructure Ireland. I compliment and thank members of the community who are now collating the information. There have been many accidents on the road and I have no doubt that the information will provide a very strong argument to obtain funding for it. I am delighted that Roscommon County Council is monitoring traffic flows and driver behaviour on the road and look forward to seeing the report. We need to obtain the information and meet representatives from Transport Infrastructure Ireland. If it gives the go-ahead to the project, I have no doubt that the Government will provide the necessary funding.

Local Authority Finances

I thank the Minister of State for coming into the House to take this matter. In essence, I am seeking an update on the Government's commitment in A Programme for a Partnership Government which states:

We will also examine the possibility of extending the remit of the Comptroller and Auditor General and the Public Accounts Committee to include expenditure by local authorities. We will ensure that local government funding, structures and responsibilities strengthen local democracy.

I do not doubt that commitment. Sitting county councillors tell me that they are experiencing some difficulty even in having time on their agendas to consider the local government auditor's report. We know that local authorities are audited through the internal structures of the Department of Housing, Planning and Local Government that deal with the local government audit service. Most local authorities have only received in the past two or three weeks the local government auditor's report for 2017. I know that in one case in Dún Laoghaire councillors only had approximately ten minutes to consider a very detailed report, in which a number of very strong issues of concern were raised by the auditor. We know that the Committee of Public Accounts has expressed an interest in having representatives of local authorities come before it and that the Government is committed to doing something. It is just a question of when or having a timeframe for it. There is a real need for accountability. Local government is spending an exceptionally large amount. I picked up the Supplementary Estimates for public services, in which document we can see the substantial amount committed to by the Government. I do not doubt its commitment to funding local authorities, but we must have accountability.

Yesterday when I contacted the National Oversight and Audit Commission, it told me that although it could inquire into matters, ultimately, there was no provision for sanctions. The local government audit service also confirmed to me that, ultimately, it had no powers to impose sanctions either. The bottom line is that county managers, or chief executives as we know them today, must be held to account. It is time we had them before the Committee of Public Accounts or a similar body to account for how they spend public money. I am interested in hearing the Minister of State's response.

The Senator is correct. The programme for Government outlines this commitment under the heading of local government reform. The Senator will be glad to know that in the past couple of months I have been doing some work on the matter with my officials in the Department of Public Expenditure and Reform. The Minister, Deputy Donohoe, and I are former members of the Committee of Public Accounts, as is the Minister for Housing, Planning and Local Government, Deputy Eoghan Murphy. I have committed publicly to extending the role of the Comptroller and Auditor General to cover the local authority sector. There is no reason the Comptroller and Auditor General cannot cover local authority services. As somebody who served on the committee, I found it very frustrating that we were unable to have chief executives, or county managers as they were known, before it.

The Minister and I have discussed this issue on a number of occasions. Within the Department we have worked up a proposal jointly with the Department of Housing, Planning and Local Government. I hope it will be brought before the Government shortly in order that we can examine the possibility of putting in place an implementation group between the Departments of Public Expenditure and Reform and Housing, Planning and Local Government, with a view to extending the remit. There is no reason Members of the Houses should not have access to information on the funding voted by the Houses for the local authorities. They have access to that level of information, scrutiny, oversight and audit in every other single element of voted expenditure. I cannot explain and will not attempt to duck, dive or conceal the fact that it has not happened up to now, as it should have. There is no reason for the chief executives of local authorities not to be here. They should be held to account. It is what happens in the case of the chief executives of other agencies and Accounting Officers of Departments who are held to account by the Committee of Public Accounts, of which I was a member, as were the other two Ministers. The Senator is absolutely right that there is no reason this should not happen.

I can update the Senator as we move along, but he will be glad to know that this matter has been discussed by me on a number of occasions with the other two Ministers, both of whom agree with me. My officials in the Department of Public Expenditure and Reform have liaised with officials in the Department of Housing, Planning and Local Government and I hope, as Minister of State with responsibility for this matter, to be in a position to bring a proposal to the Government shortly. It is very frustrating for members of the Committee of Public Accounts and other Members of the Oireachtas that there is no scrutiny to this level of such a large Vote from which funding is allocated by the Houses to the local authority sector.

It sounds as if the Senator is pushing an open door.

I thank the Minister of State who clearly is very committed to dealing this issue. It is one of the strongest and most robust responses I have heard from any Minister in my short period in the House. I say, "Well done" to the Minister of State. I will have no doubts in leaving here today that the Minister of State and the Government are strongly committed to this initiative. I thank him most sincerely.

It is nice to see the Minister of State speaking off the cuff and without referring to notes. Clearly, he is on top of his brief.

School Accommodation Provision

I thank the Minister of State for taking this matter. I refer to an Educate Together national school in Dún Laoghaire and the need for permanent accommodation for Gaelscoil Cholmcille on Oscar Traynor Road.

Representations have been made by Councillor Deirdre Kingston of the Labour Party in Dún Laoghaire asking for progress in the acquisition of a permanent site for a new Educate Together national school in Dún Laoghaire. It is currently located in temporary accommodation which is not fit for purpose. It is cramped for students and not a very positive learning environment. There are no indoor facilities or spaces in which to engage in exercise or movement, with the result that in bad weather children must remain in the classroom for the entire school day.

Furthermore, the temporary accommodation is located beside a special school for children on the autism spectrum. We will need to consider the impact more children starting next year and more noise will have on their learning experience. The school is located on a small residential road and traffic is a problem now. Next year there will be bigger numbers. The area immediately around the school is also very unsuitable and unsafe when walking with young children. There are missing pathways, no safe crossings and narrow roads, on which traffic reverses.

Councillor Kingston understands the Department has been reviewing a site for about a year. The question we are asking is where is this site and when does the Minister expect construction to begin. Furthermore, the Department recently bought a site in Blackrock. For what will it be used? Will it be used for the new Dún Laoghaire school? It is important that the Minister prioritise this site and move to tender stage. The demand for school places in Dún Laoghaire is huge and every year parents are worried about what school their child will be able to get into. We need to do all we can to meet demand and ensure every child will be assured of a school place in his or her community.

I appreciate that the Minister of State is here to discuss the Educate Together school in Dún Laoghaire and look forward to hearing his response, but I wish to refer to Gaelscoil Cholmcille on Oscar Traynor Road. I was in the school yesterday for the celebration of Bliain na Gaeilge. The children's celebration of music and song was incredible. Wonderful work is ongoing in the school which has been waiting for a permanent building for 22 years. While I appreciate the Minister of State is here to talk about the Educate Together school in Dún Laoghaire, this issue is still ongoing and I would appreciate hearing his comments on it. Perhaps he might ask the Minister what can be done about it. However, we will concentrate this morning on the Educate Together school in Dún Laoghaire.

The Senator is trying to get two results for the price of one.

Whatever about the previous issue, I thank the Cathaoirleach for his compliments.

I am taking this Commencement matter on behalf of the Minister for Education and Skills, Deputy McHugh. I thank the Senator for raising it. I am happy to clarify the position on the development of permanent accommodation for Dún Laoghaire Educate Together national school.

Following a national demographic exercise, it was determined that the opening of a new primary school in September 2017 was required to ensure there would be sufficient primary school places to serve the Dún Laoghaire school planning area. Following a patronage appointment process, Educate Together was appointed as patron of the new school. The school is located in interim accommodation on the grounds of the Red Door School in Monkstown Grove in Monkstown. Dún Laoghaire Educate Together national school has two class groups and there is sufficient accommodation for the school for the 2018-19 school year. Additional accommodation will be required from September 2019 onwards. Departmental officials will work to put the necessary arrangements in place to ensure the school will continue to have suitable interim accommodation, pending delivery of a permanent school building.

The Department is committed to providing a permanent accommodation solution. In that regard, a project to deliver a 16-classroom school building for Dún Laoghaire Educate Together national school has been included the Department’s six-year capital programme. The acquisition of a site is required to facilitate the delivery of the project. The Senator will appreciate that the acquisition of school sites in highly developed urban areas where land is extremely scarce presents particular challenges for the Department. Not surprisingly, that has proved to be the case in Dún Laoghaire. While a number of potential site options were identified with the assistance of officials in Dún Laoghaire-Rathdown County Council, to date, all have proved to be either unsuitable or unavailable for acquisition. Nonetheless, departmental officials continue to work towards the provision of a suitable site for Dún Laoghaire Educate Together national school and have been engaging with relevant parties, with a view to putting an appropriate solution in place. At this juncture it is not possible to give a timeframe as the Department is still working to identify an optimum solution for the school. Negotiations with a property owner or other external exigencies may influence the timeframe for delivery of the site. However, the process is being progressed as quickly as possible, with a view to securing a site at the earliest possible date. Once a site for the school has been secured, the project to deliver permanent accommodation can be progressed to the architectural planning process. On behalf of the Minister, I assure the Senator that the provision of a permanent school building in a suitable location is a priority for the Department and that officials are working to advance the project as quickly as possible.

I thank the Minister of State for his reply. I appreciate that officials are working hard to secure the site and engaged with Dún Laoghaire-Rathdown County Council to facilitate its acquisition. The Minister of State might be in a position to clarify whether the site acquired in Blackrock is earmarked for Dún Laoghaire Educate Together national school. I also ask him to pass on to the Minister my comments on Gaelscoil Cholmcille on Oscar Traynor Road. I appreciate that these issues are difficult. I also know that departmental officials are doing their absolute best, but the school does not want to engage in a campaign that will last five, ten or 15 years. I appreciate that officials are working hard, but the parents are hoping the goodwill behind the establishment of the school will not turn sour when people do not see movement. I ask the Minister of State to facilitate a discussion between the Minister and the board of management of Gaelscoil Cholmcille.

On the last point, the Senator might write to the Minister. If there is no progress, he can raise the matter again in the Commencement debate.

I will bring the Senator's views on the Gaelscoil to which he has referred and Dún Laoghaire Educate Together national school to the attention of the Minister.

The Minister of State is free to go. The Minister for Housing, Planning and Local Government is taking the last Commencement matter. I welcome him to the Chamber.

Lobbying Reform

I thank the Cathaoirleach for selecting my Commencement matter and the Minister for appearing in the Seanad to take it.

I raise an issue of deep concern to many civil society groups involved in public advocacy campaigning and working within organisational structures to effect positive changes in public life. In this country we have an incredibly rich and proud tradition of civil society activism. Civil society led the way on issues of economic and social justice, allowing for Ireland's growth into a more progressive and modern state, as in the recent campaigns for marriage equality and the repeal of the eighth amendment. We owe a lot to civil society and its constituent organisations. The State needs to ensure it is positively supporting their work and role through its laws. It must not act as a barrier to the fair and reasonable advocacy in which the organisations engage.

The situation is that the State is unfairly, unnecessarily and without a reasonable basis interfering in the work of civil society organisations. As the Minister will be aware, the Electoral Act 1997 sets out stringent rules for donations to political parties, political candidates and third parties. It provides that where donations are received to be spent for "political purposes", all of the requirements for the making of a statutory declaration to the Standards in Public Office Commission kick in. That is as it should be, as the regulation of political spending is a strong and welcome feature of our democracy, one that has resulted in an extraordinarily high level of trust and confidence in the electoral system by international comparisons. In 2001 the definition of "political purposes" was extended beyond relating solely to elections. It was redefined to include "to present, directly or indirectly, the policies or a particular policy". This definition is far broader than one that relates just to elections and could feasibly relate to the work of any civil society organisation in advocating for any policy change. Potentially, we are talking about the work of Tidy Towns committees, community organisations and residents' associations, bodies that could never have been intended to be subject to this high standard of compliance. The practical effect of the change is that civil society organisations engaging in normal public advocacy work have become subject to a wide range of unnecessary and burdensome donation prohibitions and statutory declarations. They are entirely justifiable in an electoral context, but I believe they were a completely unintended consequence of the broadening of the definition of "political purposes" for civil society organisations.

We have a real problem, which is why I am raising the issue with the Minister. We need to rethink the definition of "political purposes" in section 22 of the Act and assess whether it is fit for purpose. It was reported recently in The Sunday Business Post that the advocacy group Equate Ireland had been forced to close in the face of this wide definition being weaponised by a lobbyist on the other side of a policy issue. Complaints to the Standards in Public Office Commission were used to interfere in the valid and fair advocacy work of the organisation. The unclear nature of the definition became the focus point of a High Court case involving Amnesty International. The ruling was against the Standards in Public Office Commission.

While this definition remains too vague, unclear and uncertain, the State will continue to be open to legal action. In fairness to the former Minister, Mr. Dempsey, who introduced this change, I do not think it was intentional. It has, nonetheless, caused major problems. The law has been specifically criticised by the European Union Agency for Fundamental Rights for threatening the basic democratic right to freedom of association. On the international stage, Ireland is one of the strongest defenders of strong civil society spaces, playing a leading role in developing the EU guidelines on human rights defenders and sponsoring the Human Rights Council's resolution on civil society space. It is simply hypocritical for Ireland to play this role internationally when our domestic laws are so problematic.

A number of groups, including Amnesty International, the Irish Council for Civil Liberties, ICCL, and others, have come together as the Coalition for Civil Society Freedom to advocate specifically for this change. It has produced an excellent report, entitled Keeping the People's Voice in Power. Has the Minister read the report? If not, will he commit to reading it and then meeting those groups as soon as possible? I believe this was an unintended mistake caused by poorly phrased legislative drafting. It is a bad law that is hampering the work of some excellent organisations in this country. We cannot stand over it any longer. I urge the Minister to consider changing this as a priority and I look forward to his response.

I thank Senator Ruane for raising this issue. At the outset, I congratulate her on her recent award. It was well achieved and well deserved. I thank the Senator for giving me the opportunity to address Seanad Éireann on this important matter. The Electoral Act 1997, as amended, provides the statutory framework for dealing with political donations and sets out the regulatory regime covering a wide range of issues such as the funding of political parties but also the reimbursement of election expenses, the establishment of election expenditure limits, the disclosure of election expenditure, the setting of limits on permissible donations, the prohibition of certain donations, the disclosure of donations, and the registration of third parties who accept donations given for political purposes which exceed the limit of €100.

The Act also provides for the independent supervision of this regime by the Standards in Public Office Commission, SIPO. It has published a number of guidelines to inform election candidates, Members of the Houses of the Oireachtas, Members of the European Parliament, political parties, corporate donors and third parties of their obligations under the Act. My Department is aware of the issues raised by a number of civil society groups, having particular regard to this definition of "political purposes” as provided for in section 22(2)(aa) of the Act. My Department also notes their views that it may bring a wide range of non-government organisations within the scope of the Act. As Senator Ruane has pointed out, that may in turn affect the means by which they legitimately raise funds to run their normal day-to-day operations. I am also aware that SIPO has raised this issue in its annual reports over the years and, in its most recent annual report, it has recommended that an “electoral commission should be established, and a comprehensive review of the Electoral Acts should take place, preferably in the context of the creation of an electoral commission”.

It is envisaged that the establishment of such an electoral commission would bring significant change to the oversight of the electoral system in the State when it is established. Plans to establish an electoral commission are being advanced in my Department. That is being done in accordance with the commitment in A Programme for a Partnership Government and having regard to the recommendations earlier this summer, in the report of the interdepartmental group on the security of Ireland's electoral process and disinformation, that this work should be expedited and that the issue of spending limits and transparency requirements around referendums and electoral events should be examined further.

In this context, I hope to announce shortly, with the Minister of State, Deputy Phelan, a public consultation on establishing an electoral commission. Submissions received over the course of the proposed consultative process will be carefully analysed and will inform the development of future proposals to Government on this matter. There will likely be a wide range of views, from all perspectives, on the appropriateness or otherwise of the definition of "political purposes" in the Electoral Acts, a definition that has been in place since 1997. My Department will be pleased to consider any submissions or views that interested parties may wish to make on the important issue raised by Senator Ruane.

I thank the Minister. I acknowledge the role of the proposed electoral commission and how crucial that will be to advancing further where we are with elections and referenda. It was made very clear, however, during debates in this Chamber - I think it was with the Minister of State, Deputy Phelan - that an electoral commission could take a considerable amount of time to establish. In the time we would have to wait, we could risk other organisations ending up in the same position as Equate Ireland and having to close their doors. A relatively small amendment is required and it could be made instead of having to wait for the establishment of the electoral commission. Will the Minister consider introducing such an amendment? If not, there is support in this Chamber for considering legislative options on an Opposition cross-party basis. I would much prefer, however, if the Minister's Department could look at accelerating an amendment. It could do that much faster than we can. The organisations are worried about having to wait for an electoral commission, which could take many years to happen.

At the moment the Department is expediting a number of things we need to do in respect of our political progress. It is important to recognise that the public has a high degree of trust and faith in the system and in the integrity of the system. As we make important changes that we need to make, such as establishing an electoral commission and modernising our electoral register, which are two projects happening in tandem at the moment, we have to make sure we are protecting the integrity of that system. A number of things are being expedited and we are doing a regulatory impact assessment, RIA, on the establishment of an electoral commission. That will be launched in a couple of weeks and will run through into the first or second quarter of 2019. It will be a public consultation on four different proposals for an electoral commission and what powers it might have.

We are going to have a wide debate during that public consultation on things such as definitions, what should be permitted as expenditure, who should be allowed from outside of our country to donate or spend money, inside or outside of election times, and how these things are defined. I, and most people who have been consulted on this, believe that we should not go for a big-bang approach to establishing an electoral commission. We should instead phase it in over time. Going through that public consultation and debate might allow us then to establish a list of our priorities for reform.

As we progress reform to the stage of establishing an electoral commission, perhaps over a period of two years after the end of the public consultation in the first or second quarter of next year, what are the priorities if we are not going to wait until the electoral commission has been established and everything is done? If we are going to do it in a phased approach, what are our priorities? We will have space to consider that in the short period in front of us. It is not the intention of the Act to have any kind of chilling effect on civil society engagement. Senator Ruane noted two recent examples where civil society has been the driving force and has brought the politicians behind it and on board to a successful result. I used to work in the area of international arms control where absolutely nothing would have happened with the ban on landmines were it not for civil society on the international stage. Many Irish organisations played a fundamental role in that.

I know directly from that experience, as well as the more recent experiences we have had here in Ireland, the importance of civil society. We do not want to have a chilling effect. We want transparency on what is happening and an understanding of what is allowed and what is not allowed. I know we need to look at the regulation of spending or a definition of "political purposes", and we will. I just do not want to look at it in isolation. I also do not want any delay. I hope that over the next three to four months we will, through that public consultation and then as the Oireachtas, establish a roadmap for priorities to get to a point where we then have a statutory, fully fledged electoral commission. I hope we can come to an understanding and a timeline for that during the process.

Sitting suspended at 11.08 a.m. and resumed at 11.30 a.m.