Nithe i dtosach suíonna - Commencement Matters

Visa Applications

I raise two cases which are separate but similar to those I raised on the Order of Business on 2 and 17 April.

The issue is the treatment of two Irish families - the Suhinthan and Hyde families - at the hands of the immigration authorities of New Zealand and Australia, respectively. Ms Nilani Suhinthan, an IT consultant, was headhunted for a job in New Zealand and her husband and family decided to move there. The New Zealand authorities have issued residency permits to Nilhani, her husband and two of their three daughters - Tanya, who is 19, and Saumia, who is 14. However, they have refused a permit to their third daughter, Bumikka, who is 15. Shockingly, the reason for this seems to be that Bumikka has Down's syndrome.

The New Zealand authorities have told the family that she does not have an acceptable standard of health and would place demands on the health and education systems there. The family has made it clear that they do not expect the New Zealand state to fund any special health treatment or educational support for their daughter and have offered to fund this themselves since they have well-paid jobs. Their appeal has been refused and they are in limbo with their family separated.

The Hyde family face a somewhat similar injustice in Australia. Anthony and Christine Hyde moved from Dublin to Victoria in 2009. Anthony works as a bus driver and Christine is a teacher and assistant principal in a local primary school. Their son Darragh was born there is 2015 and has never been outside Australia.

The family applied for permanent residency in Australia and, in the course of the application, their son was diagnosed with cystic fibrosis, CF. Incredibly, this diagnosis led to the family's application being rejected due to the potential cost of the treatment of CF.

An administrative appeals tribunal has refused the family's application and they can now make a final appeal to Australia's immigration Minister, but they face possible deportation within a month.

Australia and New Zealand are saying that skilled Irish people and their families are perfectly welcome so long as none of them has a condition such as those I have described. If this is happening, families who have children with these diagnoses are stigmatised and refused entry. I hope we, in Ireland, would never be so heartless. I cannot imagine a situation whereby a family from Australia or New Zealand would be turned away from Ireland on the grounds that one of their children was born with a manageable medical or genetic condition.

There has been an almost total blackout of media coverage on these cases in Ireland. One can easily imagine that if Donald Trump, or his United States, had denied visas to children with Down's syndrome or cystic fibrosis, there would be media outrage and extensive coverage.

We would ask where our moral values were. We would ask where our civilisation and the leader of the free world were at. One can imagine the rhetoric in the media but there has been no such comment or even questioning in the case of supposedly tolerant and liberal countries such as New Zealand and Australia. What does this say about the world we are in? I have been reading a lot about the controversy about Viktor Orbán's Hungary and his coining of the phrase "illiberal democracy". When I read about countries we regard as being, or supposedly being, in the vanguard of best practice in terms of human rights and civil liberties, I must ask whether this is liberal or illiberal democracy. Is it governance without morality? Is it conceivable that in modern democracies, the legitimate management of public finance allows such blatant and unjust discrimination against the most vulnerable? These situations disclose something very scandalous in places where one would not expect to find it yet I am not entirely sure about what would happen in this country in similar circumstances.

I know the Minister of State, Deputy Stanton, is carrying the brief today for the Tánaiste and Minister for Foreign Affairs and Trade. Is the Government aware of these cases? Is the relevant Department, presumably the Department of Foreign Affairs and Trade, doing anything to assist either of these families? In the case of the Hyde family where an appeal is still possible if there is a process, can the Minister intervene and make representations to the Australian immigration minister? Can the Minister of State confirm that no such grounds would ever be used to deny a child a visa to enter Ireland with his or her family, all other things being equal?

The Tánaiste and Minister for Foreign Affairs and Trade sends his apologies to the House. He is unable to be here so he asked me to address the matter. The Tánaiste thanks the Senator for bringing these cases to his attention. This is clearly a very difficult time for the families concerned. I commend the Senator on raising the matter in the way he did. Unfortunately, the Tánaiste is not in a position to comment on either case. As the Senator will appreciate, the question of obtaining visas for New Zealand or Australia is a matter for the relevant authorities in New Zealand and Australia. The Tánaiste understands that the Department of Foreign Affairs and Trade has not been asked by the families concerned to raise their cases with the governments of New Zealand and Australia.

All countries establish their own procedures and criteria for assessing such applications and there can be broad similarities of approach between like-minded countries. All visa applications in Ireland are considered on their own merits taking into account all matters brought to the attention of the visa deciding officer. If an applicant for a visa declared something that could be a burden on the costs of the State such as a medical condition, this would form part of the consideration of the application but it would not mean that it would automatically lead to a refusal. Non-EEA nationals who register in the State require full medical insurance, which would be expected to cover all current medical conditions.

It can be assumed that similar considerations are taken into account by authorities in Australia and New Zealand. While recognising the difficulties faced by the families, I hope the Senator can appreciate that it is not possible for the Tánaiste or me to comment on their specific cases or pass comment on the visa procedures applied by other sovereign states.

I am disappointed by the response. If the notion that we cannot comment because this is a matter for another state was to be followed in all situations where something so blatantly unjust and cruel was to be disclosed, we would have zero international engagement. The reason we have a Ministry for foreign affairs is to conduct relations with certain states. According to my recollection, Ireland has always seen itself as a country with a moral voice and perspective on world affairs. What I am hearing from the Minister of State's reply is a "hear no evil, see no evil" approach. I am not at all reassured that there is also not a "do no evil" commitment because it is unclear from the reply that the Irish authorities would not take a similar cruel approach. I hoped that the Government's reply would at least have stated that these situations ought to make us think and review our policies just to see whether there could be unintended consequences of such magnitude.

While I accept, as the Minister of State said, that this has not been taken up, I question whether the Government ought to wait to be approached when such troubling cases as these have come to public notice.

I again thank the Senator for raising these two cases. I recognise they are very upsetting for the families and I am sorry about that. It is usual that such families would approach the Minister and the Department to make representations. That has not happened to the best of my knowledge. I believe I heard the Senator say that there would be no cost involved to the states concerned because of the medical conditions of the children involved. If something similar happens here and such people came to work in Ireland they would be required to register for residence permission and the same criteria would apply with regard to their ability to support themselves and have adequate medical insurance.

We are not really in a position to comment on the visa application processes of other states.

Naturalisation Applications

Before I discuss my Commencement matter, I would like to support Senator Mullen in his matter. I am aware of the Hyde family who have connections in north County Dublin. The mother of the little boy is from north County Dublin. I have been in contact with the family and it is an outrageous situation. I know that when applying for a visa or asylum in Ireland, weight is given to the fact that children born here in Ireland should not be-----

The Senator is eating into the time for her own item.

I will be very quick on my own matter.

What should happen, in fairness-----

This is a very serious matter.

It is, but hold on now.

We show leniency in Ireland-----

I am going to rule now.

----- in similar situations to this.

In that case the family and hopefully Senator Mullen will take it up with the Department.

I will be in touch with Senator Mullen on it.

It is a separate matter from the Senator's item.

I just wanted to-----

The Senator is using up her own time.

-----raise my own disappointment on that matter.

I also want to talk about immigration matters. I refer to the naturalisation fees charged. There is a €175 application fee and a fee of €950 for certification of naturalisation, a total of €1,125. I have come across many UK citizens living in my area and across the country who are very fearful about their situation with Brexit looming. Approximately 300,000 British citizens live in Ireland and approximately one third of them do not qualify for citizenship through lineage by way of having either an Irish parent or grandparent. Therefore they would need to go through the naturalisation process to obtain an Irish passport.

In 2016, a total of 98 British citizens applied for naturalisation. That jumped up to 529 in 2017 and in 2018, a total of 665 British citizens were naturalised. That is obviously because of Brexit. I have spoken to people on doorsteps in my area and they are very fearful of what might happen. They cannot afford the naturalisation fees. These are people who may be married to an Irish citizen and may have been living here for many years. I spoke to one lady who has lived here for 40 years and has adult children who are Irish citizens but she cannot afford this outrageous fee of €1,125. That fee of €950 for certification of naturalisation is waived in the case of a recognised refugee or stateless person. I am asking for the fee to be waived for a defined period for our friends and neighbours from the UK who have been living here for a defined period of time. These people have contributed so much to this country and deserve a bit of a break at this point.

I am happy to discuss the matter of naturalisation fees with the Senator on behalf of my colleague, the Minister for Justice and Equality, Deputy Flanagan, who sends his apologies.

Citizenship is a unique privilege bestowed on an individual that confers, among other rights, the protection of the State. The granting of Irish citizenship through naturalisation is governed by the provisions of the Irish Nationality and Citizenship Act 1956, as amended. All applications for a certificate of naturalisation are processed and assessed individually in accordance with the provisions of the Act. A determination on whether an applicant satisfies the statutory criteria for naturalisation can only be made after an application is received.

The fees to be paid by an applicant for a certificate of naturalisation are governed by the provisions of the Irish Nationality and Citizenship Regulations 2011, SI 569 of 2011.

The application fee is stipulated at €175, payable on application for a certificate of naturalisation, and a certification fee is payable on the issue of a certificate of naturalisation. The standard certification fee is set at €950, while a reduced fee of €200 applies in the case of an application made on behalf of a minor or, in certain cases, where the application is made by a widow, widower or surviving civil partner of an Irish citizen. In the case of recognised refugees and stateless persons, the certification fee is nil, as the Senator pointed out.

While the fee is reduced in the cases outlined above, the fee is waived in its entirety only in respect of refugees and stateless persons. Any review of fees would have to consider other categories of applicants, such as EU nationals, and the impact any changes would have on the level of fees for all other applicants. It is important to bear in mind that, under the terms of the common travel area, British citizens resident in the State enjoy unrestricted residence rights within the State, as well as associated rights and entitlements, including access to employment, healthcare, education, social benefits and the right to vote in certain elections. Indeed, for the first time, these rights have been placed on a more solid basis with the newly signed agreement between the Irish and British Governments signed by the Tánaiste last Wednesday.

I also remind the Senator that Ireland already operates a less onerous regime in regard to citizenship by naturalisation compared with many other countries. There are no formal language or civic knowledge tests and a straightforward residence requirement applies to non-nationals. The naturalisation fee, as it stands, is comparable to other jurisdictions and is less than that applied by the British authorities, which currently stands at over €1,200.

I thank the Minister of State but the reply is less than satisfactory from my point of view. I understand there is a fee structure but, for a defined period, we should allow for those who have been here for a significant amount of time and have contributed so much to Ireland, their own communities and their families. There are practical considerations, for example, in the case of a British mother and her Irish children travelling through passport control and having to separate families as they are having their passports checked. These people feel Irish and European, and they want to remain so. If the €950 fee can be waived in respect of certain individuals in this once-off instance it would create a great deal of goodwill, which is what we need to foster in the future. I would like the Minister of State to give more consideration to this suggestion.

I remind the Senator that Ireland is a welcoming country and has granted citizenship to more than 100,000 individuals since citizenship ceremonies were introduced in 2011. In total, nationals of 181 different countries have become Irish citizens since that time. The fee is a part of the process and is common practice internationally. The standard fees payable by an applicant are designed to reflect the effort and cost involved in processing applications for a certificate of naturalisation. The Senator will be aware that formal citizenship ceremonies have been introduced at no extra cost to applicants. These have been universally well received by participants as the ceremonies provide a sense of dignity and occasion that serves to underscore the importance to both the State and the applicant of the granting of Irish citizenship.

Any further changes to the naturalisation fee regime would have to be carefully considered given there are many non-nationals of various nationalities in the State who may be eligible for citizenship and to single out one nationality could be considered preferential treatment. For this and the other reasons already outlined, granting a waiver of the naturalisation fee in respect of British citizens who are long-term residents of Ireland is not something the Minister is currently considering.

Electric Scooter Pilot Scheme

I thank the Minister of State, Deputy Stanton, for dealing with this matter. I received an email from the Minister, Deputy Ross, to say the Minister of State would be taking it because the Minister is unavailable, and I understand it is not an issue on which the Minister of State would necessarily be very focused. Nonetheless, he will have a response for me and we can take it from there.

The issue speaks for itself in the sense that I am asking the Minister to initiate an e-scooter pilot scheme to test the viability of e-scooter sharing as a means of clean transport for locals and visitors, and its potential for larger cities. I acknowledge the Department's position is that the Road Safety Authority is currently looking at the safety and other implications of having e-scooters used in our cities and on our roads. We should be embracing innovation that exists and the idea that we would move to make these illegal makes no sense at all. Are we complete dinosaurs or what? We need to look at the National Transport Authority's strategy of achieving zero carbon transport.

Our colleague, Deputy Rock, has done a lot of work on this matter. It is because I have been speaking to a few people who are involved in this area and have looked into the issue a bit more that I am supporting Deputy Rock in his efforts to try to get policymakers to see some sense on this.

I have heard that the Garda is setting up checkpoints to confiscate these scooters, which cost people €500, €600 or even more. They must then pay a fine to get their scooters back. That is unacceptable. There is law in place. To my legal mind, though, there is an issue with its interpretation. It depends on whether the scooter needs to be pushed to get it started or whether someone can just get on and start it straight away.

The technology exists to make these safe for use on our roads and limit the speeds at which they can travel. There was a time years ago when cyclists were told to get off roads because they were a danger to cars. We need to embrace this innovation. Other cities have done so. It should be done in a way that is organised, suits our cities and operates in conjunction with cycling. The more ways that we can find to have people out of their cars and not using pollutants, the better. It would also take pressure off public transport. If it can be done in a way whereby helmets are provided, the scooters are parked in specific spots and whatever else is deemed to work well for the NTA's national strategy is done, we should not just leave the issue in a grey area. That would be unacceptable. We cannot be complete dinosaurs. We must examine this issue and sort it out. Legally, it does not make any sense to suggest that the Garda should confiscate them. I do not understand that. We must put a pilot in place in an organised way so that we can see how it works and what its potential pitfalls and problems are. Irish providers need to be involved. Irish individuals and companies can, in conjunction with city and county councils, the National Transport Authority, NTA, and the Road Safety Authority, RSA, put these in place throughout the country in a safe way. That would make sense. In this way, the scooters would not be a nuisance to anyone and people could use them to get around effectively. I would welcome a response from the Minister of State.

I thank Senator Noone for raising the issue of electric scooters. I apologise on behalf of my colleague, the Minister for Transport, Tourism and Sport, Deputy Ross, who cannot be present to take the matter himself. He thanks the Senator for raising this issue and providing him with an opportunity to discuss it.

The Minister is aware of the increasing number of electric scooters, electrically powered skateboards and similar small vehicles on our footpaths and roads, and he asked me to start by outlining the current legal situation relating to such vehicles. The Road Traffic Act 1961 defines a mechanically propelled vehicle as:

A vehicle intended or adapted for propulsion by mechanical means, including-

(a) a bicycle or tricycle with an attachment for propelling it by mechanical power, whether or not the attachment is being used,

(b) a vehicle the means of propulsion of which is electrical or partly electrical and partly mechanical,

Electric scooters and powered skateboards fall into this category and are therefore considered to be mechanically propelled vehicles. Any user of such vehicles in a public place, as defined in the 1961 Act, must have insurance, road tax and a driving licence, with penalties under road traffic laws, including fixed charge notices, penalty points, fines and possible seizure of the vehicle, for not being in compliance with these requirements. As it is currently not possible to tax or insure electric scooters or electric skateboards, they are not considered suitable for use in a public place.

The Minister has asked the RSA to research how electric scooters and other such vehicles are regulated in other countries, particularly EU member states. He is keen to understand the road safety implications of the use of such vehicles on public roads, especially when interacting with other vehicles. He is due to receive the outcome of the authority's research within the next few weeks. He will need to be satisfied that permitting such vehicles on our roads will not give rise to safety concerns for the users themselves as well as all other road users, including cyclists, pedestrians and motorists. However, the Senator should note that, should the Minister decide that the benefits derived from the use of electric scooters outweigh the risks associated with using this type of transport, an amendment to primary legislation would be required. He will not be supporting a pilot scheme for the use of electric scooters in our cities while the use of such vehicles in a public place, as defined in the Road Traffic Acts, is ultra vires.

I will make a brief response, although I could respond all day.

I have alluded to the fact that there is an interpretation problem in the sense that one could argue that the fact one must manually propel some of scooters before the electric element kicks in indicates there is a grey area here. The fact that e-scooters and powered skateboards are deemed to fall into the category covered by the two paragraphs and are considered, therefore, to be mechanically propelled vehicles, meaning users must also have insurance, road tax and a driver's licence, while at the same time we are unable to provide that option to people if they wish to get these vehicles, outlines how crazy and grey the situation is for everybody, including the Garda and the Minister. I have spoken to the Minister about this matter and know that he does not wish to make these vehicles illegal.

The Minister of State said that the Minister "will not be supporting a pilot scheme for the use of electric scooters". In the context of the foregoing, of course the Minister is not going to support a pilot scheme. We need to sort out the legal situation and then we can have a pilot scheme. That can be done pretty quickly. I hope that the Minister of State will encourage the Minister along those lines and I will speak to him as soon as I get the opportunity.

I thank the Senator. Does the Minister of State wish to respond?

Yes. Again, I am sure that Senator Noone will make her views known to the Minister. I note that he awaits a report on this matter.

That is fair enough.

I hope the report is imminent and that clarity will be brought to this matter.

Child and Adolescent Mental Health Services Provision

Cuirim fáilte roimh an Aire Stáit. Obviously he is standing in for the Minister of State at the Department of Health, Deputy Jim Daly, as this matter comes under the mental health portfolio.

Yes, that is right.

I thank the Minister of State for coming here to give me a response. I am running a campaign called the 31 Days of May where my colleagues and I and communities do something every day to raise awareness about mental health and well-being. It can be something very small all the way up to something bigger like stopping traffic, which we did on Meath Street on Saturday with community dancers - young girls dancing with a green ribbon. It is promoting conversation that will reduce stigma.

The Minister of State will know about the escalating seriousness of the situation regarding mental ill health and how the lack of well-being in our communities is escalating and is in quite a crisis. Not a week goes by that I do not know of at least three or four people who have completed suicide. One instance that took place the weekend before last involved a 12 year old child. It is just insupportable and quite upsetting.

I ask the Minister of State to discuss the statement in the HSE's service plan for 2019 that it is working to develop a seven-day per week service for child and adolescent mental health services, CAMHS, to ensure supports for vulnerable young persons in line with connecting for life. The response to a parliamentary question that was submitted asking about this was shocking in that it stated in black and white that there was no planned date for completion of costs and implementation plans for providing 7-7 child and adolescent mental health services. The cost of the implementation plan is the first step. We have all agreed within these Houses and the HSE and among Ministers to deliver the 24-7 services that have been requested. However, 7-7 services are the initial ask and task for us. It is essential that we follow the service plan for 2019. The HSE does not seem to be meeting its commitment to develop such services. When will these vital services be delivered? I guess the HSE needs a reminder.

We all know the importance of services that are provided from Monday to Friday. However, crises do not happen that neatly between Mondays and Fridays. It has been repeatedly proven throughout Europe and in Ireland that crises occur between Thursday evening and into the early hours of Sunday morning.

That is where the 7-7 services are required, prior to the excellent care that will be provided under the 24-7 system.

I thank the Senator for raising this important issue in mental health services. I welcome any campaign that deals with stigma.

On the issue raised by the Senator, the HSE service plan for 2019 commits to developing all aspects of child and adolescent mental health services, CAMHS. This includes developing a seven-day per week service for CAMHS to ensure improved support for vulnerable young people, as well as related initiatives in enhanced early intervention and day hospital care. Community based CAMHS teams provide specialist mental health services for young people up to the age of 18 years and operate on a five-day per week basis. Expanded CAMHS provision will be in line with adult services where a seven-day service is being developed.

Where a child has a mental health crisis, the initial consultation should be with the child's general practitioner, GP, and if the GP assesses that the child requires an urgent mental health assessment, the GP should contact the local CAMHS team. Where a person under 18 years of age presents to an emergency department following self-harm, it is important that he or she receive a compassionate and empathic response. He or she should receive a bio-psychosocial assessment from a suitably qualified mental health professional prior to discharge from hospital. It is recommended that children under 16 years of age be admitted overnight to a paediatric ward. The paediatric team should ensure the child receives a bio-psychosocial assessment prior to discharge from hospital, thus following international best practice. In some hospitals the child will be assessed by a non-consultant hospital doctor, NCHD, who can discuss the case with the on-call CAMHS consultant. In other services, there might be no on-call CAMHS consultant and the paediatric team will be advised to wait until the CAMHS consultant is available.

The HSE national clinical programme for the assessment and management of patients presenting to an emergency department following self-harm aims to ensure all such patients receive a bio-psychosocial assessment. The programme is being extended to include the three paediatric hospitals in Dublin. Three clinical nurse specialists, one for each of the three Dublin paediatric hospitals, are being recruited. The addition of a specialist in each of the hospitals will improve follow-up care. In addition, all three Dublin paediatric hospitals provide a comprehensive liaison psychiatry service. In Temple Street Hospital it is provided in conjunction with the local mental health service 24 hours a day, seven days a week. In Crumlin and Tallaght children's hospitals the liaison psychiatry service is available Monday to Friday, from 9 a.m. to 5 p.m. Outside these hours, children are assessed by paediatricians and admitted to a paediatric ward. In Cork University Hospital there is a liaison psychiatric nurse available Monday to Friday, from 9 a.m. to 5 p.m. This nurse is supported by a consultant from CAMHS. Outside these hours, a NCHD completes assessments and CAMHS consultants provide input, as appropriate.

CAMHS inpatient units currently operate a 24-7 tertiary model of care for young people with severe or complex mental health issues. There are 74 CAMHS inpatient beds in four units in Dublin, Cork and Galway. The new children’s hospital will have an additional 20 CAMHS beds. There will be ten CAMHS beds in the new forensic mental health complex which is due to open at Portrane next year. It will be the first such unit nationally.

I do not wish to thank the Minister of State. First, only 50 of the 74 CAMHS inpatient beds are operational. In his reply the Minister of State gave me an education on CAMHS and the services already available, but he did not address the importance of having seven-day services for children, from the peak time of Thursday to Sunday. As for waiting in an emergency department for a CAMHS consultant, they do not exist. Many children leave with their parents before they are assessed having waited for hours and days for a consultant to arrive.

Many child patients leave with their parents before they are assessed, having waited hours for a consultant to come. The day hospital at Linn Dara is also still closed. It has been closed for the last eight months and I cannot get a response from the HSE as to the plans for that facility. It is a white elephant. It is lying empty. It was state-of-the-art when it was opened two or three years ago.

The Minister of State's answer does not touch on 7-7 service provision at all. What is available for our children now is just not good enough. We are failing them. We know the difficulties. It was pledged that we would have services seven days out of seven, moving towards 24 hours a day, seven days a week, but nothing is happening and the HSE is not responding to its plans in this area for 2019.

On behalf of the Minister of State, Deputy Daly, I will say that the Senator can rest assured that this Government and the HSE remain firmly committed to developing all aspects of our CAMHS services. This involves a more holistic approach to CAMHS overall than was taken in the past and includes out-of-hours provision, enhanced primary care, and disability supports for those vulnerable young people for whom these would be more appropriate than specialist CAMHS care. The Minister of State is also strongly supportive of developing new initiatives such as e-mental health supports, which have been proven to work abroad. These supports can either be used for early intervention, thus helping to reduce service pressures on CAMHS, or can be an aid to CAMHS teams in progressing individual cases. In addition, the new capital initiatives for the new children's hospital in Portrane, which I have already outlined to the Senator, will increase the number of CAMHS beds nationally from 74 to 104.

The Minister of State, Deputy Daly, and the Department of Health will continue to closely monitor CAMHS activity nationally in the context of implementing agreed HSE service plan targets for this year. I will, of course, bring the Senator's concerns back to the Minister of State.

The Minister of State did not mention 7-7 service provision at all.

Sitting suspended at 3.10 p.m. and resumed at 3.30 p.m.